Jane Purvis: Suffragettes in Prison




In this seminal article, Jane Purvis argues that - for different reasons - historians in the past have under-estimated the hardships that Suffragettes suffered in prison.   She shows how prison conditions were designed to de-humanise them and destroy their morale, and how particularly force-feeding was administered in such a way as to make it as awful as possible.   She reveals how, for the Suffragettes, it was a physical and spiritual violation akin to rape.



Historiography     Conditions     Horror-stories     Degradation and Violation     



from Jane Purvis, 'The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes', in Women's History Review (1995)






You can learn more about force feeding by following these links:


Hunger strikes


Case Studies

     Mary Leigh and others

     Lady Constance Lytton

     Selena Martin

     Ethel Moorhead


Historiography of Suffragettes in Prison

From 1905 until the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 about 1000 women were sent to prison because of their suffrage activities, most of these being members of the WSPU...   While these prison ‘experiences’ have not been ignored by historians, they have been discussed as a part of a broader account of the suffrage movement rather than focused upon in depth as a subject worthy of investigation.   Furthermore, a dominant narrative of these experiences has emerged which [asserts] that the women themselves were to blame for their often harsh prison experiences, including the pain of hunger

striking and forcible feeding....


       Early histories of the suffrage movement present a more sympathetic picture of prison life than many subsequent accounts.   Metcalfe, for example, writing in 1917, speaks of the “scenes of horror which had taken place in Holloway and other prisons ... in the unavailing effort to govern women against their consent”.   However, it is the history written by the

constitutional suffragist, Ray Strachey, a member of the NUWSS and hostile to the WSPU, that became the influential text.   Strachey blames the WSPU women themselves for the treatment they received...   Unwilling to acknowledge the hunger strike as a political tool, Strachey comments how the suffragettes, once in prison, ceased to be militant and created a number of protests including the refusal to eat food.   “Forcible feeding was tried in vain”, she continues; “the prisoners struggled so violently against it that the process became actually dangerous, and the prison officials were obliged to let them starve till they came to the edge of physical collapse, and then to let them go”.   In spite of the severe pain and damage to health which the process involved, “scores of suffragettes adopted it ... The officials tried everything they could think of in vain ...”.   This picture of irrational

women, deliberately seeking their own torture was eagerly seized upon by male historians who sought to ridicule the WSPU and its politics.    


       George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, first published in 1935, discusses the suffragette movement as...  a form of “pre-war lesbianism” of “daring ladies”...    Dangerfield too presents the suffragettes as fanatical women who chose the hardships of prison life in a sado-masochistic way ...    “How can one avoid the thought”, he questions, “that they sought these sufferings with an enraptured, a positively unhealthy pleasure?”   If the victim does not resist, “forcible feeding is no more than extremely unpleasant. But the suffragettes were determined to resist”.   In view of the fact that Dangerfield’s account contained no footnotes whatsoever to primary sources to support his claims, it is incredulous that his analysis was received so enthusiastically and became so influential.   The Times and Tribune, for example, hailed it as “brilliant”...


       Thus the scene of the drama is set and the props are changed only with slight variations.    Roger Fulford in 1957... mocked their prison experiences, claiming that solitary confinement in prison was “not always unwelcome to adults”.   Furthermore, although “forcible feeding is a disgusting topic ... it was not dangerous ... [It] is of course a familiar form of treatment in lunatic asylums”.   While Andrew Rosen is much more sympathetic to the women prisoners, he too, in a matter of fact way speaks of how forcible feeding involved mouths being prised open, lacerations, phlegm, vomiting, pain in various organs, loss of weight “and so on”...

