Feb 6th was a few weeks ago.
Did you realise what an important day it was or did it pass you by?
You may have seen the film Suffragette. You may have watched Mary Poppins. You may know about Pankurst and Davison. But you may not have heard about the person I’m talking about in this assembly.
I first came across Sophia Duleep Singh when working on my Sikhism textbook. Searching for the first Sikhs in the UK I found her father. I’ll come back to him later. According to historians who have researched her life Sophia led a pretty pointless and meaningless existence. She was the ‘exotic’ darling of Victorian London high society and spent her time attending parties in the finest Parisian fashions.
It was only when she made a trip to India (forbidden by the British government who feared she might stir up rebellion in the Punjab simply by being seen there) that her political conscience was awoken. On her return to London she became a prominent Suffragette. At only 5″1 in height she was a diminutive figure. To quote Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, though she but little she is fierce.
She drove press carts through the streets of London and on many occasions stepped in front of the Prime Minister’s car. She tried desperately to be arrested and put in prison but due to her royal connections the police generally left her alone as they were scared of the consequences. She refused to pay taxes and was sent to court. She refused to pay the fine. She defaced her census papers writing that “as women do not count we shall not be counted.” Perhaps her most famous act of rebellion occurred on Friday 18th November 1910 when she led what became known as the Black Friday march on Parliament.
The historian Lucy Worsley recounts a later event…
For the first time in 70 years, Hampton Court Palace was closed to visitors. Outside its gates stood an intriguing figure: a slight woman, of Indian origin, wearing expensive furs. She was selling suffragette newspapers out of a satchel, and shouting: “Votes for Women!” It was the extraordinary Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, with her own beguiling combination of royalty and revolutionary fervour.
The art galleries of the palace remained locked in 1913 because it was feared that Sophia’s fellow suffragettes would mount an arson attack. Indeed, they had burnt the grandstand at Hurst Park racecourse just down the road. It was revenge for the death of Emily Davison, who had martyred herself to the suffragette cause by hurling her body beneath horses’ hooves at the Epsom Derby.
Sophia lived opposite the palace on Hampton Road, in a “grace and favour” residence granted to her by her godmother Queen Victoria, on an allowance provided by the India Office. She thought she deserved no less. After all, her father, the Maharaja Duleep Singh of the Punjab, had signed away his kingdom and fortune at the behest of British officials. He had been just 11. It was hardly a fair transaction.
After Emeline Pankhursts death in 1928 it was Singh who took over the leadership of the Suffragette movement. This included the extension of the right to vote to women over 21. Singh devoted the last part of her life to women’s rights in India and campaigning for Indian independence. She died in her sleep on 22 August 1948 in Coalhatch House, now known as Hilden Hall, a residence once owned by her sister Catherine. As you can see from the map it is off Hammersley Lane in Penn. Sophia was cremated on 26 August 1948 at Golders Green Crematorium. Before her death she had expressed the wish that she be cremated according to Sikh rites and her ashes spread in India.
What has changed? What is her legacy? Is it great that Singh and other Suffragettes will be remembered this year on a set of stamps? What is the the experience of women, particularly women from ethnic or religious minorities like in the UK in 2018? Maybe a lot. Maybe not enough. I’ll let you decide: