Jane Donaldson writes:
Working through the letters from the Pankhurst family to C.P. Scott in the Guardian archives, I have come across a number of letters concerned with Suffragettes in prison. They comment on the length of sentences of imprisonment, hunger strikes, forcible-feeding and also on the prison division that the prisoners have been placed in. I have undertaken further research into these divisions, as I had no knowledge that prisons were divided at this time, and that each division would give prisoners different rights.
Prisons were divided into three divisions, with criminals being placed into each division according to their crime. Suffragettes argued that they were political prisoners, rather than criminal, and therefore should be placed into the first division. Letters from the Pankhurst family cite Russia and Turkey as examples of where militant action has taken place and has been successful in changing the political landscape, and therefore that their militant action should be seen as political too. If the Suffragettes gained acknowledgement as political prisoners, and were placed in the first division, they would be allowed to have visitors, write and receive letters, read books and to see other prisoners. Parliament reports from 1906 show that, at first, this campaign was successful, as supportive politicians Keir Hardie and Lord Robert Cecil were able to get the home secretary, Herbert Gladstone, to agree that a group of women, which included Sylvia Pankhurst, would be treated as political prisoners and placed in the first division.
Those in the second division were often kept in solitary confinement, had no access to reading or writing materials and allowed a visitor and letters only after a month. As the majority of Suffragettes belonged to the middle or upper classes, they were usually placed in the second division. Working class women were generally placed in the third division, and would sometimes undertake work such as the cleaning of cells for women prisoners in other divisions, especially if they were unable to do this themselves following forcible feeding.
Emmeline Pankhurst wrote to C.P. Scott on 7 January 1909 from Holloway prison, following her arrest, and placement in the second division of prisoners. Despite being placed in the second division, Emmeline Pankhurst was still afforded certain rights. Whilst serving her sentence, she wrote about her reading, and visits from Kier Hardie. She mentions that Scott had visited her daughter, Sylvia, and had: Interested [himself] in the treatment of the women political prisoners.
However, these rights were not extended to other prisoners. In a later letter, Herbert Gladstone discusses the privileges given to Mary Clarke, Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, whilst in prison in Holloway. Gladstone wrote that Emmeline Pankhurst’s rights whilst in prison were exceptional, and that Mrs. Clarke would not be allowed the same rights, as this would set a precedent.
As more Suffragettes were imprisoned and their treatment became more consistent, there are letters to Scott asking for his help to pressure politicians to allow greater rights to those in prison, and examples of letters from Scott questioning MPs on the treatment of prisoners.
A letter from Emmeline Pankhurst on 17th February 1909, mentions a visit C.P. Scott made to Holloway. She refers to his being able to get an understanding of the conditions in prison, of why the Suffragettes are using militant action and why their action should be seen as political.
In 1910, Winston Churchill, passed rule 243a which meant that all Suffragette prisoners would be placed in the second or third divisions. They would have much the same comforts as those in the first division, but were not awarded political status and so denied any rights as such. By placing them in the second division, Churchill was trying to ensure that suffragettes would not be able to continue with propaganda for their cause whilst incarcerated, as is discussed in the letter below from Reginald McKenna, who succeeded Churchill as home secretary.
The treatment of Suffragettes in prison would become a notorious and infamous part of the history of the movement, with women subjected to forcible feeding, and the introduction of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, in 1913, where women who went on hunger strike were released and then imprisoned again when their health improved.
The refusal to acknowledge the Suffragettes as political prisoners, to class them in the first division, and to allow them to communicate with the outside world, provide clear illustration of the attempts made by the government to silence the protests of the Suffragettes.