Lady Constance Lytton

Category: 20th century women’s history

Lady Constance Lytton will be a name familiar to anyone who has studied the Votes for Women campaign waged between 1903 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Her involvement came about by a meeting with that other famous Emmeline, Mrs Pethick-Lawrence.  Constance joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1909 and worked as a paid organiser for the Union. Soon she was lobbying Parliament and using her influential contacts on behalf of the cause.  Her membership of the militant wing came later.

Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer Lytton was born in Vienna on February 12, 1869 the daughter of diplomat Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton.  His wife, the former Edith Villiers, could trace her ancestry back to the parish of Lydiard Tregoze and her five times great grandmother Barbara St John who spent her childhood at Lydiard House. It was this aristocratic inheritance that would set Lady Constance on the dangerous path of militancy.

Throughout history the Villiers women proved to be notoriously single minded and despite her lack of confidence and ill health, Lady Constance followed true to form.  Having nailed her colours to the suffrage mast Constance defied the disapproval of society, her family’s consternation and common sense itself in her devotion to the cause.

Lady Constance spent her first prison sentence on the hospital ward at Holloway.  Her second one ended abruptly with her early release when doctors were alerted to her title and a pre existing heart condition.  Constance set about making  public the treatment suffragettes received and to reform prison conditions.  To do this she considered it necessary to have shared the same experience.  Dressed in dowdy clothes and with her hair cut and styled unflatteringly, Constance assumed the identity of Miss Jane Warton when she appeared at a protest outside Walton Gaol, Liverpool.  She was arrested but this time there was no special treatment and no medical examination.  She went on hunger strike with the other women and was forcibly fed eight times.

Lady Constance later wrote about her experiences.

Tuesday, January 18, I was visited again by the Senior Medical Officer, who asked me how long I had been without food. I said I had eaten a buttered scone and a banana sent in by friends to the police station on Friday at about midnight. He said, “Oh, then, this is the fourth day; that is too long, I shall have to feed you, I must feed you at once,” but he went out and nothing happened till about 6 o’clock in the evening, when he returned with, I think, five wardresses and the feeding apparatus. He urged me to take food voluntarily. I told him that was absolutely out of the question, that when our legislators ceased to resist enfranchising women then I should cease to resist taking food in prison. He did not examine my heart nor feel my pulse; he did not ask to do so, nor did I say anything which could possibly induce him to think I would refuse to be examined. I offered no resistance to being placed in position, but lay down voluntarily on the plank bed. Two of the wardresses took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth. I had looked forward to this moment with so much anxiety lest my identity should be discovered beforehand, that I felt positively glad when the time had come. The sense of being overpowered by more force than I could possibly resist was complete, but I resisted nothing except with my mouth. The doctor offered me the choice of a wooden or steel gag; he explained elaborately, as he did on most subsequent occasions, that the steel gag would hurt and the wooden one not, and he urged me not to force him to use the steel gag. But I did not speak nor open my mouth, so that after playing about for a moment or two with the wooden one he finally had recourse to the steel. He seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he plied my teeth with the steel implement. He found that on either side at the back I had false teeth mounted on a bridge which did not take out. The superintending wardress asked if I had any false teeth, if so, that they must be taken out; I made no answer and the process went on. He dug his instrument down on to the sham tooth, it pressed fearfully on the gum. He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would have to feed me through the nose. The pain of it was intense and at last I must have given way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet in length. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had got down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses, and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out. As the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek, not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval, and he seemed to take for granted that my distress was assumed. At first it seemed such an utterly contemptible thing to have done that I could only laugh in my mind. Then suddenly I saw Jane Warton lying before me, and it seemed as if I were outside of her. She was the most despised, ignorant and helpless prisoner that I had seen. When she had served her time and was out of the prison, no one would believe anything she said, and the doctor when he had fed her by force and tortured her body, struck her on the cheek to show how he despised her! That was Jane Warton, and I had come to help her.

Upon her release from prison Constance continued to profess the different treatment she had received when her true identity was unknown.  The Times published a letter from Sir Edward Troup, permanent under secretary at the Home Office, challenging her version of events.  This was swiftly shot down in flames by Lady Constance’s brother Victor, Lord Lytton.

In 1911 Lady Constance suffered a slight stroke, but she soon returned to militant protest, taking part in a window smashing campaign.  A second stroke in May 1912 resulted in a partial paralysis down her right side.  No longer able to fight on the front line, she picked up her pen instead and with her left hand wrote about her experiences in Prisons and Prisoners published in 1914.

Lady Constance lived the rest of her life as an invalid, cared for by her mother.  She died on May 22, 1923 at her London home at Oxford Square.  She was 54 years old.