The Browser Review Daily Letter 160

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Sylvia Pankhurst: "I Was Forcibly Fed”


From McClure's Magazine,  August 1913

by Sylvia Pankhurst

LONDON — My cell measured about seven feet wide by nine feet long. Its walls were of unplastered brick, the upper part being whitewashed and. the lower painted a dark green. There was a little unpainted deal washstand and table, a wooden arm-chair, a tiny hanging book-shelf, and a blue-and-white-check quilt on the bed. The window had many small panes set in an iron framework and guarded by iron bars outside. It was fairly large, and a portion of it could be opened at will, but it was high above the head, and even when one had climbed to the bed or the chair to reach it, one could see nothing from it but a high dull wall and a small patch of sky.

They had placed my supper — an egg, a little six-ounce loaf of white bread, a piece of butter, and a pint mug of warm milk — upon the table. I left them untouched and went to bed.

I lay awake most of the night. Hour after hour I heard the babies crying and the woman officer on night duty walking along the corridors. I heard the crunching of the watchman’s steps on the gravel, as he passed under my window on his rounds, and the sound of his making up the fires. At six o’clock in the morning a sort of rumbling of activity arose. I heard door after door being unlocked, and presently a wardress flung my own cell door open wide and asked: “Are you all right?” — then shut it and passed on.

Now the whole place became filled with louder and louder noises. My cell was separated only by a thin party-wall from a staircase on the right hand, and from the lavatory and the sink where the washing up was done. Steps went hurrying up and down the staircase; buckets, set down with a clang, were filled and emptied at the sink; furniture was moved overhead; and all around I heard them scrubbing the cell floors.

At seven o’clock a wardress brought tea and bread and butter into my cell, and for half an hour, whilst the other prisoners were eating their breakfast, things were quieter.

Just a short half hour, and they were at work again. Except for an interval at dinner-time, this noisy scrubbing and cleaning went on all day — all day and every day, until the sounds seemed to cut into one’s brain.

About half past nine that first morning, the doctor came to me and saw the breakfast tea and bread and butter lying untouched. He pointed to it and said: “Will you not reconsider?” I answered, “No.” Then he felt my pulse and sounded my heart, and went away. At twelve o’clock a wardress brought me a chop, some potatoes and cabbage, and some milk pudding. At five came supper — bread, butter, an egg, and a pint of milk. I left them all untasted, and sat reading the Bible hour after hour. I had nothing else to do.

So two days passed. I felt constantly a little hungry, but never for one moment did I wish to eat a morsel. I was very cold — partly, I suppose, from want of food, partly because the temperature of the cell was very low, the hotwater pipe — the only means of heating — having little warmth in it. I sat with my feet on the hot-water pipe, wearing a woollen dress, a thick knitted woollen sweater, a long cloth coat, and with thick woollen gloves on my hands; but still I was cold.

On the morning of the third day I was taken out into the corridor to be weighed, and some time afterwards the two doctors came into my cell to sound my heart again. They said: “Will you eat your food?” And — when I said, “No,” — “Then we have only one alternative — to feed by force.”

They went. I was trembling with agitation, feverish with fear and horror, determined to fight with all my strength and to prevent by some means this outrage of forcible feeding. I did not know what to do. Ideas flashed through my mind, but none seemed of any use. I gathered together in a little clothes basket my walking-shoes, the prison brush and comb and other things, and put them beside me, where I stood under the window, with my back to the wall.

I thought that I would throw these things at the doctors if they dared to enter my cell to torture me. But, when the door opened, six women officers appeared, and I had not the heart to throw things at them, though I struck one of them slightly as they all seized me at once. I struggled as hard as I could, but they were six and each one of them much bigger and stronger than I. They soon had me on the bed and firmly held down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees, and the ankles.

My First Forcible Feeding

Then the doctors came stealing in behind. Some one seized me by the head and thrust a sheet under my chin. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open. I set my teeth and tightened my lips over them with all my strength. My breath was coming so quickly that I felt as if I should suffocate. I felt his fingers trying to press my lips apart, — getting inside, — and I felt them and a steel gag running around my gums and feeling for gaps in my teeth.

