Suffragette's account of force-feeding goes on museum display

Charlotte Marsh wrote to fellow prisoner in 1909: ‘Won’t it seem funny to eat again?’

The first known written account by a suffragette of being force-fed has gone on display at Manchester’s People’s History Museum.

The letter from Charlotte Marsh to Selina Martin was written in November 1909 when both were being held in Winson Green prison, Birmingham. It was discovered among Martin’s personal papers and memorabilia, which were loaned to the museum by her grandson Phillip Sycamore.

Marsh was one of the first suffragettes to be force-fed in prison. In the letter, written in barely legible pencil on a title page torn from a book, she said she was being “fed by tube twice daily”.

“Matron comes every day to try and get me to eat but no – she can chase me around my cell! Won’t it seem funny to eat again?” she wrote. “Sometimes I am ravenous, aren’t you? Write to me when I come out. No surrender!”

Marsh and Martin were arrested alongside six other women for protesting during a meeting attended by the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, at Bingley Hall in Birmingham.

In the letter, Marsh asked Martin to tell her mother that she was well and hoped to write in the next month. “But do not mention how I am being fed,” she wrote.

Charlotte Marsh's letter
The letter was written on a title page torn from a book. Photograph: Handout

The note alludes to the fact that the women were regularly smuggling letters to each other in prison. “I heard of someone who smuggled a note in a sanitary towel,” Marsh wrote.

Imprisoned suffragettes started going on hunger strike in the summer of 1909 to protest against being denied political prisoner status. The first to use the tactic was Marion Wallace Dunlop, who was sentenced to a month in Holloway for vandalism in July that year. She was released after a 92-hour hunger strike owing to fears for her health.

In September that year the government decided against early release of suffragettes who were refusing food and began the practice of force-feeding them, which involved strapping them down and forcing a tube through their nostril or down their throat and into their stomachs.

Among the artefacts loaned to the museum are Martin’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) hunger strike medal and a photograph of her wearing her Holloway prison brooch. Both the medal and the brooch were given to her by the WSPU – founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 – to honour the sacrifices she had made for the suffragette movement.

Helen Antrobus, the programme officer for the People’s History Museum, who discovered the letter, said it revealed “the strain, both emotional and physical, that these women were enduring and how they looked to each other for the support and strength they needed”.

“Their aim was to be treated as political offenders, and at this time they wouldn’t have known how historically notorious force-feeding was to become,” she said. “Their sacrifice, determination and united spirit is clear within the letter, which is extremely moving to read.”

Martin’s collection is on display as part of the exhibition Represent! Voices 100 Years On, which tells the stories of those who fought for universal suffrage, a century on from the introduction of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which gave all men and some women the right to vote in Britain.

Jenny Mabbott, the head of collections at the museum, said: “It is wonderful that in creating an exhibition that tells the stories of those seeking representation we have been able to reveal previously unheard voices of those from the past who fought for equality. Hearing Charlotte’s story in her words brings alive the incredible spirit of those campaigning for women’s suffrage.”


Frances Perraudin

The GuardianTramp

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