Suffragette Lady Constance Lytton Goes on Hunger Strike

views updated

Suffragette Lady Constance Lytton Goes on Hunger Strike

Book excerpt

By: Constance Lytton

Date: 1914

Source: Scheffler, Judith A., ed. Wall Tappings: Women's Prison Writings, 200 A.D. to the Present. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2002.

About the Author: Constance Lytton was the daughter of Robert, Earl of Lytton and Viceroy to India, where Constance Lytton lived for the first eleven years of her life. Angered by her mother's refusal to permit her to marry a man beneath her social status, Constance Lytton devoted herself to women's suffrage and birth control rights campaigns. Lytton wrote the book Prison and Prisoners, describing her experience as a member of the Women's Social and Political Union and her work for suffrage.


The issue of female suffrage in Britain gained the attention of many women from the upper classes, well-educated and financially stable women who watched as women's suffrage efforts in the United States, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands gained steam throughout the last few decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. An 1885 British law gave most men over the age of twenty-one the right to vote; in 1887, seventeen smaller women's rights societies merged to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The NUWSS organized women for letter campaigns, appeals to Parliament, the creation of publications on the issue of female suffrage, and focused on other social issues as well. Part of NUWSS's goal was to demonstrate female political engagement while arguing that women deserved the right to vote.

In 1903, Emmaline Pankhurst and five other women joined to form the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a suffrage organization that used more radical means to gain attention for the issue of the female vote. Like the clash between the more conservative National American Women's Suffrage Association and the radical National Women's Party in the United States, NUWSS and the WSPU argued over the best approach to gain women the vote. The WSPU broke windows in government buildings, shouted down government officials during public speeches, and held large demonstrations which deteriorated into violence, leading to the suffragettes' arrest.

In 1909, one of the imprisoned WSPU members, Marion Dunlop, refused to eat while imprisoned. Prison officials released her as her hunger strike gained media attention. Other suffragettes joined in organized hunger strikes; as law enforcement officials struggled to balance the women's safety with the creation of these women as political martyrs, prison officials settled on a policy of force-feeding. Suffragettes such as Emmaline Pankhurst and American Alice Paul endured such force-feedings; the press covered the events and the public clamored for the women's release. WSPU continued to use violence against personal and government property, hunger strikes, and public intimidation against politicians and government officials who blocked women's right to vote.

Constance Lytton joined WSPU in 1908 or 1909; a young woman of privilege forbidden to marry a man of lower social status whom she loved, Lytton joined the WSPU with a commitment to helping forward the cause of female suffrage and women's rights in general. In 1909, Lytton was arrested during a WSPU protest in the House of Commons; British officials released her when they learned she was the daughter of the Earl of Lytton, Viceroy to India. Angered by her special treatment, Constance Lytton adopted the pseudonym "Jane Warton" for future protests.


Disguised as Jane Warton.

From Prisons and Prisoners, 1914.

Under a Government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man (or woman) is also a prison. [—Henry David Thoreau]

I was sent to Liverpool and Manchester to join in working an Anti-Government campaign during a General Election in January, 1910. Just before I went, there came the news of the barbarous ill-treatment of Miss Selina Martin and Miss Leslie Hall, while on remand in Walton Gaol. They had been refused bail, and, while awaiting their trial, their friends were not allowed to communicate with them. This is contrary to law and precedent for prisoners on remand. As a protest they had started a hunger strike. They were fed by force, in answer to which they broke the windows of their cells. They were put in irons for days and nights together, and one of them was frog-marched in the most brutal fashion to and from the room where the forcible feeding was performed. These facts they made known to their friends at the police court on the day of their trial.

I heard, too, of another prisoner in Liverpool, Miss Bertha Brewster, who had been re-arrested after her release from prison, and charged with breaking the windows of her prison cell, which she had done as a protest against being fed by force. She had been punished for this offence while in prison. She did not respond to the summons, and when arrested on a warrant, three and a half months later, she was sentenced to six weeks' hard labour for this offence.

I felt a great wish to be in Liverpool, if possible, to get public opinion in that town to protest against such treatment of women political prisoners. If I failed in this, I determined myself to share the fate of these women.

When I was in Manchester, Mary Gawthorpe was ill with the internal complaint which has since obliged her to give up work. She saw me in her room one day. We had been distressed beyond words to hear of the sufferings of Selina Martin and Leslie Hall. Mary Gawthorpe said, with tears in her eyes, as she threw her arms round me: "Oh, and these are women quite unknown—nobody knows or cares about them except their own friends. They go to prison again and again to be treated like this, until it kills them!" That was enough. My mind was made up. The altogether shameless way I had been preferred against the others at Newcastle, except Mrs. Brailsford who shared with me the special treatment, made me determine to try whether they would recognise my need for exceptional favours without my name.…

I joined the W.S.P.U. (1) again, filling up the membership card as Miss Jane Warton. The choice of a name had been easy. When I came out of Holloway Prison, a distant relative, by name Mr. F. Warburton, wrote me an appreciative letter, thanking me for having been a prisoner in this cause. I should take the name of Warburton. When I went to Newcastle, my family raised no objection. Now nobody was to know of my disguise, but Warburton was too distinguished a name; that would at once attract attention. I must leave out the "bur" and make it "Warton." "Jane" was the name of Joan of Arc (for Jeanne is more often translated into "Jane" than "Joan") and would bring me comfort in distress. A family sympathetic to our cause, who lived in the suburb near Walton Gaol, were informed that a keen member, Miss Warton, would call at their house in the afternoon before the protest meeting to investigate the outside of the gaol and the governor's house by daylight, and that she was ready to be arrested if she could not obtain the release of the prisoners.…

At last the longed-for moment had arrived, and I was taken off to my cell. To my joy there was a window which opened a little bit; at night it was lit by a gas jet that was set in the depth of the wall behind the door, the passage side, and covered in by a thick glass. I was ever so tired—I laid down and slept.

The next day was Sunday (January 16), but they did not ask us to go to chapel. For several days I did not wear my cap and apron in my cell, but did not in other ways continue my protest against the clothes. The cold seemed to me intense, and I wore the skirt of my dress fastened round my neck for warmth. The Governor, accompanied by the Matron, came to see me, but he was in a temper about our having broken his windows, so I said nothing. He was in a fury at the way I had fastened my skirt. I answered that it was for warmth and that I would gladly put on more clothes and warmer ones if he gave them to me. Later on the Senior Medical Officer came in. He was a short, fat, little man, with a long waxed moustache. I should have said he disliked being unkind; he liked the chaff over things; but as I looked at him I thought I would rather be forcibly fed by anyone in the world than by him, the coarse doctors at Newcastle and the cross little doctor I had seen the night before. I said I had not asked to see him, but he made no examination and asked no questions.

I lay on my bed most of the day, for they did not disturb me, and I tried to keep warm, as I felt the cold fearfully. They brought me all my meals the same as usual, porridge in the morning at 7, meat and potatoes mid-day at twelve, porridge at 4:30. When they were hot I fed on the smell of them, which seemed quite delicious; I said "I don't want any, thank you," to each meal, as they brought it in. I had made up my mind that this time I would not drink any water, and would only rinse out my mouth morning and evening without swallowing any. I wrote on the walls of my cell with my slate pencil and soap mixed with the dirt of the floor for ink, "Votes for Women," and the saying from Thoreau's Duty of Civil Disobedience— "Under a Government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man (or woman) is also a prison".… [I dreamt] of a moonlit balcony that was hung with sweetest smelling flowers, honeysuckle and Jessamine, apple-blossom and sweet scented verbena; thee was only the sound of night birds throbbing over the hills that ranged themselves below the balcony. On it there slept my sister-in-law, and on the balustrade, but making no noise, was a figure awake and alert, which was my brother. My dream was of a land which was seen by my father in his poem of "King Poppy," where the princess and the shepherd boy are the types etherealized. I woke suddenly. I could sleep a little in detached moments, but this dream had made the prison cell beautiful to me; it had a way out.

The strain was great of having to put on my shoes, which were too small, every time I was taken out of my cell to empty slops or to see the Governor. The Matron was shocked that I did not put the right heel in at all and every day I was given another pair, but they were all alike in being too small for my right foot.

The next day, Monday (January 17) the wardress took my bed and bedding away because I would not make it up, but lay on it in the daytime. I told her if she wished she must roll me off, but that I did not intend voluntarily to give it up. She was quite amiable, but rolled me towards the wall and took the bed and bedding from underneath me. There was a little table in my cell which was not fastened to the wall. I turned it upside down and was able to sit in it with my body resting against one of the legs. It was very uncomfortable, but I felt too ill to sit up in the chair, and the concrete floor was much too cold without the bed. Every now and then I got up and walked backwards and forwards in the cell to get a little warmth into me. The Chaplain came in for a moment. He was a tall, good-looking man, of the burly, healthy sort. It seemed to me, from his talk, that he would be very well suited to be a cricket match or football parson, if there were such a thing, but he was totally unsuited to be the Chaplain of a prison, or anyhow of a woman's prison. He thought it wise to speak to me as a "Suffragette." "Look here, it's no good your thinking that there's anything to be done with the women here—the men sometimes are not such bad fellows, and there are many who write to me after they've left here, but the women, they're all as bad as bad can be, there's absolutely no good in them." I did not answer, but I felt inclined to say "Then good-bye to you, since you say you can do no good with the women here."

Presently an officer came and led me out. The manner of nearly all the officers was severe; one or two were friends but most of them treated me like dirt. I was shown along the gangway of the ward, which seemed to me very large, much larger than the D X at Holloway, and went into various directions like a star. It was warm, there were hot pipes against which I was made to stand with my back to the wall, and for a moment, as I put my feet to rest on the pipes, I could think of nothing else but the delight of their heat. The Governor was very cross. I had decided not to do the days on bread and water. He would not let me speak to him at all and I was led out, but, before I had got to my cell, I was called back into his presence. "I hear you are refusing to take your food, so it's three days in a special cell." I was taken out and down a staircase till we reached the ground floor. I think my cell was two stories above, but I am not sure; then down again and into a short passage that looked as if it was underground, with a window at the top seemingly only just level with the ground. The door of a cell was opened, I was put inside and the door locked. It was larger than the cell upstairs, and the jug, basin, etc., were all made of black gutta-percha, not of tin, placed on the floor. This would have been bad for the ordinary prisoner, as it was quite impossible to tell whether the eating things were clean or not and, in any case, it smelt fairly strong of gutta-percha; but as the rule for me was neither to eat nor drink, I was able to put up with it well. The bed was wider than an ordinary plank bed and nailed to the ground, so that I was able to lie on it without being disturbed. Best of all was the fact that it was nearer to the heating apparatus and so seemed quite warm when I was led in. I did not notice at first that the window did not open, but when I had been there six or seven hours it became wonderfully airless. I only left my cell for minutes at a time, when I was allowed to draw water, and the air of the corridor then seemed fresh as mountain air by comparison. I had an idea that Elsie Howey or some of the others would have been put into a punishment cell too. I called, but in vain, my voice had grown weak and my tongue and throat felt thick as a carpet, probably from not drinking anything. I tried signaling with raps on the wall, "No surrender—no surrender," Mrs. Leigh's favourite motto, but I was never sure of corresponding raps, though sometimes I thought I heard them. I could not sleep for more than about an hour at a time, my legs drew up into a cramped position whenever I went off and the choking thickness in my mouth woke me.

