Watching Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power on BBC 2 last night I was reminded that I recently re-discovered in the back of a cupboard an unpublished piece of original research I had done in in 1975 into one of the more barbarous episodes in the attempted repression of the suffragette movement by the Liberal government during the years leading up to the First World War.
Suffragettes Forever! is a three-part series in which historian Amanda Vickery explores why, in the early 20th century, thousands of British women joined the suffragette movement, one wing of which engaged in acts of militancy and violence – including setting fire to unoccupied houses (such as that of Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George), smashing windows of shops and government offices, cutting telephone lines, sending letter bombs, destroying greenhouses at Kew gardens, chaining themselves to railings and blowing up houses. In March 1914 Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and slashed Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. In the first episode, Vickery traced the story of demands for justice and equality for women back to the Levellers in the Civil War, before highlighting the complete subjugation of women and their exclusion from political power in the 18th and 19th centuries. With Professor Vickery presenting her argument in a clear and accessible way, this promises to be an excellent series.
Midge Mackenzie’s ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’: the 1975 cover
Meanwhile, back in 1975, inspired by Midge Mackenzie‘s book, Shoulder to Shoulder,a beautifully-presented and lavishly-illustrated history of the militant suffragettes, recently-published to accompany another BBC2 documentary series on the suffragettes.
A typical double page spread from the lavishly-illustrated ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’
Reading Shoulder to Shoulder, I had been intrigued by a reference to ‘the barbarous ill treatment of Miss SeIina Martin and Miss Leslie Hall, while on remand in Walton Gaol’ in January 1910. The words were those of Lady Constance Lytton, a leading suffragette, in a passage from her memoir quoted by Mackenzie. Lytton went on to describe how the pair had been refused bail, and while awaiting their trial, were not allowed any outside communication, contrary to law for prisoners on remand. Lytton continued:
As a protest they had started a hunger strike. They were fed by force, in answer to which they broke the windows of their cells. They were put in irons for days and nights together, and one of them was frog-marched in the most brutal fashion to and from the room where the forcible feeding was performed. These facts they made known to their friends at the police court on the day of their trial.
It was that passage that piqued my interest. I decided to do a bit of personal research in the local Records Office in Liverpool Central Library, scanning microfilm of the local newspapers for early 1910. This is what I found.
When suffragettes were force-fed in Walton Gaol
66 years ago [i.e. in 1910], Liverpool was the scene of one of the more barbarous episodes in the attempted repression of the suffragette movement by Asquith’s Liberal government.
The account that follows is as much about the deceptions practised by governments and the distortions perpetrated by the media in relation to radical movements, as it is the history of an episode in the suffragette campaign.
By 1910 the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, had intensified its militant campaign to force the Government to recognise the demand for votes for women. Demonstrations, and attempts by WSPU deputations to present resolutions to Government ministers demanding a Parliamentary bill to give women the vote had been met by mass arrests and police brutality. The hunger-strike campaign had begun, and the Government had retaliated with forcible feeding.
In the words of Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragettes were determined that if the freedom to vote was to be confined to half the people, there should be no peace for the Prime Minister. It was open war.
In December I909 the WSPU were given an opportunity to step up their harassment of Asquith and other Government ministers. A general election was called after the House of Lords had rejected Lloyd-George’s ‘Peoples’ Budget’.
Throughout the country WSPU activists began campaigning against Liberal candidates with the aim of seriously weakening Liberal strength in the Commons. Government ministers touring the country making election addresses had their meetings disrupted with heckles, chants, and the constant demand, ‘Votes to Women’.
On December 22nd Asquith was due to speak at the Liverpool Reform Club in Dale Street. Throughout the morning there was a strong police presence outside the Club and suffragette demonstrators were kept on the move. When Asquith’s car drew up there was a rush to break the police cordon. There were shouts of ‘Down with Asquith!’ and Votes for Women!’ as militants struggled with the police, and a bottle was hurled through the window of the Prime Minister’s car.
WSPU members Selina Martin and Leslie Hall, dressed as orange-sellers in aprons, shawls and complete with baskets of oranges, were arrested and charged at Liverpool police court that afternoon with behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace.
The following morning the Liverpool Daily Post had a field day with headlines that proclaimed:
DISGUISED AS ORANGE-SELLERS!
CATAPULT AND IRON MISSILES
BOTTLE THROWN INTO MOTOR-CAR
There were reports, too, of a further attack at the Reform Club. Later that evening, the stained-glass windows of the club had been smashed in a second WSPU raid:
ANOTHER SUFFRAGETTE OUTRAGE
JUNIOR REFORM CLUB DAMAGED
Selina Martin and Leslie Hall were refused bail and remanded in custody at Walton Gaol, awaiting trial. At Walton, the prison authorities prevented them from seeing friends or relatives. They began a hunger-strike in protest and almost immediately were force-fed. Adopting traditional WSPU tactics the two prisoners smashed the windows of their cells to signify their refusal to cooperate whilst forced-feeding occurred. As a result they were confined to their cells, chained in irons, and daily frog-marched to and from the room where the forced-feeding was done.
Such treatment was both unprecedented and unlawful for prisoners on remand – not yet tried or found guilty. In addition the forcible-feeding procedures at Walton appear to have been particularly callous as a future inmate, Lady Constance Lytton was later to testify.
The WSPU leaflet, ‘Atrocities in an English Prison’
The WSPU rushed out a leaflet, ‘Atrocities in an English Prison’, which laid at the door of the Liberal Government a most un-liberal record of harshness and brutality dealt out to suffragette prisoners. In the words of a message of protest sent to Asquith by the German Women’s Suffrage Association, ‘a catalogue of cruelty worthy of Tsarist Russia: we should never have thought it possible that an English government and the Prime Minister of this free country would ever rouse by their action a just protest like ours’.
This is the text of the WSPU leaflet:
ATROCITIES IN AN ENGLISH PRISON
Two Englishwomen, unconvicted prisoners on remand in an English prison (Walton Gaol, Liverpool), have been assaulted, knocked down, gagged, fed by force, kept for consecutive days and nights in irons. One of them has been frog-marched . Frog-marched! What does that mean? Read the story.
On December 20th Miss Selina Martin and Miss Leslie Hall were arrested in Liverpool, and were remanded for one week, bail being refused.
Accordingly, while still unconvicted prisoners, they were sent to Walton Gaol, Liverpool. There, contrary to regulations, intercourse with their friends was denied to them. As unconvicted prisoners they refused to submit to the prison discipline or to take the prison food. Forcible feeding was threatened and Miss Martin therefore barricaded her cell. The officials, however, effected an entrance, fell upon her and handcuffed her, dragged her to a punishment cell and flung her on the floor, with her hands tightly fastened together behind her back.
All that night she was kept in irons. Next day her cell was entered, she was seized, thrown down, rolled over with her face upon the floor. In this position, face downwards, her arms and legs were dragged up behind her till she was lifted from the ground. Her hair was seized by another wardress. In this way she was “frog-marched” up the steps to the doctor’s room, her head bumping on the stone stairs. In the doctor’s room the operation of forcible feeding was performed – causing intense suffering – and then this tortured girl, in a terrible state of physical and mental distress, was handcuffed again, and flung down the steps and pushed and dragged back into her cell. Her companion, Leslie Hall, was kept in irons for two and a half consecutive days and nights.
What was the Charge against Miss Martin?
What terrible crime had Miss Martin done? She had dared to protest against the political slavery of her sex; against the refusal of the Prime Minister to receive any Deputation from women; and against the exclusion of women from political meetings. The charge against Miss Martin was that she had thrown an empty ginger-beer bottle at an empty motor-car – the car that had taken Mr. Asquith to the meeting. But when she was treated in this terribly cruel way these charges had not been proved, she was “on remand,” and by the theory of English law presumed innocent. Bail had been offered, she was ready to give an undertaking that no disturbance should take place during the week for which the case was remanded. Bail was arbitrarily refused in spite of the fact that though there have been hundreds of Suffragette prisoners, they have never attempted to escheat their bail.
