Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Lady Constance Lytton, an aristocrat who was imprisoned four times for the suffrage movement.
Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton was a woman of privilege, although she was never really comfortable with the aristocratic life. Suffering from poor health for most of her life, she struggled to find a purpose to life until she decided to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1910. Her dedication to the suffrage movement dovetailed with her interest in prison reform, and she relished being imprisoned four times for the cause. On the third occasion she was force fed.
Constance Lytton was born on the 12th of January 1869 in Vienna. The third of seven children of Edith Villiers and Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the first Earl of Lytton, to say that Constance was privileged is a bit of an understatement. Her father was the Viceroy of India, and she lived there until she was 11. She was private and shy, and never really took to the aristocratic way of life. When her father died in 1891 she retired from public life to look after her mother. The following year, her mother refused to allow her to marry someone from a ‘lower social order.’ Constance spent several years hoping her mother would change her mind, but it was not to be, and Constance never married.
In 1905, Constance was left £1000 by her great-aunt. She wanted to donate the money to the revival of morris dancing, and her brother suggested she give it to the Esperance Club, founded by Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence and Mary Neal. Both suffrage campaigners themselves, Emmeline and Mary established the Esperance Club, a dance and drama club for working class girls. Over the next few years, Constance met other suffragettes, including Annie Kenney. Constance had an interest in prison reform and was initially sympathetic to suffragette prisoners, although she disapproved of their militant methods. Her objections were eventually overcome, however, and she joined the WSPU in January 1909.
Constance became a paid WSPU organiser in June 1910; she travelled the country making pro-Suffrage speeches and used her family connections to lobby Parliament. She wasted no time getting involved in the direct action side of the suffrage campaign though, on the 24th of February 1909 she took part in a demonstration at the House of Commons which earnt her her first prison sentence. Constance had a weak heart, and spent most of her sentence in the infirmary, being treated well. Whilst in prison, she attempted to carve ‘Votes for Women’ into her own skin, from her chest to her cheek, so her allegiance would always be visible. She carved the V above her heart, but was prevented from completing this unorthodox protest when she asked for a sterile dressing.
The second time Constance was imprisoned, she was released as soon as she began a hunger strike and a doctor discovered her weak heart. The government were reluctant to make a martyr of such a prominent, well-connected suffragette. Convinced that her social status was earning her special treatment, Constance adopted the persona of Jane Warton, a working-class London seamstress. Jane Warton travelled to Liverpool in October 1909 and was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour after throwing rocks at an MP’s car. She went on hunger strike, and was force fed eight times before her true identity was discovered and she was released.
Severely weakened by her ordeal, Constance wrote accounts of her experiences for The Times and Votes for Women, the WSPU’s newspaper. She also gave lectures about Jane Warton’s time in prison, and her accounts are credited with helping to end the practice of force feeding suffragettes. It came at a high price; Constance had a heart attack in August 1910, followed by several strokes that left her right side paralysed. In November 1911, Constance was imprisoned again, and found conditions for suffragettes much improved. Her health forced her to step back from direct action campaigning, but she continued to write pamphlets and other materials in support of women’s suffrage. In 1914 Prisons and Prisoners, her account of her experiences in prison, was published.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the WSPU suspended their pro-suffrage campaigning. Constance turned her attention to Marie Stopes’ campaign to establish birth control clinics. Her health never recovered, and she was looked after by her mother for the rest of her life. She died on the 2nd May 1923.
Constance Lytton was never comfortable with her privilege, but she used it to campaign for women’s right to vote, and to expose the cruelty of the treatment of suffrage campaigners in prison. She sacrificed her already poor health to draw attention to the disparity between the treatment of working- and upper-class prisoners, and I admire her determination.
Sources and Further Reading
Birkby, Michelle. “Lady Constance Lytton: The Suffering Suffragette.” Historia. Last modified 5th February 2018, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at http://www.historiamag.com/lady-constance-lytton-suffragette/
Jenkins, Lyndsey. Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr. London: Biteback, 2015.
Simkin, John. “Constance Lytton.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wlytton.htm
Wikipedia, “Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton.” Last modified 1st January 2018, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Constance_Bulwer-Lytton