National Archives
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Hidden files reveal true suffering of early suffragettes

Files uncovered at The National Archives shed new light on the hardships some women endured in their fight for the vote 100 years ago.

The two Home Office files date from late 1909 but only came to light during a recent cataloguing project. They relate to the arrest of nine suffragettes, and their subsequent imprisonment in Winson Green Prison, Birmingham.

Hunger strikes

The arrested women, who included Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh, were the first suffragettes to be subjected to force-feeding after going on hunger strike - a practice which had gained popularity among the suffragette movement earlier that year.

Professor June Purvis, Professor of Women's and Gender History, University of Portsmouth says: 'These documents shine some new light on this poignant episode of the suffragette movement. The hunger strikes, and ensuing force-feeding of the protestors, represented a real turning point in the struggle. 

'The files reveal defiant statements from some of the protesters, as well as moving letters to the prison authorities from some of their worried loved ones. It is really wonderful that cataloguing projects such as this one continue to reveal new details about this important part of our history.'

The files also contain medical opinions on force-feeding - which continued to be used until the outbreak of the First World War - along with signed letters from Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and various petitions.

Cataloguing project

The files were uncovered as part of a major cataloguing project at The National Archives involving more than 2,500 Home Office files. These files had no descriptions on the catalogue, and were therefore difficult for social historians and academics to find.

Sarah Hutton, Records Specialist in Modern Domestic History at The National Archives, says: 'Thanks to the hard work of the cataloguing team here and an intern from the American University in Richmond, some rich social history sources have been revealed, which may help to further research in the field of British domestic history.'

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