The frog march, and the other assaults and cruelties, the brutal feeding by force, were resorted to during this week of remand, while she was an unconvicted prisoner. Prison officials, encouraged by the Government, have cast aside both law and humanity in dealing with women political prisoners.
Is this England?
If such deeds were done in Russia there would be an outcry in this country. Are they to be tolerated here?
Electors! You and you only can put a stop to this terrible injustice. These two women are in prison now. Miss Martin is sentenced to two months’ hard labour and Miss Hall to one month.
Electors! assert your will. Secure the release of these women who have already suffered such horrible torture. It can be done by voting against the Government which is responsible for this cruelty. The prison authorities are the tools of the Government, and act as they are bidden by the Home Office. Because women are making their cry heard for that political freedom which Liberals profess to hold so dear in the case of m[?] the Liberal Government is persecuting them with unheard of violence and cruelty.
Electors, vote against the Liberal Candidate in your Constituency, for if returned he will go into Parliament to support Mr. Asquith and his Government, who are the torturers of women.
Vote against the Government and keep the Liberal out!
A suffragette is force-fed in Holloway Prison
Readers of the Daily Post got a totally different picture when they opened their newspapers on January 1st:
FEMININE FOOLISHNESS IN WALTON GAOL
Under these dispassionate headlines the paper reported that ‘the prisoners … persevered in their defiance so that they gradually assumed a more or less skeletonised form. The authorities had, therefore, to take sharp and effective action… Food was finally administered to them, and the operation appeared to be attended with excellent results. The food consisted of a mixture of appetising and strengthening liquid gruel, and seemed to be very agreeable…The compulsion required is only nominal, so that there can be no harm done, and no injury to health’.
Scotland Yard surveillance images of suffragettes, circulated in 1912
On January 12th the Home Secretary, William E Gladstone, announced the findings of an official inquiry into the brutality claims: ‘The allegations contained in the leaflet have been thoroughly investigated, and proved to be entirely without foundation’. For the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst retorted:
Mr Gladstone, on the strength of a secret investigation by visiting magistrates, has denied the truth of our statement as to the atrocities committed in Liverpool prison on the body of Selina Martin, an unconvicted prisoner. Our acquaintance during the past four years with the methods of the Home Office under Mr Gladstone, in dealings with his subordinate officials in the prisons, justifies us in the utmost suspicion of Mr Gladstone’s denials.
These were unknown women – like the majority of the suffragette prisoners. Ignored by the press, their sufferings were also unknown to a large section of the British public.
WSPU force feeding poster
The WSPU now determined to draw attention to their plight by staging a demonstration outside Walton jail. One woman who was to take part was Lady Constance Lytton, daughter of the Earl of Lytton, British Viceroy in India in the I870s and Ambassador to Paris in the 1880s. Her mother had served as lady-in-waiting to both Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra. Coming from this prestigious, influential background, and a life spent mainly on the family estate at Knebworth in Hertfordshire, Constance Lytton had joined the WSPU in 1908, involved herself in militant protests, and had soon been struck by the leniency of her jail treatment compared with that of suffragette prisoners from working class backgrounds.
When imprisoned at Newcastle she had quickly been released after a medical examination had disclosed a ‘serious heart disease’. Despite being on hunger-strike, she had not been force-fed.
On Saturday January 14th, the demonstration (ignored by the local press) took place outside Walton jail. Lady Constance Lytton had filled out a new membership card as ‘Jane Wharton’ and had disguised her appearance to look like a working seamstress. She deliberately set out to be arrested to test the accuracy of the Home Secretary’s assertion that ‘no distinction was made among suffragette prisoners based on class difference’.
I joined the WSPU again, filling up the membership card as Miss Jane Warton. I accomplished my disguise in Manchester, going to a different shop for every part of it, for safety’s sake. I had noticed several times while I was in prison that prisoners of unprepossessing appearance obtained least favour, so I was determined to put ugliness to the test. I had my hair cut short and parted, in early Victorian fashion, in smooth bands down the side of my face. This, combined with the resentful bristles of my newly cut back hair, produced a curious effect. I wished to bleach my hair as well, but the hairdresser refused point-blank to do this, and the stuff that I bought for the purpose at a chemist’s proved quite ineffective. A tweed hat, a long green cloth coat, which I purchased for eight shillings sixpence, a woollen scarf and woollen gloves, a white silk neck-kerchief, a pair of pince-nez spectacles, a purse, a note-bag to contain some of my papers, and my costume was complete. I had removed my initials from my underclothing, and bought the ready-made initials ‘J.W’ to sew on in their stead, but to my regret I had not time to achieve this finishing touch.
