‘How Long Will It Go On?’ – Sylvia Pankhurst and the Hunger Strike

Grace Before Meat leaflet. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/46

Guest post by Chloe Bowerbank

During my work as an intern for the Citizens project, working with the Vote 100 team in Parliament, I was leafing through the police records kept by Parliament from the time of militant suffragette action. One in particular caught my eye. Right at the end of this period, just before war broke out in 1914, a small incident occurred at the steps of Parliament. Sylvia Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) arrived fresh from Holloway Prison, after a hunger strike, “with the intention of hunger striking from the steps leading to the House.”

Police report on Sylvia Pankhurst, 19 June 1914. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/57
Police report on Sylvia Pankhurst, 19 June 1914. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/57

The tactic of hunger striking was began in 1909 when the imprisoned suffragette Marion Wallace-Dunlop went on hunger strike. After three and a half days she was released from prison. Other suffragettes who were imprisoned followed suit and began to hunger strike in an effort to leave prison early and highlight their cause to the press. However, worried about the possibility that a Suffragette might die in prison as a result of hunger striking, and concerned that the early release of such rebellious prisoners would make a mockery of the justice system, the government decided to sanction the forcible feeding of prisoners.

In the period between February 1913 and July 1914 Sylvia Pankhurst, was arrested eight times, each time being repeatedly force-fed. She gave several accounts of her experience of force feeding and time in prison. One such account was written for an American Publication called McClure’s Magazine in 1913.

‘I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all”; and I vomited as the tube came up.’ 90, McClure’s Magazine, Vol. XLI, Issue no. 4, Aug. 1913 (pp.87-93)

She later described her ‘sense of degradation; the very fight that one made against the outrage was shattering one’s nerves and self-control’. Other hunger-strikers reported the sense of “violation” and “outrage” at having no control over their own bodies. This psychological damage was equal to the physical damage caused by the procedure. The feeding tube would be forced into the nostril or throat of the recipient, often damaging soft tissues or gums. If the tube was placed incorrectly food could enter the lungs, resulting in serious infections leading to conditions such as pneumonia. Other injuries could also occur in the struggle that would not be known until later. Mary Clarke died of a burst blood vessel on the brain two days after being released from prison in 1910. Her death was commonly attributed to the stress of force feeding, but was never conclusively proven. Lady Constance Lytton suffered a stroke in 1912 and later died in 1923. Again she had been force-fed, and her death was attributed to her experiences in prison.

Grace Before Meat leaflet. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/46
Grace Before Meat leaflet. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/46

Prison also had deep psychological impacts on prisoners. Often they were isolated from other inmates. Sylvia had a regular routine to try to contact any other Suffragettes when she arrived in her cell:

‘As soon as she [the wardress] had gone, I dragged the chair to the window, stood on the seat, and called out loudly: “Are there any Suffragettes here?” All was quiet. I knocked the walls on either side of my cell, for it is thus we prisoners signal; but there came no answering knock.’  89, McClure’s Magazine, Vol. XLI, Issue no. 4, Aug. 1913 (pp.87-93)

Such conditions often led to deep mental distress, and in the case of Emily Davison an attempt on her own life. Scared and alone facing horrific treatment it is no wonder she felt the only way out was through suicide. Sylvia herself suffered a breakdown:

‘I heard myself saving things which grew louder and louder until they filled the air with sound. I heard myself saying, over and over and over, that it was a scandal that four of us should be together serving five months in all for the breaking of one little window, and that the government had had their pound of flesh out of us, and far, far more.’ 92, McClure’s Magazine, Vol. XLI, Issue no. 4, Aug. 1913 (pp.87-93)

By 1913 she started refusing water and sleep, as well as food, in an attempt to decrease her time in prison. However the government, tired of the public’s condemnation of force feeding, passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act. This gave the government the power to release hunger-strikers who had become dangerously ill and send them home to recover. Once they had built up their strength they were taken away and locked up again. This often meant that sentences were extended, and activists would go on hunger strike every few weeks. This became known as the “Cat and Mouse Act” because the Police (the ‘cats’) were seen to “pounce” on the newly recovered suffragettes (the ‘mice’) the moment they stepped outside their homes.

Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1913/3&4G5c4
Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1913/3&4G5c4

It was during this period of arrest, hunger-strike, and release followed once more by arrest, that Sylvia Pankhurst proved her utter determination to let nothing stop her campaign to secure votes for women.

According to the police report, and her own testimony in The Suffragette Movement: an Intimate Account of Persons and Details (1931), the evening that she left Holloway Prison on 18 June 1914 she made her way down to Parliament. Still on hunger strike, having only gone back to a flat in the East End to change her clothes and drink a strong brandy, she was driven to Westminster to support the MP Keir Hardie as he made a request for a deputation of women to meet the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. When she arrived Hardie pleaded with her to stay in the car as he met with the PM. Yet, she did not wait. She recounts:

‘I indicated the little square door to the left, nearer to Cromwell’s statue, and there they laid me. A police inspector came forward to tell me I could not stay there. I replied I must wait there till the Prime Minister would consent to receive the deputation.’  The Suffragette Movement: an Intimate Account of Persons and Details (London: Longmans, Green and Co.: 1931) pp. 570-571

The police at the scene assumed that she meant to continue her hunger-strike on the steps of Parliament. Whether this was her intention or not, she did not have to wait long as Hardie emerged and told her that Asquith had consented to meet the deputation.

Two days later, a deputation of working class women met Asquith. Sylvia decided not to attend, instead asking one of the deputation to read out a written statement on her behalf. The women who met Asquith were working class mothers, members of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. The ELFS were a group of working class suffragettes who had split from the WSPU (along with their founder Sylvia) due to their pacifist stance. They argued that if women had the vote they would have greater power to improve pay and working conditions, secure decent housing, and protect children’s health. The leading figure, Mrs Julia Scurr, had been a housewife until joining the suffrage movement and in 1914 had risen to the position of Poor Law Guardian in her local community. These women had the opportunity to present the point of view of the working classes and presented the harsh realities facing the people within their community.

Sylvia obviously knew the importance of this event, and wanted to support it even if she damaged her own health. The continual process of hunger striking, no water or sleep for days at a time was very dangerous, yet she still continued to participate actively with the ELFS events each time she left prison. When she was too ill to leave her bed, she wrote letters trying to garner support for her organisation. She was quickly adopted by the East End community, and stayed with various families throughout her time in and out of prison. Often the local people would stand guard outside her room to prevent police officers from arresting her under the Cat and Mouse Act.

The result of the deputation of the Federation of East London Suffragettes is difficult to measure. However it is a very important event in the history of women’s suffrage as it was one of the few deputations of suffragettes that Asquith consented to meeting with. It also gave voice to the working class women who were part of the movement, at a time when the WSPU was dominated by upper and middle class women.

Less than a month after Sylvia’s dramatic appearance at the steps of Parliament, war in Europe began and a truce was called between the government and the WSPU. The Cat and Mouse Act was temporarily repealed and all suffrage prisoners were released. For these women, Sylvia included, the trauma of their imprisonment and force–feeding stayed with them for the rest of their lives. But it also instilled a sense of purpose and spirit that could not be broken, and Sylvia continued to campaign for women’s suffrage and peace long after 1918.

Chloe Bowerbank

Chloe Bowerbank is a recent graduate of Lancaster University, now studying Museum Studies at Leicester. She worked as a Royal Holloway Citizens Project paid intern, based in Parliament’s Vote 100 Exhibition Project, and researching material at the Parliamentary Archives.  Read Chloe’s blogpost for the Parliamentary Archives: Power and the People: Reflections on Research in the Parliamentary Archives

Sources

McClure’s Magazine, Vol. XLI, Issue no. 4, Aug. 1913 (pp.87-93) accessed from Hathi Trust and provided by the University of Michigan: (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015028708868;view=1up;seq=535)

Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: an Intimate Account of Persons and Details (London: Longmans, Green and Co.: 1931)

National Archives Blog by Vicky Iglikowski, 19 June 2014, The Working Women’s Struggle for the Vote: (http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/working-womens-struggle-vote/)

East London Suffragettes Blog by Sarah Jackson, 23/10/16, East London Suffragettes vs the Prime Minister: (http://www.eastlondonsuffragettes.com/blog/east-london-suffragettes-vs-the-prime-minister)

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