Beverley Cook

Curator, Votes for Women

5 October 2018

Six things you should know about the Suffragette hunger strikes

The Suffragette hunger strike protest remains one of the most poignant and disturbing aspects of the struggle for Votes for Women. Suffragettes in British prisons refused to eat, and often to drink, threatening to starve themselves to force a response from the authorities. Here are six key facts about this extraordinary struggle.

1: Hunger strikes started as an act of individual defiance

posing before a reconstruction of the stencilled message she stamped in printer's violet ink on the wall of St Stephens Hall in the House of Commons, June 22nd 1909.

Marion Wallace Dunlop, 1909

Posing in front of a reconstruction of the message she stencilled on the wall of the House of Commons on June 22 1909. Refusing to pay a fine for the offence, Marion was sent to prison for one month.

Some of the people who campaigned for women's right to vote used militant tactics like attacking property, which often led to prison sentences. Hunger striking was a dangerous form of non-violent protest that could be carried out from inside prison.

This ultimate form of prison protest did not, however, originate from Suffragette headquarters at the Women's Social and Political Union. Initially it was the lone action of a single Suffragette, Marion Wallace Dunlop. In 1909 Marion was sent to Holloway on a charge of wilfully and maliciously damaging the stonework of the House of Commons.

Classified as a "second division", criminal prisoner, she went on hunger strike in protest against not being placed in the "first division" as a political prisoner. Leading Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst said that Marion had begun the strike "taking counsel with no one and acting entirely on her own initiative".

The cartoon on the front cover depicts a prison doctor and Prime Minster Asquith standing over a Suffragette prisoner weakened by force feeding. Titled 'The Quality of Mercy' the cartoon mocks the introduction of the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge (for Ill Health) Act passed by the Liberal government in 1913.

The Suffragette newspaper, 25 July 1913

The Doctor: "This Woman is very weak, but I think at a pinch she could stand another twenty-five minutes."
The Prime Administer: "Twenty-five minutes! Ah well, never let it be said we do not temper our injustice with mercy, let her out in twenty."

Marion Wallace-Dunlop began her hunger strike on 5 July 1909 and refused all food for several days. When the prison doctor asked her what she was going to eat, she replied: "My determination". He answered: "Indigestible stuff, but tough no doubt." After 91 hours of fasting, Marion was released by prison authorities afraid that she might die.

Following Marion’s lead, other Suffragette prisoners quickly adopted the hunger-strike. Initially the protest resulted in the release of the prisoners as soon as they showed signs of weakness.

The Suffragettes Charlotte Marsh, Laura Ainsworth and Mary Leigh were arrested in September 1909 for disrupting a meeting attended by the Prime Minister Herbet Asquith. All three were sentenced to two weeks' imprisonment in Winson Green prison, Birmingham. They immediately decided to go on hunger-strike.

2: Suffragettes were forcibly fed by prison authorities

'The Modern Inquisition -Treatment of Political Prisoners under a Liberal Government.' Marion Wallace Dunlop was incarcerated in Holloway Prison for defacing St Stephen's Chapel. In June 1909 she started a hunger strike to protest being refused political prisoner status. Other suffragette prisoners quickly took up the strike. By December one hundred and ten suffragettes were refusing food. To break the strikes, the government insisted all prisoners be forcibly fed. The Women's Social and Political Union published this poster to attack the government during the 1910 General Election.

The modern inquisition, treatment of political prisoners under a liberal government, 1910

Election poster by Alfred Pearse issued by the Women's Social and Political Union denouncing the Government's treatment of suffragette prisoners.

Very soon, the authorities decided to introduce forcible feeding of hunger striking prisoners. This involved prison warders, wardresses and medical staff restraining the prisoner while forcing a rubber tube into their mouth or nose. Mixtures of milk, eggs or other liquid foods were poured into the stomach. Struggling Suffragettes could suffer broken teeth, bleeding, vomiting and choking as food was poured into the lungs.

Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union, described one London prison during a period of force-feeding: "Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office."

The Women's Social and Political Union issued graphic illustrations and descriptions of women struggling and being restrained whilst a tube was forced down their throat or up their nose. These shocking revelations caused considerable public concern at such brutal treatment by the authorities on vulnerable women.

Women's Social and Political Union Leaflet: 'Tortured Women: What Forcible Feeding Means. A Prisoner's Testimony'. An account by the suffragette prisoner Mary Richardson of her experience of force-feeding whilst on hunger-strike in Holloway Prison, 1914.

