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Women”s work

The Old Prison was a tough place for female prisoners. They had to share filthy, damp and overcrowded cells with men. Originally there was no water closet or washroom, and there would have been very little security or privacy. On top of that, all the prison staff were men.

The situation all changed after the Prison Reform Act of 1839. Within a couple of years of the Act being passed, for the first time female prisoners at Inveraray Jail were given their own space, away from their male counterparts. They also had a member of staff assigned to them who was responsible solely for their welfare. The role was that of Matron – the jail’s first position for a female member of staff.

This was a job for which a woman had to acquire qualifications by sitting exams and, due to its nature, the role could really only be occupied by the wife of the Governor. Matron had to be available at a moment’s notice and therefore she needed to be on the premises 24 hours a day, just as her husband was.

Sam Potts, the actress who plays Matron at Inveraray Jail, says the job would have been all-encompassing. It entailed ensuring the ‘total welfare’ of the female prisoners, from health and well-being to education and employment.

Actress Sam Potts play Inveraray Jail''s Matron.

Actress Sam Potts brings Matron to life.

‘Matron would carry out daily checks to make sure that all the women were keeping in good health, taking exercise and practicing good personal hygiene,’ says Sam.  ‘Apparently the prisoners were superstitious about washing, so Matron would supervise their weekly baths and make sure they gave themselves a good scrub!’

But Matron’s role was as much about the mind as the body. Sam continues: ‘She taught them how to read and write, often using bible studies as a way of engendering in them a sense of right and wrong, while also giving them practical skills in preparation for their release.’

Those skills might include cooking, knitting, sewing and mending shoes, which could be practiced while preparing prison food or fixing prison uniforms. These would no doubt prove useful when the women had to make a living on regaining their liberty. Such abilities might also enhance the marriage prospects of younger working class women in an age in which marrying well could make the difference between a life of squalor and misery and one of relative comfort.

The first Matron at Inveraray was Janet Thompson who, as was the custom at the time, arrived as one half of a husband-and-wife team when Malcolm Thompson was appointed Governor in 1841. Janet was the first of three women to serve as Matron, but she is the character Sam Potts bases her portrayal of the role upon.

She had been born Janet McIntyre at Glencoe in 1803 and served as Matron from 1841 to 1873, the year in which she died in Inveraray. She received an annual salary of £15, which doesn’t compare favourably with the £60 per annum earned by her husband. Had she lived to receive it she would have been entitled to a retirement allowance of £10 per annum.

We don’t have a lot of details about her life at Inveraray but something of her character can be gleaned from a picture of her which has survived.

‘She looks like a formidable woman and certainly one who wouldn’t easily be pushed around by her charges,’ says Sam, her 21st-century incarnation.

‘She would have needed to be strong mentally and physically, as she was the sole person in charge of the female prisoners and she would have been on call 24 hours a day, with just a few days off.’

‘She must have been a resilient character who believed in the possibility of reforming the women she came into contact with. She must have gained satisfaction from seeing individuals change while under her influence, before going on to lead happier lives outside of prison.’

In addition to her prison duties Janet Thompson also raised four children. Perhaps her experience of motherhood came in handy on those occasions when she would have been called upon to assist when women gave birth in prison.

Sam likes to play the role of Matron as a woman who is stern but fair. Visitors often try to get her to crack a smile but Sam says she always remains in character and will lock up anyone who gets cheeky or misbehaves!

The role of Matron carried with it a certain degree of prestige within the local community. Janet would have been regarded as a woman of some substance, no doubt taking tea with the vicar in the apartment attached to the jail.

Janet Thomson, who served as Matron from 1841 to 1873 at Inveraray Jail.

Janet Thomson, who served as Matron from 1841 to 1873 at Inveraray Jail.

Janet was succeeded by Mary McLeod, wife of Governor Sergeant-Major John Mcleod. She took over the role in July 1873. Mary and her husband had a joint salary of £90 per annum, but on 1st April 1879 she was given an independent salary of £22 2s 6d – significantly more than Janet Thomson had earned. Unfortunately her husband had a poor record for security and a number of prisoners escaped under his watch. On 12th November 1880 they were both moved to Tobermory Prison, effectively a demotion. Mary didn’t do badly though – her salary increased to £22 10s per annum at her new posting.

The jail’s third and final Matron was Helen Robertson, wife of Governor Alexander Robertson. They both came from Tobermory Prison where they had served as Matron and Governor since May 1878. Helen had a salary of £20 15s per annum. The couple left on the 30th of August 1889 when the jail finally closed its doors.

Next time you visit Inveraray Jail, say hello to Matron and see if you can make her smile!


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX