An aristocratic freedom fighter
PUBLISHED: 12:13 18 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:13 18 November 2014
Imprisoned, abused yet uncowed, Lady Constance Lytton, whose family seat was at Knebworth, left the comfort of her privileged life to fight for women’s right to vote and make political protests. This year marks a century since the publication of her influential account of her suffragette experiences Prisons and Prisoners. By Leigh Goldsmith
First published 100 years ago, Prisons and Prisoners is the autobiographical account of Lady Constance Lytton’s first hand experience of the harsh and unapologetic prison system of the period. Recording the abuses and squalid conditions that she and other women endured, the book was part of a personal crusade to reform prison conditions.
Despite her privileged upbringing in Vienna, Paris, Lisbon and India and at the family seat at Knebworth House, Lady Lytton became familiar with prison as a militant suffragette. Joining the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1909, she would go on to dedicate her life to fighting for the Votes for Women cause, which included four spells in prison and force feeding by prison wardens after she went on hunger strike in political protest at the lack of womens’ voting rights (a deliberate tactic of the WSPU). Prisons and Prisoners is her handwritten account of life as a suffragette inside the prison walls and would become a catalyst for future prison reform.
Lady Constance Lytton was born in Vienna on January 18 1869. Her father, Robert Bulwer-Lytton was a diplomat (including Viceroy of India) and Edith Villiers, who would go on to be Lady-In-Waiting to Queen Victoria. Surrounded by brilliant minds and political prowess, Lady Lytton’s life took a radical political direction when in 1906 she received an inheritance from her godmother, Lady Bloomfield and decided to donate the £1,000 to the Esperance Club. The club had been set up by Mary Neal and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence 10 years earlier to revive folk traditions and support working class girls and would become integral to the suffragette movement. It was to become a period of immense change in Lady Lytton’s life, a time she states was ‘spiritually the starting point of my new life.’
Both Neal and Pethick-Lawrence were suffragettes and deeply involved and dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union set up by Emily Pankhurst in 1903; one of the most militant suffragette groups. Although aware and generally supportive of the suffrage movement, Lady Lytton was not initially consumed by the same devotion. But with closer involvemnetn with the movement, her activism increased. In 1908 she wrote, ‘I met some suffragettes down at the (Green Lady Hostel run by the Esperance) club in Littlehampton. They have come into personal first hand contact with prison abuses. My hobby of prison reform has thereby taken on new vigour. I intend to interview the female inspector of Holloway prison, and will take part in the suffragette breakfast with the next batch of released suffrage prisoners.’
After joining the WSPU the following year, Lady Lytton’s stance switched to active protest. She addressed mass rallies and lobbied parliament and just weeks after signing up she was arrested following a demonstration and taken to Holloway Prison. Her time in Holloway was cut short as a result of her family influence and a history of having a weak heart.
Determined to continue to rally people to the cause, she travelled to Newcastle later the same year where she was arrested for a second time (the rally had thrown stones at a minister’s car). Again, she was released early, on account of her family and poor health.
The following January, she was arrested again at a demonstration in Liverpool. In solidarity with her fellow suffragettes and determined to undergo the same treatment, this time she went disguised as a working woman and gave police the alias Jane Warton. Unaware of her true identity, she was given 14 days hard labour and brutally force fed with a four-foot tube when she refused to eat.
Enraged at the treatment of herself and fellow activists, she began writing about her experiences and spoke out against the abominable conditions and treatment of those imprisoned under the suffrage movement, including at a mass meeting in 1910.
In 1911, despite having had a series of heart seizures, she was arrested for a fourth time and sent back to Holloway Prison. It would be her last incarceration. In May 1912, she suffered a debilitating stroke, which left her paralysed on her right side, barely able to walk. Undeterred, Lady Lytton turned her attention fully to writing, using her untrained left hand. And in 1914, her graphic account of prison life and her suffragette experiences Prisons and Prisoners was published.
In 1918, Lady Lytton’s and the suffragette’s cause finally reached fruition when women won the right to vote. By this time Lady Lytton’s health had begun to deteriorate further, perhaps undermined by her many ordeals. She died in May 1923 in London and was buried at Knebworth. She was 54.
By the time of her death, her participation in the suffrage movement and her understanding and highlighting of social injustices, had earned her immense recognition and respect. In recording the horrors of prison life, Prisons and Prisoners contributed to the abolition of force feeding in prisons and improved the conditions for those who later entered the penal system, as well as advancing the suffragette cause.
Lady Constance Lytton is buried in the family mausoleum in Knebworth Park. The colours which adorned her coffin in her final resting place were purple, green and white, the colours of the suffrage movement.