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Lady Constance Lytton: 1869-1923 – Lyndsey Jenkins

22 May 1923 marks one hundred years since the death of Lady Constance Lytton, militant suffragette. She is most often remembered for the events of January 1910, when she disguised herself as a working-class activist, consciously making herself as ugly and ridiculous as possible, and, as ‘Jane Warton’ was arrested for throwing stones at the governor’s house at Walton Gaol in Liverpool. Her goal was to expose the double standards in a prison system which treated inmates differently depending on their social status.

In the summer of 1909, Marion Dunlop Wallace had become the first suffragette to embark upon a hunger strike in prison. Asked what she would have for dinner, she replied, ‘my determination.’[1] The authorities were panicked and unsure how to respond, and she was released from prison. But they soon came up with a solution. In September, Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh were forcibly fed after embarking on a hunger strike. They were tied to chairs, their mouths were stretched open by gags, and milk and brandy was poured through long tubes through their noses.[2]

The government’s belief that force-feeding might act as a deterrent was a serious blunder. On a tour with Christabel Pankhurst, Lady Constance met a young woman, identified by Elizabeth Crawford as Laura Ainsworth, who had recently undergone a hunger strike and forced feeding.[3] She found the experience of meeting ‘merely a shadow of a girl’ intensely moving. ‘An angel had been in my presence, and I, who agreed with all she did, had left her and many others to go through with this alone.’[4] She would not let her friends and comrades down.

In Newcastle, she joined a group of dedicated suffragettes, including women like Emily Wilding Davison, and Jane Brailsford, married to the prominent left-wing journalist Henry Brailsford. Together, the women smashed windows at the Liberal Club and the Post Office, Jane Brailsford wielding an axe she had hidden in a bunch of chrysanthemums. Initially planning to target David Lloyd George’s car, Emily Wilding Davison and Constance Lytton had to abandon their plan at the last minute, and instead throw stones at any car. ‘I was determined that when they had me in court my act should inevitably be worse than that of other women,’ she wrote.[5]

Charged with assault, malicious injury and disorderly behaviour, Lady Constance was delighted to have achieved her objective, and embarked on a hunger strike. Yet huddled in the corner of her cell, she was confused when the doctor only tested her heart and took no action. She and Jane Brailsford were quickly released on the grounds of ill-health. In fact, the government were worried about their ability to influence politicians, the press and the public. Lady Constance was ashamed, and all the more so when she heard the horror stories of the women left behind: tubes not cleaned, women tied down, screams and shrieks audible through the walls.

She therefore determined on her next step: to go to prison in disguise. In January 1910, she travelled to Liverpool, and dressed herself in the most ugly and ridiculous way she could to make herself into a pitiable, abject figure, renaming herself ‘Jane Warton’. Jane threw stones at the governor’s house and was sentenced to two weeks in prison.

After four days of hunger strike, and attempts by the authorities to persuade her to eat, a doctor entered her cell with several wardresses. A steel gag was used to stretch open her mouth and a large rubber tube was forced down her throat, so that a revolting mix of milk, gruel, eggs, brandy, sugar and beef tea could be poured into her stomach. ‘I felt as though I were being killed, absolute suffocation is the feeling’.[6] Each time, of course, Jane was violently sick, and then made to clean up her own mess. After six instances of force feeding she felt she could take no more, and longed for death. One doctor slapped her in the face: another sat on her while feeding her. But unlike Lady Constance Lytton in Newcastle, Jane Warton was subject to no medical testing.

Meanwhile, rumours had begun to circulate that this prisoner might not be who she claimed. A telegram was sent from a newspaper to the Lytton family asking if Lady Constance Lytton and Jane Warton were one and the same. Her sister Lady Emily Lutyens took the overnight train to Liverpool to meet with the governor and see her released. Incredibly thin and drawn, but resilient, Lady Constance attended a packed meeting of the suffragettes, and many wept to hear her testimony.

Her brother, the peer Lord Victor Lytton, took up her cause and demanded a Home Office inquiry. Internal files reject her accusations: she had not been slapped, she had not been sick, her pulse had been tested.[7] Jane Warton had been subjected to the same treatment as Lady Constance Lytton might expect. Calls for an inquiry were dismissed. But Lord Victor was not to be deterred. Writing to The Times, he insisted that ‘your readers will form their own opinions of the justice of a Government Department which brings accusations of untruthfulness against an individual whilst refusing the only means by which the truth can be established.’

Behind the scenes, though, the new Home Secretary, Winston Churchill–a longstanding family friend–took a different approach. Dismissing Lady Constance’s ‘trivial’ and ‘imaginary’ complaints, he nonetheless introduced a new rule which would require medical officers to certify to the health of a prisoner before forcible feeding. He also introduced Rule 234a which, although not recognising suffragettes as political prisoners, did grant them certain privileges open to other classes of prisoners.[8] At the same time, Victor Lytton and Henry Brailsford established a Conciliation Committee, aiming to build a political consensus which would give votes to women as soon as possible. As a result, Emmeline Pankhurst called a truce and hunger striking ceased for the moment.

Lady Constance Lytton became an official organiser for the WSPU and though not a naturally gifted speaker, was beloved by many women. Her health, however, had never been strong, and was not helped by her relentless schedule on the road. In May 1912 she suffered a stroke, which paralysed her right side and confined her to a wheelchair. She taught herself to write with her left hand in order to compose her autobiography, Prisons and Prisoners. It was the first book length testimony by a suffragette, published in early 1914 as the use of the Cat and Mouse Act threatened more women’s lives.

Her own views on the women’s suffrage movement are exemplified by a note she wrote to herself, published in a book of letters collected by her sister Lady Betty Balfour:

In this women’s war they gave themselves to destroy property but never to acquire it; and their bodies to the hunger strike in prison, but never to take the life of another, or to do any injury to life. Some died, some were driven mad, many suffered in this fight; but all who took part in it were privileged to see and know many things to which their eyes were shut before, and they experienced the joy of doing their part in removing the shackles from women and children.[9]

Each year, women honour the life of Lady Constance Lytton by laying flowers on her grave for International Women’s Day. A full account of her life can be found in Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr (London, 2016).

Lyndsey Jenkins is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and a By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. She is a historian of women’s political activism. Her biography, Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr (London, 2016) was shortlisted for the Biographer’s Club/Slightly Foxed Best First Biography prize and was a Sunday Times Biography of the Year.

Images: Emmeline Pankhurst and Constance Lytton at Waterloo Station 1910, LSE Library 7JCC/O/02/086 via wikicommons

‘Jane Warton’ 1910 via wikicommons.

[1] Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London, 1931) 307

[2] Michelle Myall, ‘”No Surrender!”: The Militancy of Mary Leigh, a Working-Class Suffragette’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (ed.), The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives (Manchester, 1998)

[3] Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (London, 2003) 5

[4] Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners (London, 1914) 202-3

[5] Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners, 211

[6] Speech to the Queen’s Hall on 31 January 1910, quoted in Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp, Speeches and Trials of the Militant Suffragettes: The Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1918 (Vancouver, 1999) 107.

[7] The National Archives, HO 144/1054/187986 3-11

[8] The National Archives, HO 144/1054/187986/17

[9] Quoted in Betty Balfour, ed, The Letters of Constance Lytton (London, 1925) 240.