I felt I should go mad; I felt like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap. I was tugging at my head to get it free. There were two of them holding it. There were two of them wrenching at my mouth. My breath was coming faster and with a sort of low scream that was getting louder. I heard them talking: “Here is a gap.” “No; here is a better one — this long gap here.”

Then I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it gradually prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted — I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat. I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all”; and I vomited as the tube came up.

They left me on the bed exhausted, gasping for breath and sobbing convulsively.

The same thing happened in the evening; but I was too tired to fight so long.

Keeping Up the Struggle

Day after day, morning and evening, came the same struggle. My mouth got more and more hurt; my gums, where they prised them open, were always bleeding, and other parts of my mouth got pinched and bruised.

Often I had a wild longing to scream, and after they had gone I used to cry terribly with uncontrollable noisy sobs; and sometimes I heard myself, as if it were some one else, saying things over and over again in a strange, high voice.

Sometimes — but not often; I was generally too much agitated by then — I felt the tube go right down into the stomach. It was a sickening sensation. Once, when the tube had seemed to hurt my chest as it was being withdrawn, there was a sense of oppression there all the evening after, and as I was going to bed I fainted twice. My shoulders and back ached very much during the night after the first day’s forcible feeding, and often afterwards.

But infinitely worse than any pain was the sense of degradation, the sense that the very fight that one made against the repeated outrage was shattering one’s nerves and breaking down one’s self-control. Added to this was the growing unhappy realization that those other human beings, by whom one was tortured, were playing their parts under compulsion and fear of dismissal, that they came to this task with loathing of it and with pity for their victim, and that many of them understood and sympathised with the fight the victim made.

On the Friday of the first forcible feeding, the governor, a tall man with a long red face and sandy hair, came into my cell and said: “You are reported for misconduct.” I asked: “What is that?” “You are charged with refusing all food since the 18th instant.” “I do not consider that misconduct, and I shall continue in the same way.” “Three days’ close solitary confinement.” “I have not left the cell since I came into the prison,” I said. But he stalked stiffly out.

The evening before, the librarian had brought me Carlyle’s French Revolution, which had been presented to the prison library, as many other volumes have been, by a Suffragette. After the governor’s sentence of punishment this book was taken away. Three times, at intervals of three days, the governor returned to order close solitary confinement, after which he appeared to think that the sentence of punishment might be taken for granted.

The monotony of life in the cell made those horrible morning and evening struggles bulk more and more largely. From the time when my door was thrown open at six in the morning I could not cease to think of the doctor’s coming; and after I was dressed I could not sit or stand still for more than a moment, but would pace up and down, trembling and shivering and with heart beating fast.

After eleven days of imprisonment, the doctor kindly said that 1 was to be allowed to have books from the prison library. These, with their larger print, tried my eyes less than the Bible; but most of the books offered to me were third-rate novels. Four or five days later the doctor said that I might go out to exercise; but when I learnt that I was to go alone, and not with my comrades, I refused.

By this time my digestion was thoroughly out of order. On Tuesday, March 11, I woke with a bad headache, felt very sick all day, and vomited shortly after the evening feeding. All that night I was racked with pain and felt terribly sick. My head still ached. On Wednesday I vomited soon after the morning feeding, and again in the evening.

My Breakdown

The doctor now seemed very anxious that I should go out to exercise, and on one of the wardresses saying that Miss Emerson was asking to see me, it was agreed that on Thursday, March 13, — three weeks and three days after I entered the prison, — I should exercise with her.

I felt very shaky on my feet as the wardress led me through the prison buildings to the exercise ground. Miss Emerson was already walking there, but at first, as I saw her coming towards me, I did not recognise her — her figure was so changed. She told me that she had remained without food for fourteen days before her hunger strike was discovered, and that since then she had been fed by the nasal tube.

More and more now my eyes were giving me trouble. When I was struggling to prevent the forcible feeding, and when I vomited, I had great pain all around them; water poured from them; and it felt as though the cords that held them would snap. The flesh at the side and below the eyes remained very sore, the eyeballs hurt if touched, the eyes shrank from the gaslight and felt every day more weak and tired. On Friday, at exercise, Miss Emerson told me that my eyes were bloodshot, and I noticed that the officers who came to my door stared at me.

