In Vote for Murder, Louisa Russell witnesses the unedifying spectacle of Clara Delaney enduring force-feeding in Holloway prison. Though a work of fiction, this is based on numerous true accounts of the tortuous force-feeding of suffragettes who resorted to hunger strikes, willing to die for their cause.
The Bath Hotel in Felixstowe was completely gutted on 29th April 1914 when suffragettes Hilda Birkett and Florence Tunks burnt it to the ground. The women, who refused to give their names to the police, were arrested in Felixstowe on suspicion of being involved in the fire. When the fire was investigated, evidence of arson was soon found. Cotton wool had been carefully placed on the broken edges of the glass window of the kitchen at the east end of the building. It was assumed that the cotton wool was placed to avoid injury while undoing the latch. Once inside, the arsonists started fires in the bedrooms and corridors of the empty hotel.
Evidence against the suffragettes was found in the form of tie-on labels bearing inscriptions in ink in large capital letters with the slogan – “There can be no peace until women get the vote” and other similar declarations. These labels corresponded to similar labels in the possession of the suffragettes.
Hilda Birkett and Florence Tunks were tried at Bury St Edmunds in June 1914. The women, described as ‘of superior education,’ were disruptive in court, making frequent outbursts. Hilda Birkett “refused to recognise this Court, a Court which is entirely of men. It is absolutely wicked and wrong that they should dare to try women. Women are not recognised under the law.”
In the course of the trial it transpired that Hilda Birkett had been convicted in Birmingham in 1909 for damaging a railway carriage by throwing stones. She was imprisoned again in 1912 for damaging plate glass windows and was awaiting trial for setting fire to a grandstand in Leeds in 1913. Florence Tunks had not been convicted but she was under suspicion for other matters.
While Florence Tunks had nothing further to add before passing sentence, Hilda Birkett spoke passionately. The Bury Free Press of 6th June 1914 reports her address to the judge thus: “…Whatever sentence you impose, I shall not serve because I have made up my mind that I will not take any food or drink while I am in prison. I cannot stand the torture of the feeding tube for a great length of time … and if Mr McKenna does not release me I shall die in prison…”
Despite her eloquent address, Hilda Birkett was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment and Florence Tonks to 9 months imprisonment.
Following letters of support in the weeks following the trial by Ursula Hartley, member of WSPU, it transpired that before their trials both Hilda Birkett and Florence Tunks endured weeks of forcible feeding while in prison. Ursula Hartley wrote again on 17th June 1914 to make it publicly known that the father of one of the suffragettes had been unable to locate his daughter, despite having applied to the Home Office for advice of her whereabouts.
Hilda Birkett was finally released on 1st September 1914 following the Home Office amnesty. During her imprisonment, she was forcibly fed 292 times.