       This dominant narrative was not always challenged in the ‘new’ feminist women’s history that was written after the advent of the Second Wave of feminism in Britain , Western Europe and the USA from the late 1960s.   In particular, in Britain, it was particularly socialist feminists who were active in researching women’s past.   And as socialists for whom capitalism, not patriarchy, was the key source of women’s oppression, the WSPU was easily dismissed as a bourgeois movement that failed to attract working-class women and to support working-class causes.   Sheila Rowbotham, for example, whose 1973 book, Hidden from History: 300 years of women’s oppression and the fight against, is commonly regarded as the catalyst for the growth of feminist history in Britain, criticises Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel for not thinking of mobilising women workers to strike, “but of making even more dramatic gestures”.



Conditions in Prison

Although prison conditions might vary, depending on the year in which the sentence was served and upon local variations and personnel, common admission procedures stripped the individual of self-identification.   On entry to Holloway in 1908, for example, the women were immediately called to silence by the wardresses, locked in reception cells, and then sent to the doctor before they were ordered to undress.   Once they had been searched to

make sure they concealed nothing, their own clothes were stored by the authorities and details requested about name, address, age, religion and profession and whether she could read, write and sew.   A bath was then taken.   Although each bather was separated from the next by a partition, low doors enabled wardresses to overlook such a private bodily function.   Once dried, the prisoner was told to dress herself from clothes lying in piles on the floor.   Second-class prisoners wore green serge dresses, third-class brown.   All had white caps, blue and white check aprons, and one big blue and white handkerchief a week.   Every garment was branded in several places, black on light things, white on dark, with a broad arrow.   Underclothing was coarse and ill-fitting; shoes were heavy and clumsy and rarely in pairs while the black thick and shapeless stockings, with red stripes going round the legs, had no garters or suspenders to keep them up.   On the way to her cell, the prisoner was given sheets for the bed, a toothbrush (if she asked for it), a Bible, prayer book and hymn book, a small book on ‘Fresh Air and Cleanliness’ and a tract entitled ‘The Narrow Way’.   Once in the cell, which might be about 9 feet high and either about 13 feet by 7 feet or 10 feet by 6 feet (Figure 2), she was given a yellow badge bearing the

number of her cell and the letter and number of its block in the prison.   From now until her release, the inmate would be known only by her cell’s number.  


      Prison regulations imposed a certain routine on daily life.   At this period in Holloway, for example, a waking up bell rang about 5.30, one and three-quarter hours before a breakfast consisting of a pint of sweet tea, a small brown loaf and two ounces of butter (which had to last all day) was handed to the prisoner in her cell.   Before the daily half an hour of chapel the prisoner had to empty her slops, scrub the floor and three planks that

formed her bedstead, fold up the bedclothes into a roll and stow them away with the mattress and pillow, and polish with soap and bath-brick the tin utensils of her cell.   ‘Inspection’ each day ensured that the task was done in the required manner.   In chapel and at the daily hour of exercise in a gravelled yard, talking was not permitted.   Lunch was at noon and a supper consisting of a pint of cocoa with thick grease on top plus a small brown loaf was taken at 5pm .   The electric light in the cell was controlled from outside and turned off at 8 in the evening.   During the first 4 weeks of imprisonment, the rest of the prisoner’s time was spent in her cell, which was often airless, especially in summer; a certain amount of ‘associated labour’ had to be undertaken, which might involve making nightgowns or knitting men’s socks.   Once a week a bath was taken and twice a week books could be borrowed from the poorly stocked prison library.   After 4 weeks, prisoners were allowed to take their needlework or knitting to the hall downstairs, which was more airy, and sit side by side, although talking was still forbidden.   Those serving one month

or less in the Second Division were not entitled to receive any visits from friends nor to have any correspondence with them.




