Suffragette Diary

We are delighted to welcome Dr Sarah Richardson (Department of History, University of Warwick) as a guest blogger, writing about Suffragist Annie Cobden Sanderson who was imprisoned in Holloway in 1906.

Centenary of Suffrage

As we celebrate the centenary of all men and women over the age of 30 achieving the parliamentary franchise via the Representation of the People Act, 1918, it is a pertinent point in time to remember the suffrage activists who campaigned long and hard for the vote, some losing their liberty as a consequence.

The experience of these articulate, often wealthy and well-educated, women provides an important resource for understanding prison life during the Edwardian period, as many left diaries, letters and memoirs describing the conditions in detail. This is the story of one of the suffragist prisoners: Annie Cobden-Sanderson.

A radical vegetarian

Annie was one of five surviving daughters of the celebrated free trade politician, Richard Cobden. She was a radical, joining the ILP in the 1890s as well as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), then the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), later becoming a founder member of the breakaway group from the WSPU, the Women’s Freedom League. She had also been a vegetarian since the age of 20, and this coloured much of her approach to politics.

Arrest and imprisonment

In October 1906, she was arrested along with nine other members of the WSPU for demonstrating in the lobby of Parliament, climbing on statues and shouting slogans such as ‘Votes for Women’. Cobden Sanderson, who was in her fifties, was the oldest woman arrested and viewed herself as one of the ringleaders. At Westminster Police Court she was brought before the magistrate first and refused to recognise the authority of the court ‘so long as I have no word and no part in making the laws which I am supposed to obey.’

The women were bound over for £5 to be of good behaviour and keep the peace for six months. As they declined to be bound over they were sent to Holloway Gaol for two months.

Public reaction

The forcible detention of Richard Cobden’s daughter attracted much publicity and George Bernard Shaw wrote an excoriating letter to the Times:

The peril [to Britain] today wears a darker, deadlier aspect. Ten women – ten petticoated, long-stockinged, corseted females have hurled themselves on the British Houses of Parliament. Desperate measures are necessary… we might, perhaps, venture to let Mrs Cobden-Sanderson and her friends out… We should still look ridiculous, but at least the lady would not be a martyr… Will not the Home Secretary rescue us from a ridiculous, an intolerable, and incidentally a revoltingly spiteful and unmanly situation?

Government under pressure

Shaw’s prophecy proved correct. During the month they were confined, daily pressure was put upon the government to discharge the women. There were high profile visits to the women from MPs and leading suffrage campaigners, as well as mass meetings calling for their release. At one meeting Annie’s husband read out a missive sent from her cell:

Message from Convict E.2.8, formerly Annie Cobden-Sanderson, sends greetings from H. M. Prison, Holloway, & wishes success to the meeting & every success to every contest against the Liberal Government, which is refusing women the rights of citizenship, allows capitalism to profit by their sweated labour. Men & women together must fight the common enemy.

After three weeks, and on the eve of a crucial by-election in Huddersfield, the imprisoned sufffragettes all gained their freedom.

Recording her experience

As soon as she arrived at Holloway, Annie asked the prison governor for pen and paper and recorded her experience in the form of a diary with accompanying reflective pieces. The memoir which she entitled E.2.8 after her cell number gives a detailed account of prison conditions, routines and diet but also charts her emotional journey.

On her arrival in prison she spent the first day in tears but was buoyed up by visits from her family. She had been anxious at upsetting her sisters, particularly Jane Cobden Unwin who was a prominent Liberal and the first woman councillor for London County Council. She need not have worried. Jane brought her lilies and an eiderdown to keep her warm as well as messages of support.

Throughout her confinement Annie maintained her passion and anger against the government for refusing to listen to the voices of women. She frequently invoked the legacy of her father arguing, ‘the Liberal government had come into power through my father’s great work, & had now sent his daughter to prison for demanding a Constitutional reform which he himself advocated.’

A prison diet

There is no doubt Annie and the other suffrage activists suffered privations whilst in prison. This was before the suffragette strategy of using hunger strikes but conditions were harsh. Viewing herself as a political prisoner, Annie refused offers from the governor and doctor for improved food, including meals sent from restaurants, a superior cell and servants to clean for her.

The prison was unequipped to deal with a vegetarian prisoner. For the first few days her diet consisted of bread and tea for breakfast, three potatoes for lunch, and bread and cocoa for supper. There was no fruit, green vegetables or dairy products. She was later permitted to have some butter with her bread and a milk pudding which she only accepted if it was offered to all prisoners.

Solitary confinement

She was kept in solitary confinement for twenty three hours per day – twenty three and a half on Sundays as she refused to go to chapel. The only time she was out of her cell was for daily exercise which the suffragette prisoners all took together isolated from other inmates or to meet the high profile visitors who regularly came to bring news and broadcast messages from the prisoners to the outside world.

Release and further activism

On her release, she wrote a series of letters to the newspapers exposing the poor environment in prison, including the freezing temperatures on the hospital wards. Her motivation was to improve the treatment of women prisoners but also to draw attention to the fact that they were incarcerated as a result of legislation enacted by an entirely male government and judiciary:

In the name of all women who are in prison, and in prison for disobeying laws which they have no voice in making and no power to alter, I protest against the present inhuman system of our prisons, of which this is only one example.

Annie’s prison diary which is now held at the LSE Library (Archives and Special Collections, LSE Library, KELLEY/2/16), is held in the archives of Joanna Kelley a former prison governor of Holloway Gaol, along with various Home Office papers on the treatment of suffrage prisoners. As such, it is likely that it was retained by the prison, and that Annie never saw her diary again once she was released.

Image credit: Creative Commons 

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