In 2018, coinciding with major celebrations and events nationwide, Blott Studio hosted ‘Marking the Martyrs’ exhibition, which opened on June 4th to mark the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the first martyr to the Suffrage cause. I was privileged to work as assistant curator on the project and exhibit pieces alongside the other illustrious artists, Corrine Streetly, Hazel Reeves, Sarah Maple, Jo Harrison and Zoe Cox.
Further information about Marking the Martyrs can be found on the Facebook page
Emily Wilding Davison (b.1872) joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in November 1906, and was described by Sylvia Pankhurst as “one of the most daring and reckless of the militants”. Her many militant actions led her down a path of much suffering, including imprisonment, forcible feeding, and ultimately, to her untimely death on 8th June 1913. At Epsom Derby, June 4th, Emily stepped out in front of the oncoming horses, and was hit by King George V’s horse, Anmer, dying four days later from her injuries. In ‘Emily’s Gaze’ I aimed to play with the tension between an invoked sense of a forgotten past and a present, engaging gaze.
What would Emily be saying to us today?
On the 18th November 1910, 300 members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), marched on London’s House of Commons, after discovering that the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, who was deeply hostile to women’s suffrage, had announced that no more time would be given to a bill that would give some women the vote. When they arrived they were met by ranks of police and during six hours of protest they were purportedly thrown to the ground, kicked, beaten with batons and punched. Some also reported being sexually assaulted by police and other males in the crowd. 115 of the women, and 4 men, were arrested, but all charges were dropped and the government attempted to cover up any evidence of police brutality. Interviews carried out with 135 demonstrators brought to light accounts of acts of violence against the women, 29 statements included sexual assault, and 2 later deaths, in part, were attributed to the actions of the police on the day. In a tactical response to this, and the fact that forced feeding had come into practice in prisons, the Suffragettes increased their militant action.F
Fermenting Feminism, 2018. Sculpture – Air-dry clay, metal pole, glass demijohns, coloured water, resin, PVC siphon tubing, wood.
In ‘Fermenting Feminism’ I aimed to highlight both the cruelty of force-feeding and the subsequent strengthened resolve of those who endured it. The head of the Suffragette is impaled on a spike, not only to symbolise the horror of the procedure, but also to highlight that, as with impalement, it was also carried out as a form of deterrent. The head has been constructed from air-dry clay, and, due to the atmospheric changes between the controlled setting of a cool, damp, studio space and the warm, dry exhibition space, it may spontaneously crack during the course of the exhibition. The fissures that may begin to appear will represent the breaking down of the resolve of the ‘head’, whilst ‘dignity’, ‘purity’ and ‘hope’ (in the form of the coloured liquids, and what the colours represented for the Suffragettes) continue to pump from the ‘heart’ of the Suffragette.
During the exhibition’s opening event I played The Wardress. Some of the Suffragettes wrote about wardresses comforting them during their ordeals in prison, holding them when they cried and showing compassion. However, paradoxically, these same female staff would also be holding the women down during the horrendous periods of forcible feeding. As The Wardress I seek to make the audience question this dual morality, and also get a feeling of what it must have been like to be faced with a feeding tube.
Forcible Feeding & The Cat & Mouse Act.
The practice of hunger strikes and forcible feeding, common among imprisoned Suffragettes, did long-term damage to their physical and mental health. Eventually, Asquith’s government rushed the Prisoners Act through Parliament in 1913 to enable the release of Suffragettes who were ill or weak from being on hunger strike. However the act soon became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, as once an ill Suffragette regained their health they were rearrested, and the distasteful release and re-imprisonment resembled that of a cat playing with a mouse.
Up until the outbreak of World War 1 around 1000 Suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain, many of whom endured forcible feeding.
In 1909 Marion Wallace Dunlop became the first militant Suffragette to refuse food as a form of protest after being denied political prisoner status. She was released after 92 hours of hunger strike for fear she would die and become a martyr, after this it became common place for Suffragettes to refuse food as a non-violent form of protest. The government, not prepared to release all suffragettes, began forcible feeding in the same year. The forcible-feedings were horrendous and injured many of the suffragettes, including:
Mary Clarke, Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, was arrested for window smashing after ‘Black Friday’, and held in HM Prison Holloway where she was force-fed. She died a few days after her release 26th December 1910, as a result of a burst blood vessel on the brain. She was described in her obituary by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence as “the first woman martyr who has gone to death for this cause”.
Lilian Lenton, imprisoned after being accused of arson, was force-fed through a tube in her nose, and contracted septic pneumonia and pleurisy as a result of the liquid entering her lungs.
Mary Richardson, developed appendicitis during her time in prison and attributed it to the brutal treatment received whilst force-fed.
First hand accounts of being forcibly fed
“You want to know what it was like? I don’t like talking about it but the bally game was that they wriggled a rubber tube up your nose and poured liquid through a funnel into your stomach. I always shut my eyes during these things. But I started coughing and coughing to bring up the liquid they poured in. I suddenly experienced intolerable and intense pain. I was later told that I had pleurisy. I wrote home: “Doing well. Pleurisy. But doing well!”
“Two of the women (wardresses) took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth. The sense of being overpowered by more force that 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 that the steel gag would hurt and the wooden one would not, and he urged me not to force him to use the steel one. 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 recourse to the steel. The pain of it was intense; 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 could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet long. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had gone 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 wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I had been sick over my hair, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with vomit. The wardresses told me that they could not get a change (of clothes) as it was too late, the office was shut.”
“Forcible feeding is to my mind one of the worst forms of torture imaginable. The attack is brutal, the method, primitive.
When I was first forcibly fed I offered only passive resistance, but after a few days the process became so degrading, so morally staining to me, as well as increasingly painful, that I was obliged to resist.
The struggle with ten wardresses is severe and in it the arms and legs are twisted, and the hands badly cut by the wardresses’ nails
After these ten wardresses had overcome me and thrown me violently on the bed, three of them lay full weight across my legs.
My knees are still painful and I cannot go up and down stairs without difficulty. On several occasions wardresses fell on top of me on the floor, once, so severely injuring my ribs that I could not lie in bed on my left side for several days. Twice my head was thrown against the wall of the cell, owing to my feet being taken from under me violently. My face was blackened and swollen from this, even after my release from prison.
The process of driving the tube through the nose is very terrible, as the tube is usually too large for the nasal cavity, and when there appears to be any obstruction, more and more violent pushing is resorted to. On one occasion Dr Pearson almost tore my nose in his repeated efforts to force the tube through the opening, merely because he did not take pains to locate the nasal-throat cavity carefully. When I remonstrated, he replied, “There is congestion, and I must force it through”.
After thirty times of nasal feeding, my face, eyes and nose were so swollen and bruised that Dr Pearson brought in a Home Office specialist and after consultation he announced that he would feed me by the throat tube thereafter. I refused to be so fed and set my teeth together, whereupon he ran his second finger through my lips, cutting them, and then, finding the extremity of my jaw, he deliberately cut my cheek with his finger nail. I cried out at his cruelty, but he continued until, in agony, my teeth were parted, and a metal spring gag inserted, followed by the feeding-tube.
By this time the blood from my cheek and gums was running from the corner of my mouth, down my neck into my clothing, and I began to choke violently, so violently that both doctors present looked alarmed, and one said “Don’t do that!” in a mocking fashion, and the other, “Imagine its macaroni you are taking!”
The pain of the operation was beyond my endurance. I was driven almost mad by it, and springing up off the bed (when they had left off holding I ran out of my cell, in front of the wardress. It was at that point that Pearson said I was in “a dangerous state of mind” and must be treated [accordingly], with the result that they refused to open my cell door when I needed anything, and contented themselves with shouting at me from [without] as they would a lunatic.
The following day, at the feeding hour, Dr Pearson told me he had decided to the nasal feeding, and I was fed accordingly, until discharged four days later owing to an attack of appendicitis. This was bought on by the “hospital treatment” I had been receiving, but more especially by the brutality of one particular wardress, who had taken pleasure, it seemed, in paining me in the body by digging her knuckles into me, even after the struggle, during the feeding process.
My shoulders were worn sore after three days forcible feeding, and continued in a bleeding condition until my release.
Sleeplessness is an accompaniment of the hunger strike, but more especially of forcible feeding, when one suffers from horrible nightmares and this in spite of the fact that medicines containing drugs to quiet the nerves are administered. When first noticing the fact that I was being given curious mixtures before being fed, I asked what I was being given, and complained that it burned my stomach and smelt of ammonia. The doctor’s reply to me was, “That is my business”, and thereafter the medicine was poured from an opaque glass, that I might not see it. I mention this because I believe the use of drugs will play a more important part in Holloway in the immediate future, for Mr. McKenna knows that to even temporarily check the Suffragette defiance of physical torture he must introduce something to deaden the minds of his defiant prisoners. He fully realises that it is in the mind that Suffragette lives and moves and has her being, he fully realises the use of drugs in this connection.
It is therefore more than a wish or desire, it is an entreaty from me that you will stop this prison torture before this last stage of satanic statecraft is reached; this last fiendish element added to the torture of suffragist prisoners.”
Sylvia E Pankhurst
Excerpt from Forcibly Fed: The Story of my four weeks in Holloway goal. McClure’s magazine, Aug 1913, pp 87-93.
“About half past nine that first morning, the doctor came to me and saw the breakfast tea and bread and butter lying untouched. He pointed to it and said: “Will you not reconsider?” I answered, “No”. Then he felt my pulse and sounded my heart, and went away.
At twelve o’clock a wardress brought me a chop, some potatoes and cabbage, and some milk pudding. At five came supper; bread, butter, an egg, and a pint of milk. I left them all untasted, and sat reading the Bible hour after hour. I had nothing else to do.
So two days passed. I felt constantly a little hungry, but never for one moment did I wish to eat a morsel. I was very cold, partly, I suppose, from want of food, partly because the temperature of the cell was very low, the hot water pipe, the only means of heating, having little warmth in it. I sat with my feet on the hot-water pipe, wearing a woollen dress, a thick knitted woollen sweater, a long cloth coat, and with thick woollen gloves on my hands; but still I was cold.
On the morning of the third day I was taken out into the corridor to be weighed, and some time afterwards the two doctors came into my cell to sound my heart again. They said: “Will you eat your food?” And, when I said, “No”..”Then we have only one alternative, to feed by force.”
They went. I was trembling with agitation, feverish with fear and horror, determined to fight with all my strength and to prevent by some means this outrage of forcible feeding. I did not know what to do. Ideas flashed through my mind, but none seemed of any use.
I gathered together in a little clothes basket my walking-shoes, the prison brush and comb and other things, and put them beside me, where I stood under the window, with my back to the wall.
I thought that I would throw these things at the doctors if they dared to enter my cell to torture me. But, when the door opened, six women officers appeared, and I had not the heart to throw things at them, though I struck one of them slightly as they all seized me at once.
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, then the doctors came stealing in behind. Some one seized me by the head and thrust a sheet under my chin. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open. I set my teeth and tightened my lips over them with all my strength. My breath was coming so quickly that I felt as if I should suffocate. I felt his fingers trying to press my lips apart, getting inside, and I felt them and a steel gag running around my gums and feeling for gaps in my teeth.
I felt I should go mad!
I felt like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap.
I was tugging at my head to get it free.
There were two of them holding it.
There were two of them wrenching at my mouth.
My breath was coming faster and with a sort of low scream that was getting louder. I heard them talking: “Here is a gap.”
“No; here is a better one, this long gap here.”
Then I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it gradually prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted, I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the India-rubber tube down my throat.
I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all”; and I vomited as the tube came up.
They left me on the bed exhausted, gasping for breath and sobbing convulsively. The same thing happened in the evening; but I was too tired to fight so long.
Day after day, morning and evening, came the same struggle. My mouth got more and more hurt; my gums, where they prised them open, were always bleeding, and other parts of my mouth got pinched and bruised.
Often I had a wild longing to scream, and after they had gone I used to cry terribly with uncontrollable noisy sobs; and sometimes I heard myself, as if it were some one else, saying things over and over again in a strange, high voice.
Sometimes, but not often, I was generally too much agitated by then, I felt the tube go right down into the stomach. It was a sickening sensation. Once, when the tube had seemed to hurt my chest as it was being withdrawn, there was a sense of oppression there all the evening after, and as I was going to bed I fainted twice. My shoulders and back ached very much during the night after the first day’s forcible feeding, and often afterwards.
But infinitely worse than any pain was the sense of degradation, the sense that the very fight that one made against the repeated outrage was shattering one’s nerves and breaking down one’s self-control.
Added to this was the growing unhappy realization that those other human beings, by whom one was tortured, were playing their parts under compulsion and fear of dismissal, that they came to this task with loathing of it and with pity for their victim, and that many of them understood and sympathised with the fight the victim made.”
“On my arrival at Winson Green Goal on Wednesday afternoon, September 22nd, I protested against the treatment to which I was subjected and broke the windows in my cell. Accordingly at nine o’clock in the evening I was taken to a punishment cell, a cold dark room on the ground floor, light only shines on very bright days, with no furniture in it. A plank was brought in. I was then stripped and handcuffed with the hands behind during the day, except at meals, when the palms were placed together in front. At night they were also placed in front with the palms out. On Thursday food was brought to the cell, potatoes, bread, and gruel, but I did not touch it. I was then surrounded and forced back onto the chair, which was tilted backward. There were about ten persons around me. The doctor then forced my mouth so as to form a pouch, and held me while one of the wardresses poured some liquid from a spoon; it was milk and brandy. After giving what he thought was sufficient, he sprinkled me with some eau de cologne, and wardresses then escorted me to another cell on the first floor, where I remained two days. On Saturday afternoon the wardresses forced me onto a bed and the two doctors came in with them. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It was two yards long with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing. The end is put up the left and right nostril on alternate days. Great pain is experienced during the process, both mental and physical. One doctor inserted the end up my nostril while I was held down by the wardresses, during which they must have seen my pain, for the other doctor interfered (the matron and two of the wardresses were in tears) and they stopped and resorted to feeding me by the spoon, as in the morning. More eau de cologne was used. The food was milk. I was then put to bed in the cell, which is a punishment cell on the first floor. The doctor felt my pulse and asked me to take food each time, but I refused.”