During the campaigning of the Suffragettes for votes for women in the early twentieth century, several of their number were imprisoned, in prisons including Holloway. In order to further their cause, and to protest at not being afforded the status of political prisoners, they went on hunger strike and were force fed by the prison authorities. They would later use this treatment to demonstrate the effects of the prison upon their health. But, crucially, the imprisonment of the Suffragettes in Holloway afforded the prison a place in this important period of the history of the fight for women’s rights. The site of the prison as the location of the incarceration of the suffragettes is perhaps the most accessible point of connection for the public between the prison and the women’s movement.
The importance of this cannot be undervalued, particularly given the centenary year of voting rights for some women will be in 2018. While most people might know that the suffragettes were imprisoned in Holloway, many might not recognise the impact their actions had on political struggles into the future. Christabel Pankurst was arrested with fellow suffragette Annie Kenney in 1905 for interrupting a Liberal Party meeting to demand voting rights for women and was sent to Holloway for refusing to pay the fine. Her sister Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in 1906, for starting a protest in the lobby of the house of Commons. Holloway was central to their story, and it was the prison that held the largest number of women. A frequent campaigning rally cry being ‘remember our sisters at Holloway'. Convicted in 1912 for conspiracy to commit property damage Emmeline Pankhurst staged her first hunger strike to improve conditions for other suffragettes in nearby cells. Marion Wallace Dunlop – a sculptor and illustrator, went on hunger strike on 5 July 1909. Sent to Holloway for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen’s Hall in the house of Commons, she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) By that September forcible feeding was introduced, justified as ‘ordinary hospital treatment’ to save the women’s lives. ‘Over the next five years, this vicious circle of events was to shape the representation of the suffragette movement for years to come. Forcible feeding became particularly cruel and dangerous after the notorious Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 which allowed a hunger striking suffragette who became ill to be released into the community, in order to regain her health, only to be re-arrested when she was well enough to complete her sentence. The process often extended the period of the sentence. Many women, such as Grace Roe and Kitty Marion, were force fed more than 200 times. Some wrote accounts of their horrendous experiences for the WSPU organ the Suffragette or the few sympathetic newspapers that would print their story.’ Emily Wilding Davidson was sentenced to 6 months in prison at Holloway for arson. During this time she threw herself down a staircase in what she later described as an attempt to divert harm from her fellow suffragettes. Constance Lytton was a suffragette who campaigned for votes for women during the early twentieth century. The daughter of Lord Lytton, she was a member of Britain’s ruling class but was an avid suffrage campaigner who later also campaigned to improve the conditions of women in prison after she herself had been imprisoned in Holloway, Newcastle and Liverpool’s Walton gaol. She was imprisoned in Holloway in March 1909. During her incarceration she had attempted to carve the phrase ‘Votes for Women’ onto her skin, beginning over her heart and ending on her face. But, fearing blood poisoning, she was not able to complete this protest. She stated that she intended to show the part of the inscription she had done to the prison doctors as “appearances were respected by officials.” Her actions were thus an important example of how women in Holloway used their bodies to make political statements that communicated prison conditions but spoke to a much wider issue over women’s rights more generally. She was later arrested for further suffrage activities and imprisoned in Liverpool’s Walton gaol. She gave the name Jane Warton and thus her true identity, and social standing, were not known to the prison authorities as they had been during her time in Holloway. She went on hunger strike and, like several other suffragettes, she was force fed. Constance later recounted her prison experiences in detail in Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences, By Constance Lytton and Jane Warton (London: 1914). The suffragettes bombed Holloway Prison in 1913 “It is commonly assumed that suffragettes were middle-class women, “the educated and well-to-do”.Obviously working-class women, especially in comparison with leisured middle and upper-class women, would have less time and money to give to ‘The Cause’… Yet despite such difficulties, a number of poor WSPU women, like Minnie Baldock, served prison sentences. Indeed, even by 1912, 9 years after the WSPU was founded, Ethel Smyth found in Holloway more than a hundred women, “rich and poor ... young professional women ... countless poor women of the working class, nurses, typists, shop girls, and the like”. These working-class women would have to rub shoulders with their more elevated sisters, such as Miss Janie Allan, a millionairess of the Allan Line, Lord Kitchener’s niece Miss Parker, several cousins of Lord Haig’s, Mrs Barbara Ayrton Gould (daughter of Hertha Ayrton, the scientist who invented the safety lamp for miners) and Alice Morgan Wright, an American sculptress.”
Bennett, R. (2017). Personal Correspondence 4
Purvis, J. (1995). The prison experiences of the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain. Women's History Review, 4(1), pp.103-133.