History of the Koestler Trust

In the 1950s, Arthur Koestler campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment, especially through a series of articles in The Observer newspaper and a book Reflections on Hanging (1956). Once it became clear that the campaign was successful (hanging was finally abolished in 1965), he turned his attention to:

'an imaginative and exciting way to stimulate as far as possible and in many cases as possible the mind and spirit of the prisoner'

He decided to set up an annual scheme to award 'creative work in the fields of literature, the arts or sciences by those physically confined'. There was almost no precedent for work by prisoners being judged and rewarded by prominent experts from outside the prison system, but the idea was welcomed by Home Secretary RA Butler. A steering committee was set up, chaired by Koestler's literary agent AD Peters and including the editor of The Observer David Astor. Koestler was reluctant to have the scheme named after him, but the committee insisted.

When the first round of awards took place in 1962, there were about 200 entries and the best visual winners were exhibited in the gallery at Foyle's Bookshop. The award judges included:

  • Literature – J B Priestley.
  • Painting – Sir Kenneth Clarke.
  • Music – Sir Arthur Bliss.

Over the next few years, the scheme expanded rapidly. Arthur Koestler initially paid for the prize money himself, but more funding was soon needed from other sources, and in 1969 the awards were formalised into a charitable trust. The trust went on to be chaired by:

  • Sir Hugh Casson, CH, KCVO, RA, artist, architect and president of the Royal Academy (1963-81.
  • Hon. David Astor, CH, newspaper proprietor (1981-92).
  • Sir Stephen Tumim, former Circuit Judge and HM Chief Inspector Of Prisons (1992-2003).
  • Lord David Ramsbotham, GCB, CBE, former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2003-06).
  • Sir Joseph Pilling, KCB, former Director General of the Prison Service (2006–13).
  • Dame Anne Owers, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Chair of IPCC

When Arthur Koestler died in 1983, he left £10,000 to the Trust.

The Annual Koestler Exhibition has been held at various venues in London. For a full list, see Past Exhibitions.


Koestler Trust
Koestler Trust building

The Trust has had various homes, including a portakabin in the grounds of HMP Kingston in Portsmouth and The Old Laundry Station at HMP Wandsworth. Since 1999, it has been based in the former governor’s house next to the gates of HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

From 1982 to 2006, the Trust's director was Dorothy Salmon OBE, FRSA. Since her retirement, Dorothy has been working on a full history of the Trust which will be published on this website. If you have memories or other information to contribute to this history, please contact dsalmon@koestlertrust.org.uk or ring 020 8868 4044.