I’ve been banged up, locked up… I’m spending the week in prison. Some might say it was only a matter of time and no more than I deserve. Just throw away the key and leave me to rot. But I haven’t been convicted of any crime. I’m here in Birmingham Central Lock Up working on our theatrical show Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock Up – which is back by popular demand.
My fellow inmates are four wonderful actors plus our director Tim Stimpson. I’ve volunteered to be stage manager. We are once more bringing to life some of the thieves, murderers and police officers who haunt this place. They are a colourful crew – but maybe the real star is the building itself.
Built-in the nineteenth century, this prison is a scary, scary place – three floors of clanging cell doors and echoing walkways. It’s worth the ticket price on its own. Astonishingly it was still in use until three years ago.
A number of my friends have told me they’ve spent a night in here (remind me to mix with a better class of people) although not all of them were stranglers or burglars. One of my respectable friends fell into a diabetic coma on a bus. The police thought she was drunk and locked her up!
Drunks have been regular visitors to these cells. My contribution to Behind Bars is a piece about Tommy Tank, possibly Birmingham’s most notorious drunkard. At one time he was banned from every pub in the city. But come along and he’ll tell you his version of the story – alongside a few other Ghosts of the Lock Up.
Hope you can make it.
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Our new show ‘Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up’ runs from the 19th-21st October for nine performances only. Taking a theatrical journey through Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up, it will raise spirits from the prison’s past. Julia Wright writes about one of them…
When we were given the possible choices for characters whose stories we could tell, I chose Maud Dillon, as she seemed at first to be a woman who was caught up in a life of prostitution. I was interested to find out why she might have been involved in that when she was a woman who had a job as a polisher – likely to be a metal polisher who worked in the jewellery industry. Was she desperate for money?
The only information about Maud Dillon is that she was 25 when she was arrested on 5/8/1921 for indecent behaviour. She was given a fine – £4 or 25 days in prison. I then discovered that ‘indecent behaviour’ could range from shouting and swearing in public to soliciting (prostitution). So maybe she was merely shouting and swearing in public? But why? When looking into the work that police women did at the time I found it seemed to contain a lot of what we would now call social work. Young women were picked up from around the station, seeking to meet soldiers and in 1919, 25% of them were under 17. What dreadful lives drove them to that?
In June 1918 a hostel was set up in Dale End to ensure women were in a place of safety from abuse while further enquiries were made to find them work or more permanent lodgings – one of the first hostels in the country. The workhouse was where some women who were abused ended up but was feared by all and women would be separated from their children (children still legally belonged to the father until 1925 so it was difficult for many women to leave abusive relationships). For some women the workhouse was better than the abuse at home
Miss Dorothy Peto became a lady enquiry officer with the CID in Birmingham in 1920. She visited homes, investigating indecent assaults and abuse and stated ‘the relief of victims was obvious when they saw a female police officer had come to take their statement.’
I have linked together the work of Dorothy Peto and a possible explanation for Maud Dillon’s arrest to highlight the often appalling abuse that women had to endure, sometimes at the hands of their partners. The disturbed mental conditions of returning soldiers were often not recognised and PTSD was not diagnosed or understood.
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Our new show ‘Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up’ runs from the 19th-21st October for nine performances only. Taking a theatrical journey through Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up, it will raise spirits from the prison’s past. Stephen Jackson writes about one of them…
No high heels, no short skirts – that’s the advice for anyone coming to our next show. Why? Because it takes place in a jail and our audience will have to negotiate the walkways and spiral staircases of Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up – three floors of echoing prison cells and clanging doors.
It’s a fantastic venue for a theatrical experience. Its shadows are full of ghosts. Incredibly, this nineteenth-century prison was in use until just recently, but we have gone back a hundred years to look at some of its legendary prisoners and staff.
When I saw the list of characters, there was only one I wanted to write about: Thomas Larvin – one of the Lock-Up’s craziest inmates. Arrested countless times for drunkenness, he became best known by his nickname Tommy Tank – a reference to his enormous capacity for drink.
A fishmonger and street hawker, Tommy was also a joker and a prankster who would do anything for a bet – especially if booze was involved. Apparently he once walked backwards from Deritend to Stonebridge with a brick on his head to win a bet for copious amounts of ale.
On other occasions he was known to bite the heads off rats to earn himself a drink. Tommy was a colourful character around town. Unfortunately, his drinking led to skirmishes with pub landlords, broken windows and overnight stays in the Lock-Up before his frequent appearances in court the next morning.
If you’d like to meet Tommy and other ghosts of the Lock-Up, remember not to wear your high heels. It should be a great show in a great venue. It would be a crime to miss it.
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