In her memoir, Constance Lytton described joining a crowd of ‘between two and three hundred men and women’ demonstrating outside Walton prison:
It had been agreed that I should mix with the crowd, not join with the speakers, but at the end of the meeting should have my say from below. I reminded the audience of how the men of Dundee, when forcible feeding of suffrage prisoners was threatened in that town, had assembled to the number of two thousand and protested against it. How thereupon the hunger-strikers had been released and no forcible feeding to our women had been inflicted in Scotland. Could not Englishmen have done the same? Let the men of Liverpool be the first to wipe out the stain that has been tolerated up till now. We were outside the gaol where these and other barbarities were actually going on. The Home Secretary had denied responsibility and asserted that it rested with the prison officials.
To my surprise, the crowd began to follow me. Again I shouted out to them- ”No violence, remember, but call for the Governor and refuse to be dispersed till you have secured the release of the prisoners.” A policeman began leisurely to follow me; there were only two or three of them about. I took to running and urged on the crowd. The police then took hold of me. … The crowd followed me excitedly, and our members gathered round
me, appealing for my release and saying that I had done nothing.
Along with Rose Howley and Christina Nugent, ‘Jane Wharton’ was arrested and sentenced by Liverpool magistrates to two weeks hard labour in Walton. Under the ‘Jane Wharton’ guise, her prison treatment immediately took on a totally different character to that of her previous imprisonments.
Lady Constance Lytton later wrote of her experiences as ‘Jane Wharton’ in Walton. She described how, on January 18th, the Senior Medical Officer came to her cell with five wardresses and the feeding apparatus.
He urged me to take food voluntarily. I told him that was absolutely out of the question, that when our legislators ceased to resist enfranchising women then I should cease to resist taking food in prison. He did not examine my heart, nor feel my pulse…
She was placed on a plank bed. Two of the wardresses took hold of her arms. One gripped her head and another her feet. One wardress helped to pour the food while the doctor knelt on her knees as he stooped to reach her mouth. Clamping her teeth shut to resist being fed, she had her mouth forced open with a steel gag.
The pain of it was intense and at last I must have given way, for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally.
A wide tube, four feet in length was pushed down her throat.
The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had got down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses, and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out. As the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek, not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval, and he seemed to take for granted that my distress was assumed. At first it seemed such an utterly contemptible thing to have done that I could only laugh in my mind.
The Medical Officer slapped her in the face and left. Constance Lytton remained saturated in her own vomit for the rest of the night.
Then suddenly I saw Jane Warton lying before me, and it seemed as if I were outside of her. She was the most despised, ignorant, and helpless prisoner that I had seen. When she had served her time and was out of the prison, no one would believe anything she said, and the doctor, when he had fed her by force and tortured her body, struck her on the cheek to show how he despised her! That was Jane Warton, and I had come to help her.
When the doctor had gone out of the cell, I lay quite helpless. The wardresses were kind and knelt round to comfort me, but there was nothing to be done, I could not move, and remained there in what, under different conditions, would have been an intolerable mess. I had been sick over my hair, which, though short, hung on either side of my face, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with it, but the wardresses
told me they could not get me a change that night as it was too late, the office was shut.
I lay quite motionless, it seemed paradise to be without the suffocating tube, without the liquid food going in and out of my body and without the gag between my teeth. Presently the wardresses all left me, they had orders to go, which were carried out with the usual promptness. Before long I heard the sounds of the forced feeding in the next cell to mine. It was almost more than I could bear, it was Elsie Howey, I was sure. When the ghastly process was over and all quiet, I tapped on the wall and called out at the top of my voice, which wasn’t much just then, ‘No surrender’, and there came the answer past any doubt in Elsie’s voice, ‘No surrender.’