Tortured Women. What forcible feeding means, 1914

An account by the suffragette prisoner Mary Richardson in a WSPU leaflet.

3: Men went on hunger strike as well as women

Male supporters of Votes for Women also used the hunger strike tactic. Hugh Franklin was a member of the Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement, the WSPU's counterpart. After taking part in the 'Black Friday' demonstration of November 1910, he took a whip to Home Secretary Winston Churchill, whom he held responsible for violent policing during 'Black Friday'. For this Hugh was imprisoned in Pentonville prison, where he went on hunger strike.

Hugh Franklin served two more prison sentences for his pro-suffrage activities, continuing to go on hunger strike. He was temporarily released from prison under the 'Cat and Mouse' Act, and was able to escape Britain to the Continent. What was the 'Cat and Mouse' Act, you ask?

4: Suffragettes played a dangerous game of 'Cat and Mouse' with the government

In 1913 the British government, fearing the death of a hunger-striking prisoner, passed the Prisoner's (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act.

The Act became known by Suffragettes as the Cat & Mouse Act. It allowed hunger striking Suffragettes to be released from prison when they were weakened, but only 'on licence'. The prisoner would be taken back into prison to serve the remainder of their sentence when their health improved or they re-appeared in public. This was condemned as cruelly 'letting prisoners go and catching them again', just as a cat plays with a mouse.

Issued to the suffragette Gertrude Mary Ansell who was released under the act from Holloway on 6th August 1913.

Notice issued to a suffragette prisoner released under the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913

Issued to the suffragette Gertrude Mary Ansell who was released under the act from Holloway on 6 August 1913

Suffragettes released under the terms of the Act (also referred to as the Cat & Mouse Act) often cut out traceable details from the licence so they could leave it at the scene of 'outrages', undertaken whilst they were out on licence. It is known that the multiple arsonist Kitty Marion certainly used this tactic to taunt the Police whilst undertaking militant acts whilst supposedly recovering from hunger-strike. It is, therefore, possible that Kitty is depicted in the photograph holding the licence.

This 'Cat and Mouse' licence was issued to the Suffragette Gertrude Mary Ansell on her release from Holloway prison on 6 August 1913. This notice refers to Gertrude's arrest and imprisonment for smashing a window at the Home Office on 31 July 1913. For this offence she was sentenced to one month in Holloway where she immediately went on a hunger-and-thirst strike.

However, many Suffragettes took the opportunity of freedom to remain on the run from the authorities taking refuge in a number of safe houses. Once recovered, they emerged unnoticed to undertake more militant 'outrages'. Gertrude failed to return to Holloway on 14 August, as this licence ordered her to. Instead, she remained free until 30 October when she was spotted selling The Suffragette newspaper at Holborn Tube station

Some Suffragettes brazenly left their Cat & Mouse Act licence at the scene of arson attacks, with personal details cut out. It is known that the multiple arsonist Kitty Marion certainly used this tactic to taunt the police, undertaking militant acts whilst supposedly recovering from hunger-strike. It is possible that Kitty is depicted in this photograph, holding her anonymised licence.

5: The Suffragettes treated hunger striking like a military campaign

Letter on headed WSPU notepaper signed by Mabel Tuke, July 24th 1912. Addressed to 'Dear Soldier in the Woman's Army' such letters accompanied the hunger-strike medals sent to prisoners on their release. The letter offers appreciation to those who have been on hunger strike and force fed 'and my personal wish that you have not suffered too seriously in health as a result of your heroic fight for principle'.

Letter to a hunger-striking Suffragette, 1912

Written by Mabel Tuke. Such letters accompanied the hunger-strike medals sent to prisoners on their release.

Inscribed

The leadership of the Women's Social and Political Union rewarded Suffragette prisoners with a range of military-style campaign medals. Those who served terms of imprisonment with hunger-strike were presented with Hunger Strike medals at breakfast receptions on their release.

Silver bars on the medal represented periods of hunger-strike, whilst the enamel bars represented periods of force-feeding.

One of the most iconic objects in the Museum’s collection is the hunger strike medal presented to the Suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. The medal refers to a two month prison sentence with hunger-strike served by Emmeline in 1912 for throwing a stone at a window of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence.

Whilst in Holloway, Emmeline was also charged with ‘conspiring to incite certain persons to commit malicious damage to property’ and sentenced to a further nine months’ imprisonment.

A second Holloway medal was engraved with the prison wing and cell number occupied by Suffragettes. Prisoners were also entitled to the Holloway medal, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst. The silver and enamel brooch incorporates the portcullis emblem of the House of Commons and a central broad prisoner’s arrow in purple, white and green enamel. It was first presented to ex-suffragette prisoners at a mass demonstration at the Albert Hall on 29 April 1909.

6: Hunger and thirst strikes could be deadly

Emmeline Pankhurst with Nurse Pine on her release from prison and hunger strike. On 3rd April 1913 Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to three years penal servitude for incitement to place an explosive in a building at Walton, Surrey. In prison she immediately went on hunger strike and was subsequently released after several days. On her recovery she was rearrested and thus began a pattern of hunger strike, release, recuperation and rearrest that continued until the end of July when the police finally decided not to rearrest. During each period of recuperation from hunger strike Emmeline Pankhurst found refuge in a number of safe houses and was always nursed back to health by Catherine Pine.

Emmeline Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike, 1913

Emmeline Pankhurst with Nurse Catherine Pine on her release from prison and hunger strike.

The Suffragette Elsie Howey in a replica prison cell, 1909. Replica prison uniforms were often worn by ex-suffragette prisoners at demonstrations and fund-raising bazaars to highlight the conditions under which imprisoned Suffragettes were held. This image was probably taken at the Women's Exhibition held at Princes Skating Rink in May 1909 where a 'Prison Life' exhibit included a replica prison cell 'peopled' by Suffragettes dressed in replica prison clothing and taking part in prison activities such as sewing.

The Suffragette Elsie Howey in a Replica Prison Cell

Replica prison uniforms were often worn by Suffragette ex-prisoners at demonstrations and fund-raising bazaars to highlight the conditions under which imprisoned Suffragettes were held.

There were no cases of a Suffragette dying in prison while on hunger strike. However, hunger striking was often deeply damaging and always carried the risk of serious injury.

Elsie Howey served several terms of imprisonment with hunger strike. In a letter to the Suffragette Fellowship her mother, also a Suffragette campaigner, noted that Elsie had required four months' medical treatment to recover from force feeding: "Her beautiful voice was ruined."

Mary Clarke was the younger sister of Emmeline Pankhurst, and was arrested in the "Black Friday" protest on 18 November 1910. In Holloway Prison she endured a hunger strike and forced feeding. She was released due to weakness on 23 December 1910, but three days later Emmeline found her unconscious, and she died soon afterwards: a result of a burst blood vessel on the brain. The violence of force feeding might well have been responsible, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence described Mary Clarke as "the first woman martyr who has gone to death for this cause."

In February 1913 Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to three years' penal servitude for inciting persons to place an explosive in a building at Walton, Surrey. In prison she immediately went on hunger strike and over the following five months she was repeatedly released and rearrested under the terms of the Cat and Mouse act. This photograph shows Emmeline being rearrested on 26th May whilst recuperating at the home of the composer Ethel Smyth in Woking, Surrey. Shading herself from the heat, Emmeline dressed in a grey suit and still weakened by hunger strike is here seen fainting back on the knee of Ethel. She is also accompanied by Nurse Pine and Dr Flora Murray who always cared for her whilst she recovered from periods of hunger strike.

Rearrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, 26 May 1913

Emmeline was rearrested whilst recuperating at the home of the composer Ethel Smyth in Woking. Emmeline, still weakened by hunger strike, is here seen fainting back on the knee of Ethel.

Unlike her fellow Suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst was never force-fed by the authorities. This brutal and invasive treatment was regarded as too controversial to inflict on such a high profile leader who, by this time, was in her 50s. Nonetheless, her health suffered due to hunger striking.

In April 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst received her final prison sentence of three years' penal servitude, for incitement to place an explosive in a building at Walton, Surrey. She again went on hunger strike and was subsequently released from Holloway after several days.

On her recovery, she was rearrested under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act and thus began a pattern of hunger strike, release, recuperation and re-arrest that continued until the end of July, when the police finally decided not to re-arrest her.

During each period of recuperation from hunger strike Emmeline Pankhurst found refuge in a number of safe houses and was always nursed back to health by her nurse Catherine Pine.

Suffragette hunger striking came to an end in Britain in 1914, when the Women's Social and Political Union suspended militant action for the duration of the First World War. The Representation of the People Act, passed in 1918, gave some women the right to vote for the first time in Britain. However, the use of the hunger strike continued around the world in nations like Australia. American suffrage campaigners, like Alice Paul, went on hunger strike while imprisoned in 1917 for campaigning for the right to vote.

Learn more about the struggles of the Suffragettes in our Votes for Women season, celebrating a centenary of female suffrage until the end of 2018.