What was prison like for Suffragettes?

A little more than 100 years ago, thousands upon thousands of women across the UK were tirelessly fighting; not only for women’s right to vote, but for women to have basic human rights. 

Of this, a small chunk formed up the WSPU (Womens Social and Political Union) the militant arm of the Votes for Women fight, these women undertook illegal activities as part of their campaigning; smashing windows, vandalising property, even committing arson and organising targeted bombings.

This lead to many members of the WSPU (or as they were commonly known, Suffragettes) going to prison and in doing so, taking on a gauntlet of abuse designed to break them.

Here are 5 of the monumental barriers that were faced by suffragettes entering prison – and I guarantee by the time you finish reading them you will NEVER see the Votes for Women campaign in the same way:

Suffragette Dora Thewlis, during her 1907 arrest
16 yr old Suffragette, Dora Thewlis, during her 1907 arrest

1 . Life Long Illness

Whilst in prison, many incarcerated suffragettes chose to go on hunger strike, a move that was whole heartedly supported by the WSPU as a whole. Once released, suffragettes who had taken up hunger strike were celebrated; awarded with a medal which they’d wear with pride; a symbol of their sacrifice and a sign of respect amongst sisters.

But the personal impact of these women’s hunger strikes was more than a medal; many were left with long term health issues.

Believe me when I say, hunger striking does some serious damage to your body. Put bluntly, when you go on hunger strike you stop giving your body food and if you aren’t giving your body food, then it starts eating itself.

Muscle and fat are the first to go and after 1-2 weeks you can expect to have a lot of trouble doing something simple like standing, not to mention the high likelihood of uncontrollable (and very painful) vomiting. Should the hunger strike keep going, you can expect vision loss, hearing problems and you’ll struggle swallowing. Organs also start to be at risk of shutting down and by day 40, death is a very real threat.

Just to underline how horrific the effects of hunger striking are, here is a picture of Suffragette, Olive Wharry, after just over a month of hunger striking: 

Olive Wharry, Suffragette, after 32 days on hunger strike
Olive Wharry, 32 days into hunger strike

So it’s unsurprising that after leaving prison, it took weeks of bed rest and care for suffragettes to recover.

That meant that many women who had jobs and children to look after, simply couldn’t go on hunger strike. After all, there was no way that on their return from prison, they’d be able to work and care for kids in such a weakened state.

So we know that going on hunger strike just once will fuck up your body. But it wasn’t just once for these women.

Many suffragettes went on hunger strike several times over multiple stays in prison. That led to life long and often serious health problems.

And this all gets a whole lot worse when we factor in:

2 . Force feeding

force feeding image
A suffragette being force fed, from a 1911 copy of, The Suffragette

Hunger striking was a deadly method of campaigning and the government couldn’t be seen to be letting suffragettes die. So they opted to ensure striking prisoners had enough nutrients by force feeding then.

I’m going to put a quick warning here, because – guys, force feeding was more than brutal.

Prison guards would force suffragettes into a bed or chair, where a tube would be inserted through the nose and down the throat, through which a nutritional paste would be sent.

This could happen every day for weeks.

Here’s how Sylvia Pankhurst described her experience of force feeding:

“I struggled as hard as I could, but they were six and each one of them much bigger and stronger than I…They soon had me on the bed and firmly held down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees and the ankles. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open, his fingers trying to press my lips apart — getting inside. I felt I should go mad; like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap.”

Force feeding was essentially torture for the women that went through it. Many were left with physical injuries after the fact, including bruised jaws, broken teeth, bleeding gums and stomach pain from so much vomiting.

Not only that, but force feeding could be deadly. Suffragette Lilian Lenton almost died after the force feeding tube missed her throat and went straight into her airways.

Then in April 1913 The Cat and Mouse Act was put through

4 T
Doesn’t the poster make it look like a winner! – 1914 anti Cat and Mouse Act poster

The Cat and Mouse Act offered a cruel new spin on the abuse Suffragettes were receiving.

