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date: 22 February 2020

Barker, Dame Lilian Charlottefree

  • Harold Scott
  • , revised by D. Thom

Barker, Dame Lilian Charlotte (1874–1955), prison administrator, was born on 21 February 1874 in Islington, the fifth of seven children and youngest daughter of James Barker, tobacconist, and his wife, Caroline Williams. Educated at the local elementary school, she was trained at Whitelands College, Chelsea, and began her career as a teacher in elementary schools under the London county council. After a break of seven years to nurse her invalid mother she resumed her teaching. Her success at teaching both boys and girls revealed her exceptional ability, and led to her appointment in 1913 as principal of the council's Women's Institute, which from 1914 was in Cosway Street, Marylebone.

The outbreak of war interrupted Barker's career and in 1915 she was appointed the first commandant of the women's legion cookery section in which she did valuable work in training cooks for the army. Later in 1915 she became lady superintendent at Woolwich arsenal, where her talent for dealing with people first found full scope. She was responsible eventually for the welfare of some 30,000 women in an organization where women had never before been employed. She set up canteens, first-aid posts, cloakrooms, and rest rooms. She organized outside recreation, sick visiting, convalescent and holiday homes, and the care of unmarried mothers and their babies; for all this she raised the necessary private funds. Output soared. She subdued strikers by oratory and her public presence, telling one mass meeting that anyone who limited output betrayed husbands and sweethearts at the front. Barker rejected ‘ladies’ as supervisors, preferring any woman with managerial experience. She was appointed CBE in 1917.

In 1919 Barker joined the training department of the Ministry of Labour, and in 1920 became executive officer of the central committee on women's training and employment to administer £600,000 for training and supporting women who had suffered from the economic effects of the war. In 1923 she became governor of the Borstal Institution for Girls at Aylesbury. Borstal training for girls had little public recognition, and the prison commissioners were fortunate to attract her services. She took a considerable drop in salary, but saw that the post was important, and took it when the commissioners assured her that she would have a free hand.

Up to that time Aylesbury, which housed about 100 of the worst female offenders between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, had been run on lines which differed little from a contemporary conventional prison regime, and the results were not encouraging. Lilian Barker brought a new spirit. She used the insights of her experience at Woolwich, arguing that the will to lead a good and useful life is never manifest in the unhappy and unfulfilled, and at once set to work to humanize the treatment of 'her girls'. Print dresses replaced the old prison clothes, cells were transformed into pleasantly furnished rooms with comfortable beds, meals became appetizing, and organized games and a swimming pool were introduced. Even more important was her own personal influence.

Short and stocky, with iron-grey hair cut short under a pork-pie hat, and almost always dressed in a tweed suit of severe cut, Barker's somewhat mannish appearance was reinforced by a deep voice and a manner which could be very direct and even brusque. Both munitions workers and borstal residents speculated that she was a man. She was a devout Christian but common sense was more her text than scripture.

Contemporaries reported that Barker's laugh was full and infectious, her humour dry but penetrating; her bright eyes could flash with fun as well as anger. Her nightly talks to her girls over a cigarette were one of the secrets of her success. She was, however, a disciplinarian in her own way. Her punishments were imaginative if unconventional and aimed to fit the crime: the girl who in a fit of temper tore her blankets into strips was made to sew them up and sleep under the resulting covering. It was not long before Lilian Barker won the respect and affection of her difficult charges, yet there was never any doubt at Aylesbury that discipline was maintained. She continued to receive a voluminous fan mail from her old girls long after they had left, and took an interest in their weddings and their children. She herself never married.

In 1935 Lilian Barker was invited to become the first woman assistant commissioner of prisons. Although it cost her much to leave Aylesbury, she responded at once to this call to wider service. She became responsible for all women's prisons in England and Wales, and, by arrangement with the prison department there, also in Scotland. Under her guidance improvements were made in the clothing and feeding of women prisoners, and she was immersed in plans for creating a new prison for women outside London when the outbreak of war in 1939 brought this and other developments in which she was interested to an end. She retired in 1943 and was appointed DBE in 1944. She continued to live at her cottage at Wendover Dean and to maintain a lively interest in affairs until her death on 21 May 1955 while on holiday at Trouts Hotel, Hallsands, Devon.


  • employment section, IWM, women's work collection [Barker's evidence to the war cabinet committee on women in industry]
  • H. Bentwick, If I forget thee: some chapters of autobiography, 1912–1920 (1973)
  • The Times (23 May 1955)
  • The Observer (29 May 1955)
  • ‘Report of the commissioners of prisons’, Parl. papers (1955), vol. 27, Cmd 9547
  • E. Gore, The better fight: the story of Dame Lilian Barker (1965)
  • private information (1971)
  • personal knowledge (1971)


  • photographs, IWM

Wealth at Death

£1857 15s. 10d.: probate, 19 Aug 1955, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Imperial War Museum, London
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]