Peer through the bars into Cell 4 in the Old Prison and you’ll see Elizabeth Henderson. She might be brushing the floor, eating her lunch or sewing herring nets. If you have time, linger for a moment and she’ll tell you her story. It’s a sad tale of poverty. She was thrown out of her family home in Glasgow aged 12 and sent ‘doon the watter’ to stay with an aunt in Dunoon. She worked in the Argyll Hotel, but it was a hard life and she never earned very much. With no money, no husband and no children, she turned to the bottle. Then she started to steal to pay for her gin. One day she was caught red-handed stealing two silver jugs from the hotel. That got her sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail. She might cry a little, tell you how lonely she is and how no-one will ever want to marry a thief.
This is the part of the story that Sam Potts, the actress who plays Elizabeth, really enjoys. She always manages to elicit a degree of sympathy for her character from visitors to the jail. So much so that people have offered to help her escape, to bring her gin and even to marry her! Sam has been playing the Elizabeth for over five years, so it’s no wonder she’s so convincing. On her first day in the job she scanned the prison records to decide which prisoner she wanted to be. She was instantly drawn to Elizabeth. ‘There was something about her life that seemed so desperately sad to me,’ says Sam. ‘She wasn’t bad or malicious; she had no luck and made some bad decisions.’ Elizabeth’s prison record doesn’t contain a huge amount of information, so Sam developed Elizabeth’s back story as historically accurately as she could – adding details such as her penchant for gin.
Elizabeth was sentenced in 1850, not long after the Prison Reform Act of 1839. This was lucky for her as it meant that prisoners had to be properly clothed, fed and exercised and that cells had to meet certain conditions. Prior to 1841, before the Old Prison was refurbished, there would have been no heating, lighting or ventilation in Elizabeth’s cell and no washing facilities. At least she had a window, central heating and gas lighting. She also enjoyed three meals a day, one hour’s exercise a day, a daily face and hand wash and a fortnightly bath. ‘Some people thought that prisoners like Elizabeth had it far too easy after the reforms,’ explains Sam. ‘They were fed, clothed and had a roof over their heads – it’s not much of a deterrent when you consider how harsh life was outside.’
It was still a pretty brutal day-to-day existence though. Prisoners ate, slept and worked in their cells. They were only allowed out for exercise or to go to the washroom. As a female prisoner, Elizabeth was in charge of cooking, which at least meant she could leave her cell to work in the kitchen. She would get up at 5am to start preparing breakfast. After washing up, she’d be back in her cell to work, making herring nets or picking oakum, for up to 10 hours a day. From 6 – 7pm she would have reading lessons with Matron. Then it was lights out.
Prisoners weren’t allowed to talk to other prisoners as it was thought they would corrupt one another. So if Matron spots Elizabeth chatting to you – and she doesn’t miss much – she’s likely to come and mete out a dose of punishment. Most likely she’ll take away Elizabeth’s bed, food or visiting rights. Mind you, Elizabeth was only allowed one 15-minute visit every three months. ‘Hanna, who plays Matron, and I have great fun together,’ says Sam. ‘She’s absolutely brilliant at being stern. I escaped from my cell once and had her chasing me down the road!’
Sam has grown rather fond of Elizabeth over the years. She feels like she knows her inside out – almost like a friend – and would love to know how her life turned out. Elizabeth served eight months in Inveraray Jail before being transferred to Perth to serve the rest of her sentence. After that, there are no records and the trail is lost. Sam likes to think that Elizabeth might have used the skills she learned in prison to secure a better job and find a bit of happiness. Perhaps in reality the gin was too much of a temptation, but Sam prefers to think that somehow it all came good for a woman who simply needs a slice of luck to make something of herself.