That Friday evening the forcible feeding seemed more revolting than ever. I was sick soon after it was over, and then, feeling feverish and exhausted, I sat leaning on the table and burst into tears of misery and disgust. A passion of revolt seemed to swell within me, and I heard myself saying things which grew louder and louder until they filled the air with sound. I heard myself saying, over and over and over, that it was a scandal that four of us should be together serving five months in all for the breaking of one little window, and that the government had had their pound of flesh out of us, and far, far more. I heard myself crying out that this torture had been going on year after year, and that woman after woman had been broken and destroyed. I heard myself crying: “No, no, no, no! I won’t have any more of it! I won’t have any more of it!” .

I do not know,how long this went on — it seemed very long. But at last it stopped. I was very tired, but after a few moments I got up and paced to and fro, from the door to the window, from the window to the door, for a long time — perhaps for two hours. I began to feel very faint, but I would not stop. Everything went black. There were noises in my ears. I felt deathly sick and there was a terrible pain in my chest. I sank down, and 1 must have cried out, for the principal woman officer in the hospital came in and took my hands and helped me to get robed. She was very kind.

Soon a doctor came. The officer on night duty watched me all night through a panel in the door of my cell. I slept a little at times.

In the morning I got up about seven, and determined that I would never cease from walking till I was released. I walked to and fro, to and fro, till they came to force the food down me.

I told the doctor what I intended. He said nothing. There was the old struggle. Then I sprang up and began dashing across and across my cell from wall to wall, with outstretched hands. All day I went on. After the morning and evening feedings I felt terribly sick and faint, but I would not faint. Again and again I plunged my hands in cold water and dashed it on my face and moistened my parched tongue.

Every one who came to my cell seemed shocked at the sight of me, and mentioned my eyes. I had no glass in the cell, but, by a little contrivance, I was able to see myself quite clearly in the reflector behind the gas. I was startled to see my face quite white, with lips cracked and dark, and my eyes horrible, like cups of blood.

I walked on all through the night, and as the hours passed I tottered, almost falling, across the cell. At times 1 was so ill that I felt as if I should die; but when the morning came I got more strength.


Suddenly an idea came into my mind. I thought that if some independent doctor could be sent from the Home Office to see me, as had been done in some cases, he would say that it was dangerous to force food down me any more. I felt sure that he would say it, and that it was dangerous. My nerves were shattered — my eyes made me afraid.

I asked that I might see the doctor and the governor together, and lay down to calm myself that I might speak to them. I had walked for twenty-eight hours.

When the doctor and governor came, they said that they would allow me to send a petition to the Home Secretary for an independent medical examination; and the doctor said that he would also send a medical report on his own account. But they said that I must have a truce in the meantime, and at last I agreed to take a cup of liquid food, soup or milk, twice that day, and also on Monday morning.

On Monday evening two doctors came. I had had two comparatively peaceful days then, and seeing them with the two prison doctors seemed to excite me. I was strangely cheerful, and I could not remember half the disagreeable things I ought to have told them. I could not remember how I had felt about things that were going on all the time. However, I thought I understood from them that I should be released; but they said that the papers could not get through till Wednesday, and asked me to keep the truce up till then. I agreed to go on with the two cups of liquid food till then.

On Wednesday there was no news. I asked the governor to let me communicate with my mother’s brother, in order that he might go to the Home Office and try to expedite the answer; but he refused.

On Thursday morning I started the hunger strike again. The doctor argued with me, but I told him I would not change my mind. All day I feared that they would come again to force me; but they did not, though the wardresses tried to coax me to take food.

On Friday I continued the hunger strike, and, as I felt very weak and my head ached, I stayed in bed. Neither the doctor nor the governor came to me, but the wardresses still tried to induce me to take milk or soup. About five o’clock in the evening a wardress opened the door and asked me to dress as quickly as I could. I did so, and then she took me through many long passages to another part of the prison. I felt very tired and stiff, and, though she put her arm round me to help me, everything went black and there was a rushing in my ears. At last she took me into a cell where the doctor was waiting. He told me that the Home Secretary had ordered my release, and, seeing that I was faint, made me lie down on the bed, and gave me some brandy.

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