May, 2, 1912, To the Editor of The Manchester Guardian, “A CASE OF FORCIBLE FEEDING”; “THE PENALTY FOR ‘NOT TAKING ENOUGH FOOD”
Although the editors of The Manchester Guardian expressed disagreement with Davison’s positions in some of her letters from the end of 1911, The Guardian was generally more supportive of the suffrage movement than other newspapers, especially The Times and The Sunday Times. Their call for an official explanation is somewhat tepid, given the conditions Davison describes. A slightly abbreviated version of the same story also appeared on Saturday, May 4, 1912 in The Standard.
This letter complements other descriptions Davison composed about her experiences in Holloway during the winter-spring of 1912. The narrative is written in Davison’s unique voice and contains references to her self-definition as a journalist, and her incipient career as an author of a manuscript now lost. The prison authorities’ refusal to countenance her request for writing materials, one of the perquisites of Division One status, was a severe blow to her, but she rallied to protest to the Home Office. The Home Office refused her request and soon after the prison authorities decided that she must be force-fed. Her petition to the Home Office to protest this form of torture apparently was not enough to stop the prison authorities who may indeed have been following Home Office directives in this matter. The letters make difficult reading both because of their contents and because Davison is a natural story-teller with a strong sense of narrative flow and telling detail. All the more ironic that the ending of the narrative in the two letters is official deafness to her words.
We have received from Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, who writes from Lindon Gardens, London, W., the following letters from Miss Emily Wilding Davison, a militant suffragist, at present imprisoned in Holloway Gaol. The statements made appear to demand some official explanation, which will no doubt be forthcoming:–
‘Account of my forcible feeding, February 29 to March 7, 1912—I was sentenced at the Old Bailey for setting fire to pillar-boxes to six months in the third division without hard labour. Hence I was entitled to Mr. Churchill’s new prison regulation, which I received at first. My sentence being a long one, an appeal was made for me against it by the Men’s Society for Women’s Rights, the aim of which appeal I desired to be chiefly that I might be transferred to the first class, so that I might be allowed writing facilities, both because I am a journalist and because I have written a book which at the time had every chance of being published. This appeal was refused on February 5. I was very much upset at the time—so much so that I lost my appetite and could take little food. Then on February 10 and 12 the remainder of the twenty companion suffragettes whom I had with me finished their sentences and went out. Meantime I had petitioned (February 6 or 7) to the Home Secretary for writing facilities and to be allowed to see the publishers who were disposed to take my book. I received no answer to this petition till February 27, surely a very long delay.
“Owing to my anxiety and to my loneliness (I exercised alone and was practically alone all day) I got more and more depressed, and could only eat with difficulty. I always took something, as I had a dread of forcible feeding. I was not weighed during this period for some time, when I had, of course, lost weight considerably. No notice was taken of my poor appetite and depressed state of health till about February 26. Then all of a sudden the prison authorities began to make remarks. I always told them that I took what I could. On Tuesday, February 27, Dr. Sullivan (then acting as Governor) came to me and told me that my petition for writing facilities was refused. The next day, February 28, an expert from the Home Office (I am told) came to see me with Matron and Dr. Sullivan. To him also I said that I had always eaten, even when I did not want food.
“Next day, February 29, I saw Dr. Scott, who was back, and asked for a petition form to the Home Secretary, which I received and wrote. I explained all that happened, and drew the Home Secretary’s attention to the fact that even if forcible feeding were legal when the person refused food, it was not legal when the person was eating. Dr. Sullivan came to my cell about twelve, and said he was going to feed me by force and said ‘as I know you can stand it.’ I protested in the same way. He left the cell. A few moments later four or five wardresses came into my cell with a wooden armchair, seized me in spite of my holding on to the bars of the window, and carried me shrieking ‘Shame!’ across the courtyard to the Remand Hospital. I was carried up the stairs clinging to all I could seize, and taken to the end of the corridor, and then fed by force as quickly as possible. My clothes were torn open. I was then put into one of the cells near. When I was left alone I barricaded my cell from the door to the window with the iron bed, wash-stand, table, and night-chair. When they came about four they could not open the door. They went away and fetched people. Men with crowbars came. There was a sort of wicket in the door, which they burst open. There was a long struggle. As fast as they moved the bed I forced it back. Crowbars nearly fell on my head. In the struggle my hand was severely injured, so that blood was shed all over the floor, walls, and one of the men’s trousers. The finger is still unhealed. They were busy bursting the door. At last the man, who had tried several times and failed, put his foot through and got in, and then he removed the barricade. I was seized, and forcibly fed. I was put into another and darker cell. There I remained in bed, and was fed by force twice a day for fifteen times. I refused to speak to anyone. On the Saturday the Governor came in to read me an answer from the Home Secretary, to say that he had given authority for my being forcibly fed. One day I became aware by certain signs that my suffragette friends were in Holloway. I felt so miserable and helpless that I felt that the best thing was for me to get to them and get their mental and moral support. The whole condition of weakness and loneliness made me feel so bad that I realized that I must get away.
“On Thursday afternoon, March 7, I told the Governor that if he would take me right away from the Remand Hospital (of which I now have a horror, as I realize how absolutely one is in the power of authorities there) and treated me well, I thought I could take my food. They tried me with food in the Remand Hospital first, but I steadfastly refused it. I got up, bathed and dressed, when I found how weak I was, and that I was actually much thinner than when I last had my clothes on. I was taken to the Convicted Hospital, and fed up there for a week. I was then allowed to go in amongst my suffragette companions. To every possible authority since (including the Prison Commissioners) I twice protested against being fed by force when I had not refused my food.
“EMILY WILDING DAVISON”
“April 10, 1912
“To-day I saw the Visiting Magistrate. I said ‘I wish to protest at the fact that I was fed by force here from February 29 to March 7, although I had not refused my food. I understood that the only legal justification for the operation against the person’s will was that the person refused food.’ Here the Chairman prevented my saying any more by interrupting: ‘In short, you complain that you were fed by force without just cause,’ I replied, ‘That is so,” He then said, ’Have you any other application?’ I said, ‘No.’ He then requested me to retire for a few moments. I had to do so. When I returned, the Chairman (I believe he is Sir Vezey Strong ) said to me: ‘We have inquired into the matter. The doctor says that you were not taking enough food to keep you in good health, and we consider he was justified.’ I at once said, ‘Please allow me to state my case!” But he refused to hear me any further. I was forced out of the room by the wardresses, just managing to get out as I went: ’But things were neglected which ought not to have been neglected.’ If the prison authorities are allowed to take this view, who is safe from forcible feeding?
This story, slightly abbreviated, appeared also on Saturday, May 4, 1912 in The Standard.