Once substantially weakened from hunger strike, suffragettes were sent home. Only to be arrested and bought back to prison when they started to recover.

Which meant that they could go through the whole ordeal again, and again…and again.

And it wasn’t just this merry go round of abuse that the suffragettes had to face.

3 . Abuse by prison staff

Working class suffragettes often faced an even more gruelling prison experience. The best example of this is that of Lady Lytton. Upon hearing rumours of the rough time working class suffragettes had, she first went to prison as herself, an upper class Lady, and then took on the identity of seamstress, Jane Warton, for her second spell in prison.

Jane Warton’s time in prison was incomparable to Lady Lytton’s.

Jane was force-fed until she vomited over herself and then continued to be force-fed despite the sick that was now on her body, hair and even the prison walls.

Jane was slapped by a doctor. She almost died during another bout of force-feeding; a doctor listening to her heart, which was just about beating for 2 minutes… and then advising his assistants to continue with the feeding.

Lady Lytton disgused as Jane Warton, 1910.jpg
Lady Lytton disguised as Jane Warton

There were also accounts of working class suffragettes being force-fed via their vagina or anus. An act that would have provided absolutely no nutritional benefit. The pointless pain, degradation and violation of this assault, known to those who carried it out.

4 . Surveillance Reigns 

Prison was used as a ground to monitor suffragettes movements and capture their images. After all, until arriving at prison, many of the women managed to keep up their campaigning with their identities unknown.

However by placing long lens cameras outside of prison grounds, police were able to secretly capture pictures of suffragettes whilst out on exercise, with many of these images used to create wanted posters and to warn local areas of known suffragettes.

Surveillance photograph of suffragette prisoners; 1913
Surveillance photo taken in the Holloway prison exercise yard

In some cases, guards would strong arm suffragettes into the correct position, so the cameras would be able to capture a clear face for the picture.

Notably, Evelyn Manesta, was pulled into a headlock to keep her in place for her picture. Interestingly,  the arm pushing down onto Evelyn’s throat and restraining her, was handily edited out for her wanted poster, instead replaced with a scarf.

Evelyn Mansta, headlock wanted picture
That’s some top notch turn of the century photo dickery

5 . Your life is gone 

Becoming a suffragette was not a decision to be made lightly; it could change your entire life and not for the better! It was a cause worth fighting for, but the price to fight was BIG.

Families would disown daughters who joined the WSPU; inheritances were cut, engagements were called off, marriages broke down.

Often the abuse received by suffragettes who went to prison, was matched by the reception they got after being released.

Many working class suffragettes lost their jobs, leaving them penniless. This meant that many women would attempt to go to prison under false identities, in a desperate bid to both be able to fight and be able to eat when they got out on the other side.

Then of course there were the mothers, forced to leave their children behind to go to prison. Heart-breaking enough, but these women not only missed their children when they were in jail, they risked losing them all together! Branded as unfit mothers, due to their activism.

For a strong example of this look no further than Suffragette, Helen Archdale, who narrowly escaped losing her two sons, after foiling her Mother in Laws attempt to kidnap the boys, in a big to rid them of their ‘pernicious mama’

anti suffrage propaganda
Just some of the delightful anti-suffrage posctards aimed at these women

It’s important that we remember just how much the women of the WSPU gave up, in their bid to fight for women’s equality. That they not only were brave enough to take on the fight, but did so knowing they were walking into countless dangers, opening themselves up to trauma and were at risk of losing everything.

This was interesting, where can I find out more?

Well there are way to many books to choose from! BUT if you are just starting to read up on the suffragettes, I’d suggest:

Rise Up Women, the remarkable lives of the suffragettes, by Dr Diane Atkinson, this book gives a great overview of the movement, along with individual suffragettes.

The Suffragette Movement – An Intimate Account Of Persons And Ideals, by Sylvia Pankhurst, an incredible personal account of what it was actually like being part of the WSPU. Unparalleled insight, this is a must read!

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, by Mary M Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, by Mary M Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot. The suffragette movement told as a first person graphic novel. Do I need to say more?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s