Force-feeding was used on Suffragettes who were sent to prison but then went on hunger strike. Force-feeding was traditionally associated with those held in asylums and who could not feed themselves. Used on women who were usually well educated, it was a controversial method frowned on by many members of the public. As a result the government had to end force-feeding and introduce what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.

What was force-feeding like? The Suffragette Mary Leigh was sentenced to a term in custody at Winson Green Prison. In protest at her treatment she broke her cell window. This resulted in Mary being moved to the punishment cell in the prison. Her bed was a plank of wood. She immediately went on hunger strike:

“I was then surrounded and forced back onto the chair, which was tilted backward. There were about ten persons around me. The doctor then forced my mouth so as to form a pouch, and held me while one of the wardresses poured some liquid from a spoon; it was milk and brandy. After giving me what he thought was sufficient, he sprinkled me with eau de cologne, and wardresses then escorted me to another cell on the first floor. The wardresses forced me onto a bed (in the cell) and two doctors came in with them. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It was two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there was a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid was passing. The end was put up left and right nostrils on alternate days. Great pain was experienced during the process, both mental and physical. One doctor inserted the end up my nostril while I was held down by the wardresses, during which process they must have seen my pain, for the other doctor interfered (the matron and two other wardresses were in tears) and they stopped and resorted to feeding me by spoon. More eau de cologne was used.”

Lillian Lenton also experienced force-feeding:

“You want to know what it was like? I don’t like talking about it but the bally game was that they wriggled a rubber tube up your nose and poured liquid through a funnel into your stomach. I always shut my eyes during these things. But I started coughing and coughing to bring up the liquid they poured in. I suddenly experienced intolerable and intense pain. I was later told that I had pleurisy. I wrote home: “Doing well. Pleurisy. But doing well!”

Constance Lytton remembered that:

“Two of the women (wardresses) took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth. The sense of being overpowered by more force that I could possibly resist was complete, but I resisted nothing except with my mouth. The doctor offered me the choice of a wooden or steel gag; he explained that the steel gag would hurt and the wooden one would not, and he urged me not to force him to use the steel one. But I did not speak nor open my mouth, so after playing about for a moment or two with the wooden one he finally had recourse to the steel. The pain of it was intense; he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet long. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment I touched my throat until it had gone down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I had been sick over my hair, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with vomit. The wardresses told me that they could not get a change (of clothes) as it was too late, the office was shut.”

August 2009