The contrast between this account and the one readers of the Liverpool Daily Post were presented with perhaps needs no comment. But it brutally illustrates how the press then (just as now) will attempt to ignore or distort the aims and actions of radical movements which threaten the existing social order.
Constance Lytton proved her point twice over – her treatment as ’Jane Wharton’ bore no relation to her former treatment as a Lady, and when, five days later, the Walton prison authorities discovered her true identity, she was immediately released on medical grounds.
The Liverpool Mercury reported on January 29th:
LADY AND SUFFRAGETTE
Lady Constance Lytton, who was released from Walton Gaol last Sunday is resting for a time at her sister’s house in Bloomsbury, London. […] Lady Constance Lytton was released on the grounds of health. She alleged, however, that this decision was not arrived at until after her identity had become known. She further states that the prison doctor who saw her on the Wednesday evening during the forcible feeding said, ‘Heart famous, pulse steady. Go along, it’s all right.
The imprisonments, hunger strikes and forced-feeding went on for another four years, despite mounting criticism. The government’s only response was a cynical one: the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Health Act (nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act) was introduced in 1913 to ensure that no hunger strikers died in prison, through the simple expedient of releasing hunger strikers who became dangerously ill, and then re-arresting them to complete their sentence when they had regained their health.
WSPU poster responding to the Cat and Mouse Act, 1914
It was only the outbreak of the First World War that halted the repression. A vote for women, on an equal basis with men, was not achieved until 1929.
In her new book, Shoulder to Shoulder (Penguin), provides a fitting epitaph to the fighters of the suffragette movement – the famous and the unknown, such as Selina Martin:
More than one thousand suffragettes had been imprisoned for demanding that women should have the most basic and simple right to vote. Solitary confinement, hard labour, brutality, broken health, and ultimately death were the price paid by women of dedication and conscience for their belief that all women should be free.
That was the piece I wrote up in 1975 after my research in Liverpool Central Library. More recently, in 1990, Marij van Helmond drew upon local archive resources in preparation for an exhibition at the Museum of Labour History, entitled Votes for Women: The Liverpool Story. In her valuable book published two years later, there is a brief mention of the arrest and force-feeding of Selina Martin and Leslie Hall. Marij van Helmond adds that during their one month imprisonment in Walton Gaol, ‘several demonstrations and meetings … outside the prison attracted considerable crowds. She continues:
The WSPU used this imprisonment as a focal point for anti-Liberal Government activity and Lady Constance Lytton’s arrest and subsequent hunger strike during the same period made much bigger headlines than all the campaigning of the LWSS put together.
The LWSS was the comparatively staid Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society, established in 1909 by Eleanor Rathbone and affiliated to Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), from which in 1903 those women who wished to undertake more militant action had split to form the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the ‘suffragettes’.
According to excellent research on this blog, Selina Martin died aged 90 in 1972 in Lunesdale. She is buried in the Top Cemetery in Lancaster in an unmarked grave.
- Amanda Vickery on inequality: “One would be naive to think the battle is won” (Radio Times)
- Shoulder To Shoulder: The Burial of BBC’s Feminist Drama: interesting blog post that tells the story of Midge Mackenzie’s 1975 series
- Selina Martin: The Impact of Suffragettes in Lancaster: this post by Rachel Maddox fills in details of Selina Martin’s early life in Lancaster, and her involvement in the WSPU (Documenting Dissent)
- Force Feeding and the Suffragettes: article by Doreen Burns in Nerve magazine, 2009. Provides more detail on the force feeding of Rose Howey in the next cell to Constance Lytton
- Force-feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes: article by June Purvis, THES, 1996
- The Weaker Sex? Violence and the Suffragette Movement: article by Fern Riddell in the latest issue of History Today, March 2015
- Selina Martin: the most comprehensive account of her life can be found in this dedicated blog
- Suffragette Surveillance, 1913: remarkably clear images of the women who fought for the right to vote
- The campaign for women’s suffrage: resources at British Library
- The history of the suffragettes: BBC News