Women on Hunger Strike

Museum of London

Uncovering the horrifying story of suffragette hunger strikes, force feeding in prison, and the notorious Cat & Mouse Act.

Released Suffragette Prisoners, World's Graphic Press Limited, 1911, From the collection of: Museum of London
Hunger strikes
The Suffragette prisoners’ hunger strike protest remains one of the most poignant and disturbing aspects of the struggle for the vote. Suffragettes refused to eat and often drink while imprisoned, threatening to starve themselves to force a response from the authorities. 
Marion Wallace Dunlop, c. 1909, From the collection of: Museum of London

This ultimate form of prison protest did not, however, originate from WSPU headquarters but rather was initially the lone action of the Suffragette, Marion Wallace Dunlop. In 1909 Marion was sent to Holloway on a charge of wilfully and maliciously damaging the stonework of the House of Commons.

Classified as a second division criminal prisoner she went on hunger strike in protest against not being placed in the first division as a political prisoner.

Evening Standard billboard: 'Let them starve', 1914, From the collection of: Museum of London

Following Marion’s lead, other Suffragette prisoners quickly adopted the hunger-strike.

Olive Wharry on her release from Holloway prison, 1913, From the collection of: Museum of London

Initially the protest resulted in the release of the prisoners as soon as they showed signs of weakness.

Lillian Hickling, 1912-1914, From the collection of: Museum of London
Tortured Women: What forcible feeding means, Women's Social and Political Union, G. Oliver and Company Ltd, 1914, From the collection of: Museum of London

Very soon, however, the authorities decided to introduce force-feeding.

The WSPU issued graphic illustrations and descriptions of women struggling and being restrained whilst a tube was forced down their throat or up their nose.

These shocking revelations caused considerable public concern at such brutal treatment by the authorities on vulnerable women.

Tortured Women: What forcible feeding means, Women's Social and Political Union, G. Oliver and Company Ltd, 1914, From the collection of: Museum of London

Very soon, however, the authorities decided to introduce force-feeding.

The WSPU issued graphic illustrations and descriptions of women struggling and being restrained whilst a tube was forced down their throat or up their nose.

These shocking revelations caused considerable public concern at such brutal treatment by the authorities on vulnerable women.

The Suffragette, 1913, From the collection of: Museum of London
Embroidered panel of signatures worked in Holloway prison, 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London

Suffragette Janie Terrero embroidered the names of her fellow hunger strikers imprisoned in Holloway in 1912.

Hugh Franklin, Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement, 1910-1911, From the collection of: Museum of London

Male supporters of Votes for Women also used the hunger strike tactic. Hugh Franklin, a member of the Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement, went on hunger strike while imprisoned in Pentonville.

The Suffragette, 1913-07-04, From the collection of: Museum of London

In 1913 the Government, fearing the death of a hunger-striking prisoner, passed the Prisoner's (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act.

The Act became known by Suffragettes as the Cat & Mouse Act.

It allowed hunger striking Suffragettes to be released from prison on licence when weak, then taken back into prison to serve the remainder of their sentence when their health improved or they re-appeared in public.

Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act Licence, 1913, From the collection of: Museum of London
Advertising poster for The Suffragette newspaper, Women's Social and Political Union, Allen, David, 1914, From the collection of: Museum of London
Suffragette holding a Prisoner's (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, 1913, From the collection of: Museum of London

However, many Suffragettes took the opportunity of freedom to remain on the run from the authorities taking refuge in a number of safe houses.

Once recovered, they emerged unnoticed to undertake more militant 'outrages'.

Some Suffragettes, including Kitty Marion, brazenly left their Cat & Mouse Act licence at the scene of arson attacks, with personal details removed.

Silver Hunger Strike medal presented to Emily Katherine Willoughby Marshall, Toye & Co., Moore, Joseph, 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London

The WSPU leadership rewarded Suffragette prisoners with a range of military style campaign medals.

Those who served terms of imprisonment with hunger-strike were presented with Hunger Strike medals at breakfast receptions on their release.

Letter on WSPU notepaper from Mabel Tuke, 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London
Silver hunger strike medal presented to Kate Lilley, Toye & Co., 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London
Silver Hunger Strike Medal presented to Florence Haig, 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London

Silver bars on the medal represented periods of hunger-strike, whilst the enamel bars represented periods of force-feeding.

Silver Holloway medal presented to Kate Lilley, 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London

A second Holloway medal was engraved with the prison wing and cell number occupied by Suffragettes.

Holloway brooch designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, Toye & Co., 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London

Prisoners were also entitled to the Holloway medal, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The silver and enamel brooch incorporates the portcullis emblem of the House of Commons and a central broad prisoner’s arrow in purple, white and green enamel.

It was first presented to ex-suffragette prisoners at a mass demonstration at the Albert Hall on 29 April 1909.

Silver hunger strike medal presented to Emmeline Pankhurst, 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London

One of the most iconic objects in the Museum’s collection is the hunger strike medal presented to the Suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst.

The medal refers to a two month prison sentence with hunger-strike served by Emmeline in 1912 for throwing a stone at a window of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence.

Whilst in Holloway, Emmeline was also charged with ‘conspiring to incite certain persons to commit malicious damage to property’ and sentenced to a further nine months’ imprisonment.

Rearrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913, From the collection of: Museum of London

The following year, in April 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst received her final prison sentence of three years penal servitude for incitement to place an explosive in a building at Walton, Surrey.

She again went on hunger strike and was subsequently released from Holloway after several days.

On her recovery, she was rearrested under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act and thus began a pattern of hunger strike, release, recuperation and re-arrest that continued until the end of July, when the police finally decided not to re-arrest her.

Emmeline Pankhurst recuperating from hunger strike, 1913, From the collection of: Museum of London

During each period of recuperation from hunger strike Emmeline Pankhurst found refuge in a number of safe houses and was always nursed back to health by her nurse Catherine Pine.

Unlike her fellow Suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst was never force-fed by the authorities. This brutal and invasive treatment was regarded as too controversial to inflict on such a high profile leader who, by this time, was in her 50s.

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