The Women of Woking Prison and the Nelson Chamber Mosaics

Today at the Cathedral View More
8:00am Holy Communion
10:00am Choral Mattins
11:15am Sung Eucharist
3:00pm Choral Evensong
4:30pm Sunday Organ Recital
5:30pm Eucharist
6:00pm Cathedral closes

The Women of Woking Prison and the Nelson Chamber Mosaics

Underfoot in St Paul’s Cathedral, thousands of pieces of mosaic create elaborate geometric and floral patterns, not undertaken by highly-trained craftsmen - rather, laboriously and carefully laid by the female inmates of Woking Prison. 

Woking Prison opened in 1859, and was built to contain convicts with mental and physical disabilities, who were deemed unfit for the hard labour of public work, as expected of other prisons. In Woking Prison, the women would be required to perform tasks such as knitting, needlework, and laundry, with a few being enlisted to the Mosaic Department. Here, they would earn 1s2d a day (roughly £3.65 in today’s money), by cutting pieces of broken marble to size, laying them in a pattern, and then grouting and polishing them. Their works were nicknamed ‘Opus Criminales,’ and other examples of their craftswomenship can be seen in parts of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green. 

Although the use of convict labour was approved by the Home Secretary at the time, issues around its ethics, and its effect on the health of already disabled individuals was, and still is, much disputed. The implementation of convict labour was enacted in 1878, part of a system of “reforms” under the Prison Reform Act of 1877, as envisaged by Sir Edmund Frederick DuCane. The employment of convicts during their sentence was seen as equipping them with employable skills to serve them once released; however, many of the women involved in the Mosaics Department did not find such similar work once released, due to its specific nature.

The prison system of the time sought to reform its inmates by initially exposing them to an intense period of solitary confinement: nine months for men and four months for women, where most of the day would be spent in the cell, with minimal interaction from other prisoners and wardens, allowed out only for chapel and exercise. This was thought to prompt introspection for the crime and repentance within the convict. Florence Maybrick, who spent 15 years in prison for the murder of her husband, recalled in her memoir that in separate confinement, ‘all individuality, all friendship, all things that make human beings attractive to one another are absent.’ Following their period in separate confinement, male prisoners would be sent out to public works, which, although demanding, was seen to beneficial for providing a change in environment. This was not the case for women, as much of their labour was sedentary and performed indoors, which was criticised at the time for being monotonous, at best. The lack of change in scenery was condemned by notable prison reformist figure, John Henry Moran, for negatively impacting the physical and mental health of female inmates. In this way, the exploitative use of underpaid prison labour in the creation of some of London’s most important mosaics-work can be shown to have both positive and negative implications for both the institutions enlisting their work, and the women involved. 

Olivia Raspa
Archive Volunteer