Today in London rebel history: Marion Wallace Dunlop begins first suffragette hunger strike, 1909

On 5 July 1909, the imprisoned suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, a sculptor and illustrator, went on hunger strike; pretty much inventing the tactic as a modern political weapon.

A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women, she had been sent to Holloway prison for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen’s Hall in the House of Commons. In her second division cell, Wallace Dunlop refused all food as a protest against the unwillingness of the authorities to recognise her as a political prisoner, and thus entitled to be placed in the first division where inmates enjoyed certain privileges. Her hunger strike, she claimed, was “a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me … refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction”. After three and a half days of fasting, she was released.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop, the daughter of Robert Henry Wallace-Dunlop, of the Bengal civil service, was born at Leys Castle, Inverness, on 22nd December 1864. She later claimed that she was a direct descendant of the mother of William Wallace.

She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and in 1899 illustrated in art nouveau style two books, Fairies, Elves, and Flower Babies and The Magic Fruit Garden. She also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1903, 1905 and 1906.

Wallace-Dunlop was a supporter of women’s suffrage and in 1900 she joined the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was also a socialist and from 1906 she was an active member of the Fabian Women’s Group. By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women’s rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women’s suffrage. Emily Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), advocated a new strategy to obtain the publicity that she thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote.

During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister’s house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison. The following month Wallace-Dunlop was arrested and charged with “obstruction” and was briefly imprisoned.

While in prison she came into contact with two women who had been found guilty of killing children. She wrote in her diary: “It made me feel frantic to realise how terrible is a social system where life is so hard for the girls that they have to sell themselves or starve. Then when they become mothers the child is not only a terrible added burden, but their very motherhood bids them to kill it and save it from a life of starvation, neglect. I begin to feel I must be dreaming that this prison life can’t be real. That it is impossible that it is true and I am in the midst of it. I know now the meaning of the screened galley in the Chapel, the poor condemned girl sits there with a wardress.”

On 25th June 1909 Wallace-Dunlop was charged “with wilfully damaging the stone work of St. Stephen’s Hall, House of Commons, by stamping it with an indelible rubber stamp, doing damage to the value of 10s.” According to a report in The Times Wallace-Dunlop printed a notice that read: “Women’s Deputation. June 29. Bill of Rights. It is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitionings are illegal.”

Wallace-Dunlop was found guilty of wilful damage and when she refused to pay a fine she was sent to prison for a month. On 5th July, 1909 she petitioned the governor of Holloway Prison: “I claim the right recognised by all civilised nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction.”

In her book, Unshackled (1959) Christabel Pankhurst claimed: “Miss Wallace Dunlop, taking counsel with no one and acting entirely on her own initiative, sent to the Home Secretary, Mr. Gladstone, as soon as she entered Holloway Prison, an application to be placed in the first division as befitted one charged with a political offence. She announced that she would eat no food until this right was conceded.”

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence wrote to Wallace-Dunlop: “Nothing has moved me so much – stirred me to the depths of my being – as your heroic action. The power of the human spirit is to me the most sublime thing in life – that compared with which all ordinary things sink into insignificance.” He also congratulated her for “finding a new way of insisting upon the proper status of political prisoners, and of the resourcefulness and energy in the face of difficulties that marked the true Suffragette.”

Wallace-Dunlop refused to eat for several days. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, the authorities decided to release her after fasting for 91 hours. As Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999), has pointed out: “As with all the weapons employed by the WSPU, its first use sprang directly from the decision of a sole protagonist; there was never any suggestion that the hunger strike was used on this first occasion by direction from Clement’s Inn.”

Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed these women on hunger strike. In one eighteen month period, Emily Pankhurst, who was now in her fifties, endured ten of these hunger-strikes.

Wallace-Dunlop later joined forces with Edith Downing to organise a series of spectacular WSPU processions. The most impressive of these was the Woman’s Coronation Procession on 17th June 1911. Flora Drummond led off on horseback with Charlotte Marsh as colour-bearer on foot behind her. She was followed by Marjorie Annan Bryce in armour as Joan of Arc.

The art historian, Lisa Tickner, described the event in her book The Spectacle of Women (1987): “The whole procession gathered itself up and swung along Northumberland Avenue to the strains of Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women… The mobilisation of 700 prisoners (or their proxies) dressed in white, with pennons fluttering from their glittering lances, was, as the Daily Mail observed, “a stroke of genius”. As The Daily News reported: “Those who dominate the movement have a sense of the dramatic. They know that whereas the sight of one woman struggling with policemen is either comic or miserably pathetic, the imprisonment of dozens is a splendid advertisement.”

Wallace-Dunlop ceased to be active in the WSPU after 1911. During the First World War she was visited by Mary Sheepshanks at her home at Peaslake, Surrey. Sheepshanks later commented: “We found her in a delicious cottage with a little chicken and goat farm, an adopted baby of 18 months, and a perfectly lovely young girl who did some bare foot dancing for us in the barn; we finished up with home made honey.”

In 1928 Wallace-Dunlop was a pallbearer at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst. Over the next few years she took care of Mrs Pankhurst’s adopted daughter, Mary.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop died on 12th September 1942 at the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home, Guildford.

This post was shamelessly nicked from spartacus educational.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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