Tuesday, January 18, I was visited again by the Senior Medical Officer, who asked me how long I had been without food. I said I had eaten a buttered scone and banana sent in by friends to the police station on Friday at about midnight. He said "Oh, then, this is the fourth day; that is too long, I shall have to feed you, I must feed you at once," but he went out and nothing happened till about six o'clock in the evening when he returned with, I think, five war-dresses and the feeding apparatus. He urged me to take food voluntarily. I told him that was absolutely out of the question, that when our legislators ceased to resist enfranchising women then I should cease to resist taking food in prison. He did not examine my heart nor feel my pulse; he did not ask to do so, nor did I say anything which could possibly induce him to think I would refuse to be examined. I offered no resistance to being placed in position, but lay down voluntarily on the plank bed. Two of the war-dresses took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food.… The sense of being overpowered by more force than I could possibly resist was complete, but I resisted nothing except with my mouth. The doctor offered me the choice of a wooden or steel gag; he explained elaborately, as he did on most subsequent occasions, that the steel gag would hurt and the wooden one not, and he urged me not to force him to use the steel gag. But I did not speak nor open my mouth, so after playing about for a moment or two with the wooden one he finally had to recourse to the steel. He seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he plied my teeth with the steel implement. He found that on either side at the back I had false teeth mounted on a bridge which [he] did not take out. The superintending wardress asked if I had any false teeth, if so, that they must be taken out; I made no answer and the process went on. He dug his instrument down on to the sham tooth, it pressed fearfully on the gum. He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would have to feed me through the nose. The pain of it was intense and at last I must have given way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they cold go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet in length. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had got down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the war-dresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses, and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out. As the doctor left he gave me slap on the cheek, not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval and he seemed to take for granted that my distress was assumed. At first it seemed such an utterly contemptible thing to have done that I could only laugh in my mind. Then suddenly I saw Jane Warton lying before me, and it seemed as if I were outside of her. She was the most despised, ignorant and helpless prisoner that I had seen. When she had served her time and was out of the prison, no one would believe anything she said, and the doctor when he had fed her by force and tortured her body, struck her on the cheek to show how he despised her! That was Jane Warton, and I had come to help her.

When the doctor had gone out of the cell, I lay quite helpless. The wardresses were kind and knelt round to comfort me, but there was nothing to be done, I could not move, and remained there in what, under different conditions, would have been an intolerable mess. I had been sick over my hair, which, though short, hung on either side of my face, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with it, but the wardresses told me they could not get me a change that night as it was too late, the office was shut. I lay quite motionless, it seemed paradise to be without the suffocating tube, without the liquid food going in and out of my body and without the gag between my teeth. Presently the wardresses all left me, they had orders to go, which were carried out with the usual promptness. Before long I heard the sounds of the forced feeding in the cell next to mine. It was almost more than I could bear, it was Elsie Howey, I was sure. When the ghastly process was over and all quiet, I tapped on the wall and called out at the top of my voice, which wasn't much just then, "No surrender," and there came the answer past any doubt in Elsie's voice, "No surrender." After this I fell back and lay as I fell. It was not very long before the wardress came and announced that I was to go back upstairs as, because of the feeding, my time in the punishment cell was over. I was taken into the same cell which I had before; the long hours till morning were a nightmare of agonized dread for a repetition of the process.

The next day, Wednesday, January 19, they brought me clean clothes. When the wardresses were away at breakfast I determined to break the thick glass of my gas jet to show what I thought of the forcible feeding, it seemed the last time I should have the strength required. I took one of my shoes, which always lay at my side except when I moved from my cell, let it get a good swing by holding it at the back of my shoulder and then hurled it against the glass with all the strength that I had. The glass broke in pieces with a great smashing sound. The two wardresses, who were in charge of the whole ward while the others were away, came into my cell together; I was already back in my bed. They were young, new to the work, and look rather frightened. I told them I had done it with a shoe, and why. "But that is enough," I said, "I am not going to do any more now." This reassured them and they both laughed. They took away the shoes as "dangerous," and brought me the slippers instead, and, to my intense relief, I never saw them again. As the morning wore on, one after the other of the officials proclaimed that I had done a shameful thing. On being changed to the cell next door, one of the head wardresses—I never made out exactly who she was—was in a great temper. I had told her, as I did every one of the officials, why I had broken my gas jet. "Broken it, yes, I should just think you had, indeed. And all that writing scribbled over your cell; can't keep the place decent." "I'm so sorry," I said; "I assure you there was nothing indecent in what I wrote on the wall." "No, not indecent, but—" she hesitated and, as the words would not come to her assistance, the remark remained unfinished.

I had not been long in the other cell before the doctor and four or five wardresses appeared. He was apparently angry because I had broken the jet glass; he seized one of the tin vessels and began waiving it about. 'I suppose you want to smash me with one of these?" he exclaimed. I said to him, so that all the wardresses with him could hear, "Unless you consider it part of your duty, would you please not strike me when you have finished your odious job" (or I may have said "slap me," I do not remember). He did not answer, but, after a little pause, he signed me to lie down on the bed. Again the choice of the wooden or steel implement, again the force, which after a time I could not withstand, in the same place as yesterday where the gum was sore and aching. Then the feeling of the suffocating tube thrust down and the gate of life seemed shut. The tube was pressed down much too far, it seemed to me, causing me at times great pain in my side. The sickness was worse than the time before. As the tube was removed I was unavoidably sick over the doctor. He flew away from me and out of the cell, exclaiming angrily, "If you do that again next time I shall feed you twice." I had removed my serge jacket and taken several precautions for my bed, but I am afraid one or two of the officers and the floor and wall were drenched. I shut my eyes and lay back quite helpless for a while. They presently brought in fresh clothes, and a woman, another prisoner, came and washed the floor. It seemed terrible that another prisoner should do this, it was altogether a revolting business. Two wardresses came and overlooked her work, one of them said, in a voice of displeased authority: "Look at her! Just look at her! The way she's doing it!" The woman washed on and took no notice; her face was intensely sad. I roused myself and said, "Well at any rate, she's doing what I should be doing myself and I am very grateful to her." The wardresses looked surprised at me but they said nothing.…

That day I thought I would clean my window.… Though the day was generally spent in loneliness, I knew that I might be visited at any hour, so I put off till about 3:30, when the ward was generally quiet for a time. All the furniture in the cell was movable, so I placed the table in front of the window and the chair on the top, then I climbed up. Through the small part of the window that opened I looked down, and in a beautiful red glow of the sinking sun I saw a sight that filled my very soul with joy, In the gloaming light—it was an exercise ground that I looked down upon—I saw walking round, all alone, a woman in her prisoner's dress, and in her arms she carried another little prisoner, a baby done up in a blanket. I was too high up to hear her, but I could see distinctly that she cooed and laughed to her little companion, and perhaps she sang to it too. I never saw maternal love more naturally displayed. The worlds of the Chaplain came back to my mind—"The woman, they're all as bad as bad can be, there's absolutely no good in them." No good in them! And yet amongst them there was this little woman who, at least, loved her child and played with it as only a motherheart can!

I got down and put the table and chair in their place; I felt amazed, having seen a sight as beautiful as the most beautiful picture in the world.

  1. Women's Social and Political Union.—Ed.


Constance Lytton's two experiences in prison stand in stark contrast to each other. As Lady Lytton she was released immediately, while as "Jane Warton" her lack of noble identity led to her experiences being force fed, treated poorly by doctors, and to an understanding of how fellow suffragettes suffered in prison.

Once prison officials learned that "Jane Warton" was really Constance Lytton, she was released immediately. Lytton had been sickly as a child, and her health was compromised by her fourteen days in prison. In spite of her health problems, Lytton toured the country, lecturing on her prison experiences; her wealth, connections, and status as the daughter of an Earl gained her an audience of peers with influence and power. The practice of force-feeding hunger strikers ended soon after her lecture tours began.

Within a year of her prison experience Lytton was arrested once more for breaking windows during a suffragette protest; her poor health led authorities to release her, and in 1912, she suffered a stroke that included partial paralysis on her right side. In spite of the paralysis she wrote the book Prison and Prisoners. In 1918, Britain granted the vote to all women aged thirty and above. Constance Lytton died in 1923, five years before the minimum age for female voters was changed to twenty-one, the same qualification for male voters.



Buele, Mary Jo and Paul Buehle. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from History of Woman Suffrage. University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Felder, Deborah G. A Century of Women: The Most Influential Events in Twentieth-Century Women's History. Kensington Publishing Corp., 1999.

Fletcher, Ian Christopher and Laura E. Nym Mayhall et al. Women's Suffrage in the British Empire; Citizenship, Nation and Race. Routledge, 2000.

Holton, Sandra Stanley. Feminism and Democracy: Women's Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900–1918. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

About this article

Suffragette Lady Constance Lytton Goes on Hunger Strike

Updated About content Print Article