Hunger striking and force feeding were acts committed by, and on, individuals in their own cells.   Whether force fed by a cup, tube through the nostril (the most common method) or tube down the throat into the stomach (the most painful), the individual suffragette struggled on her own and often feared damage to the mind or body.   Kitty Marion’s screaming in prison greatly upset the other women, but she found it was the only way she could fight against the torture of forcible feeding and remain sane.   Rachel Peace, an

embroideress, who had already experienced several nervous breakdowns, was not so fortunate. During a period of prolonged hunger striking and forcible feeding three times a day she feared, “I should go mad ... Old distressing symptoms have re-appeared. I have frightful dreams and am struggling with mad people half the night”.   Her fears became true when she “lost her reason in prison” and spent the rest of her life in and out of asylums, with Lady Constance Lytton, an upper-middle-class WSPU worker, maintaining her.    


       The forcible feeding of the disabled May Billinghurst in Holloway in January 1913 brought a particular wave of revulsion since she was “small, frail, and ha[d] been a cripple all her life”.   Paralysed as a child and confined to a tricycle for mobility, she told how the three doctors and five wardresses who held her down: forced a tube up my nostril; it was frightful agony, as my nostril is small.   I coughed it up so that it didn’t go down my throat.   They then were going to try the other nostril, which, I believe is a little deformed.   They forced my mouth open with an iron instrument, and poured some food into my mouth.   They pinched my nose and throat to make me swallow.   After 10 days of “almost incredible suffering”, when she was fed three times every 24 hours, she was released “a physical wreck”.   Margaret Thompson, in prison in 1912, had a facial disability, resulting from a car accident; after examining her face to see if it was “fit” for forcible feeding, the doctor decided she should be fed by the cup rather than the tube.   Miss McCrae, in prison at the same time, thought she too should take food through the cup, on account of her deafness, although she feared the other women would scorn her for doing so.   For women with disabilities such as those mentioned here, imprisonment and forcible feeding were particular acts of courage.   


       Age, too, would be another possible line of difference.   The three grandmothers, Mrs Heward, Mrs Boyd and Mrs Aldham, in Holloway in 1912, as well as the 78 year-old Mrs Brackenbury, may have found prison life especially tiring.   And older women generally may have been more prone to accidents.   A tall suffragette, “by no means young”, tripped and fell in a frosty exercise yard one morning and broke several bones – although this was not discovered until the day before her sentence expired



Degradation and Violation

For many of these women, the worst feature of prison life was the ‘public’ violation of their bodies when being forcibly fed.   Helen Gordon Liddle hated the lack of privacy when enduring the pain of forced feeding.   Nell Hall spoke of the “frightful indignity” of it all.    For Sylvia Pankhurst, the sense of degradation endured was worse than the pain of sore and bleeding gums, with bits of loose jagged flesh, the agony of coughing up the tube three or four times before it was successfully inserted, the bruising of her shoulders and the aching of her back.   Sometimes, when the struggle was over, or even in the heat of it, she felt as though she was broken up into many different selves, of which one, aloof and calm, surveyed all the misery, and one, ruthless and unswerving, forced the weak, shrinking body to its ordeal.   Although the word ‘rape’ is not used in the personal accounts of force fed victims, the instrumental invasion of the body, accompanied by overpowering physical force, great suffering and humiliation was akin to it, especially so for women fed through the rectum or vagina.    'Janet Arthur’, later identified as Fanny Parker, in Perth prison in 1914, was one such victim:


Thursday morning, 16th July ... the three wardresses appeared again.   One of them said that if I did not resist, she would send the others away and do what she had come to do as gently and as decently as possible.   I consented.   This was another attempt to feed me by the rectum, and was done in a cruel way, causing me great pain.   She returned some time later and said she had ‘something else’ to do.   I took it to be another attempt to feed me in the same way, but it proved to be a grosser and more indecent outrage, which could have been done for no other purpose than torture.   It was followed by soreness, which lasted for several days.


When released, a medical examination revealed swelling and rawness in the genital region.   The knowledge that new tubes were not always available and that used tubes may have been previously inflicted on diseased persons and the mentally ill or be dirty inside the tube, issues that had been openly discussed in Votes for Women, undoubtedly added to the feelings of abuse, dirtiness and indecency that the women felt.


Degradation and Violation