Marion Wallace-Dunlop: The First suffragette Hunger Striker

Guest post by Robin Fell

All Marion Wallace-Dunlop wanted to do was ‘Petition the King’; and who knows, if she had been allowed to, we might never have heard of hunger-striking suffragettes. But when she and several of her suffragette colleagues tried to do this they were informed by the Palace that it would not be right for the King to receive such a petition. This puzzled Wallace-Dunlop as she had read the Bill of Rights 1689 and recalled that amongst its provisions was one stating, ‘That it is the Right of the Subjects to petition the King and all Commitments and Prosecutions for such Petitioning are Illegal.’

Marion Wallace-Dunlop was not about to accept this state of affairs, she was a proud Scot who claimed descent from the mother of William Wallace. Her response to the establishment’s rebuttal of her right to petition was to have a ‘Rubber Stamp’ made (or perhaps she made it herself) of the wording of the relevant provision of the Bill of Rights and on the afternoon of 22nd June 1909 she presented herself at the House of Commons and asked to see John Clynes, a prominent Labour MP. The gentleman who accompanied Wallace-Dunlop was admitted to Central Lobby but, as a woman, she was permitted no further than St Stephen’s Hall. This was a rule instituted by the Serjeant at Arms in response to numerous demonstrations by suffragettes in Central Lobby.

The police report by Inspector Scantlebury states that Wallace-Dunlop was observed by PC Boyce to be ‘doing something to the wall above her seat.’ PC Boyce’s prompt action prevented Wallace-Dunlop’s attempt to stamp the words of the Bill of Rights on the wall but although she was found in possession of a ‘rubber pad about 12 x 6’, she was merely ejected from the building, having first been relieved of the rubber pad, and informed that she would not be admitted again.

Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/19
Extract from police report on Marion Wallace-Dunlop: the policeman ‘noticed her doing somethiing to the wall above the seat, ran to her and found her with a rubber pad about 12 x 6 trying to imprint something on the stonework’. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/19 [extract]
However Wallace-Dunlop had obviously taken the precaution of having more than one stamp. Two days later, on 24th June, she returned to Parliament again accompanied by a gentleman. Inspector Scantlebury’s report of this incident tells us that she was not recognised because she was ‘very much disguised from what she was on 22nd.’ On this occasion it was PC Parsons was on duty, and he observed that as the gentleman left, she got up from her seat and walked towards the exit. PC Parsons noticed that the wall above where Wallace-Dunlop had been sitting had been stamped with the words, ‘Women’s Deputation June 29th’ followed by the extract from the Bill of Rights.

Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/20.
Police report on Marion Wallace-Dunlop’s second attempt to stamp on the stonework, 24 June 1909. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/20.

PC Parsons called to his colleague in Westminster Hall and together they detained the couple, in whose possession was found the incriminating stamp. The First Commissioner of Works was consulted and on his instructions the pair were taken to Cannon Row Police Station where Wallace-Dunlop was charged with malicious damage and her accomplice, Victor Duval, was charged with aiding and abetting the offence.  The following morning saw the pair before Mr Curtis Bennett at Bow Street Magistrates Court. Wallace-Dunlop applied for an adjournment as she had not been able to consult anyone regarding her defence and they were both bailed until Friday 2nd July. Mr Duval is quoted in the Times as having complained bitterly about the sanitary conditions of his cell and that he had to eat his tea, ‘in the midst of a most evil smell and very little air.’

On the 2nd Wallace-Dunlop applied for a further adjournment, but this time was unsuccessful. She stated that she stamped the words on the wall because there was, ‘a danger of their being forgotten by legislators.’ She was fined £5 plus £1 1s 2d, the cost of the damage, and in default of payment she had to serve one month’s imprisonment, without hard labour. Mr Bennett stated that whilst the police were perfectly justified in taking Mr Duval into custody, taking all things into consideration he would discharge him. Exactly what things were taken into consideration was not, however, stated.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop press cutting. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/21
Marion Wallace-Dunlop press cutting. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/21

Wallace-Dunlop refused to pay her fine and was accordingly committed to Holloway Prison where on 5th July she petitioned the Governor: I claim the right recognised by all civilised nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction.’ The prison doctor, who had placed her in the prison hospital on her admittance as he considered she was already in poor health, realised that she would not stop her hunger strike and saw that her health was deteriorating. He brought the matter to the attention of the Prison Commission who instructed the Governor to release her immediately. Her 91 hour hunger strike had defeated the one month sentence.

News of Wallace-Dunlop’s hunger strike and subsequent release soon spread, and was widely reported in the press both at home and abroad. On 9th July the London Evening Standard reported a meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union at which a letter from her was read out giving an account of her exploits:

“I wondered what I could do to help the cause in prison and I decided to try a hunger strike. I did not eat breakfast on Monday, and I sent my application to Gladstone [Herbert Gladstone, Home Secretary 1905-1910] with a postscript to the effect that I demanded the right recognised by all civilized nations, that a prisoner charged with a political offence should be given first-class treatment. I also said that I should, as a matter of principle, and for the sake of those who might come after me, eat no food till the matter was settled to my satisfaction. Then ‘dogged did it.’ I threw a fried fish, four slices of bread, three bananas and a cup of hot milk out of the window on Tuesday, that being the only day I really felt hungry. They threatened all the time to ‘pump’ milk through my nostrils, but never did it….. ‘You may feed me through the nostrils or the mouth,’ I added; ‘but suppose you get 108 women in here on Friday, all requiring to be fed through the nostrils?’ At this the doctor’s face was a delightful study.”

Mrs Pankhurst, who was at the meeting, announced that she did not know what would happen when she was before the court but if she and others were going to prison they would, ‘do as Miss Wallace-Dunlop had done.’

Thus came about what was arguably the most potent weapon unleashed during the suffragette campaign. Initially many other suffragettes sentenced to terms of imprisonment went on hunger strike and were soon released; but the authorities could hardly let that state of affairs continue so forcible feeding was introduced, bringing sympathy to the suffragettes and bad publicity to the government. Eventually, fearful that there would be deaths leading to even worse publicity, the government passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Health) Act – better known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ – in 1913. Under the provisions of this Act, women who were becoming dangerously weak could be released and, when sufficiently recovered, returned to prison to continue their sentences.

Wallace-Dunlop continued her work with the suffragette movement and played a major part in organising many of their parades and processions, the most spectacular of which was the Woman’s Coronation Procession on 17th June 1911. An accomplished artist, she had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy and also in Paris where she studied art. In September 1942 she passed away peacefully in a Guildford nursing home.

Robin Fell, a Vote100 volunteer


Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12

Press reports

Leah Leneman, ‘Dunlop, Marion Wallace- (1864–1942)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, April 2016.