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A hunger for women's rights; Can the forcible feeding of hunger strikers ever be justified? Duncan McAra celebrates the centenary of a suffragette's courageous ordeal in Birmingham.

Byline: Duncan McAra

Most people these days associate the words "hunger strike" with Irish Republican prisoners, notably Bobby Sands, in the early 1980s or, more recently, in 2005, detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji. But for me they are inextricably linked with the term served in Winson Green Gaol a century ago by my mother's aunt, then a young woman of 22.

On the face of it, prison seemed a most unlikely place for "Charlie" Marsh to land herself. Born in Alnmouth, Northumberland, the third of five daughters of the painter Arthur Hardwicke Marsh and Ellen Marsh, her full Christian names, Charlotte Augusta Leopoldine, confirmed that by birth and upbringing she was eminently late Victorian.

As she had been, by all accounts, "a tall, strikingly beautiful girl with blue eyes and long, corn-coloured hair" she might have been expected to marry a suitable young man and, possibly, have been widowed a few years later by his death on the Somme.

But not so. She chose to be one of the first women to train as a sanitary inspector and, so horrified was she by the conditions in which working-class women had to bring up their families or labour for low wages that she became, as "Charlie" Marsh, one of the leading militant members of the Women's Social and Political Union, the spearhead of the women's suffrage movement.

What led her to stay in Winson Green Gaol was the "Battle of Birmingham" which took place on September 17, 1909. It started with the great demonstration against the Liberal Prime Minister, H H Asquith, who gave a speech in Bingley Hall.

When Charlie and her companion, Mary Leigh, climbed on to a roof near Bingley Hall, the police came after them but were met by a hail of slates wrenched from the roof. A fire hose was turned on them and they were drenched with icecold water. Finally brought down by means of a fire-escape ladder, they were arrested and sentenced to three months' hard labour.

Charlie, of course, did not regard herself as a felon but as a political prisoner and, on arrival at Winson Green, refused to change into prison clothes.

The wardresses undressed her and, after a bath, made her dress in the ugly yellow garments that hard labour prisoners wore. She was then handcuffed with her arms behind her back and left in a reception cell.

There, handicapped as she was, she managed to climb on a table, remove a shoe and smash the window panes. As a result, she spent the night in a punishment cell.

The next day two visiting magistrates told her she could have the handcuffs removed if she gave her word not to break any more windows. She refused and returned to her cell, sentenced to nine days bread and water, nine days close confinement, the loss of 42 remission marks and ordered to pay damages.

Her response was to go on hunger strike and after three days without food she was tied in a chair, held down by the wardresses and forcibly fed by means of a feeding-cup with a spout.

At this stage she came to the conclusion that it was probably better tactics to take food as, after prolonged forcible feeding, she would be so weak on release that she would not be able to take an active part in the suffrage campaign.

But, as the hunger pangs receded, her determination to be treated as a political prisoner returned and she went on hunger strike again.

Two doctors, with the help of four wardresses, tried to feed her with cup and spoon, but she resisted this with clenched teeth. Then, the "Basket" was ordered and in came the grim apparatus for forcibly feeding the prisoner. Wardresses held down her limbs while a long rubber tube was passed up a nostril and forced down the gullet. It was a painful and degrading experience for the victim.

During her stay in Winson Green, Charlie suffered this ordeal 139 times.

After six weeks, she was admitted to prison hospital, where there were real beds instead of planks, and it was warmer but not stuffy, as the window had been smashed by a previous occupant.

Apart from her own strength of purpose, what kept her going was the knowledge that she had the support of others in the suffrage movement. Every night the Birmingham members, led by Laura Ainsworth and others, came up to Winson Green.

As they approached, Charlie would hear on the frosty night air the sound of La Marseillaise, and when they gathered to shout "Votes for Women!" she would push her bed near the window, climb on it and pull herself up till she was level with the open window. When from outside came the cry of "No surrender!" Charlie would shout back as loudly as possible: "No surrender!" Eventually she was released. Indeed, when war broke out five years later, all suffragettes in prison were released and, encouraged by such leaders as Emmeline Pankhurst and Flora Drummond (aka "The General"), women flocked patriotically to do war work.

Charlie worked as a motor mechanic at 4d an hour, as personal chauffeuse to David Lloyd George, then minister of munitions, who offered her an olive branch, and later as a land girl. By 1916, Charlie Marsh had broken away from Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters to become the honourable secretary of the Independent WSPU.

In turn, by 1918 the politicians conceded to women, not only the right to vote, but the right to stand for seats in the House of Commons.

Had the hunger strike been worth it? There are two conflicting views on hunger strikes. One is that they are a form of moral blackmail. The other view is that it requires exceptional fortitude and a profound conviction of the rightness of a cause for a normal healthy individual to refuse, day after day, the staples of life.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of a hunger strike as a political weapon, nothing can justify the forcible feeding of a prisoner. And it is a wry paradox that Winson Green, where so many painful humiliations were perpetrated on young women, should have such an attractivesounding name.

But no more paradoxical, perhaps, than that the right of women to vote ,so hard won by suffragettes like Charlie Marsh, should today at best be taken for granted by so many young women or at worst ignored and unexercised.

Duncan McAra is an Edinburgh-based literary agent


Forcible feeding was the most painful indignity to which women were subjected. Gags were used to open their mouths but if the victim resisted, she was fed by tube through the nose Charlotte Marsh in 1923 and , right, as standard-bearer for a WSPU procession
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 17, 2009
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