Violet Bryant is an interesting insight into discrepancies between official records and fact as told by the arrestee. Both versions are included below.
Violet Bryant was arrested alongside Ellen Pitfield, Dorothy Shallard and Lily Asquith (see earlier blog) for breaking windows valued at £3 7 shillings and 6 pence at the Liberal Club in Newcastle upon Tyne ahead of a visit to the city by Lloyd George. The night before Violet addressed a meeting asserting that ‘no barriers would prevent them; they were prepared to go to any length to get their rights even to death itself’. Each of the women pleaded guilty and were sentenced to fourteen days with hard labour. The Votes for Women newspaper reported that Violet was a nurse who was so outraged at the force feeding of the suffragette prisoners in prison in Birmingham she had resigned her position and travelled to Newcastle to support the cause.
From the police station in Newcastle eleven women involved in the demonstration wrote to the WSPU at its headquarters in Clement’s Inn. The letter opens ‘Friends, -All is well’ and asserts their collection dedication to women’s suffrage and their intention to refuse food which would leave the Government with the option ‘To release us in a few days; to inflict violence upon our bodies; to death to the champions of our Cause by leaving us to starve; or – the best and only wise alternative – to give women the vote’. On reception at prison Violet declared that she intended to break her cell window and was therefore allocated to a reception cell with additional blankets supplied. Violet was 6 feet two inches tall and weighed fourteen stone which posed a problem as no prison skirt fitted. She was, therefore, confined to bed until one could be made.
Various reports are on the files regarding force feeding. On 13 October Violet was fed by nasal tube twice which led to ‘slight bruises on both arms’ where she had been restrained. The report the following day, records Violet violently resisted force feeding by nasal tube in the morning when one pint of egg and milk was administered. In the evening two pints with the addition of brandy were administered. Her general condition is described as fair. The next day Violet took a mixture of milk, egg, and Valentine’s beef juice from a cup in the morning and evening.
The four women were released on 22 October and taken to a nursing home. Each had been force fed and forced to wear prison clothing, none, however, had undertaken any hard labour. Frederick Pethick Lawrence was one of the occupants of a carriage sent to collect the four on their release. As a crowd had gathered outside the prison the carriage driver was instructed to drive into the prison yard. Frederick writes ‘The prisoners were then brought into the yard. They looked exceedingly ill, not a vestige of colour showing in their faces, and were with difficulty helped in …’ Violet recounted how she had resisted all the attempts to force her lips open and when the nasal tube was inserted, she had managed to eject it by coughing. However, she had become too weak to continue resisting.
Only weeks later Violet was arrested for a second time and charged with breaking windows at the Liberal Club in Haslingden, a town in Lancashire having apparently carried the stones four miles from the village of Waterfoot. The damages were stated to be £4 and 15 shillings. Violet refused to pay either the damages or a 20 shilling fine and was imprisoned for one month.
Very tall, Violet was dubbed the ‘Suffragist Giantess’. On her arrival at prison on 6 December Violet was described by the prison doctor as ‘an exceptionally fine and strong young woman. Violet refused to give her name announcing her intention not to comply with orders, declining to bathe or don prison uniform. The Governor ordered that physical force should be used but Violet immediately stripped off the uniform into which she had been forced and then refused food. He concluded that Violet was very tall ‘strong, and heavy in proportion. Difficult to handle’. Five days after her admission Violet is described as ‘still insubordinate and insolent and refuses to obey any orders’. However, she was wearing the uniform. On the advice of the medical officer Violet had been placed in a special cell. She was by this point being force fed. While authorities concur that Violet, see below, cut through the canvas dress provided for warmth rather than scratch on to the cell wall with a shard of glass Violet had used her own blood from a cut to her finger to write ‘Votes for Women’. As Violet writes no bedding or mattress were given as she was on punishment.
A report on the file dated 13 December notes Violet was force fed by oesophageal tube twice. One each occasion a pint was administered of milk, cream, and a whipped egg with the addition of either plasmon, a powdered milk protein, or a tonic. One of the assistants during the process complained of ‘the force of her grip’ on their wrists. A further report, written the same day, describes Violet who had been confined to a special cell as ‘still obstinate’. On 14th Violet was moved from the special cell to which she had been confined for seven days. Violet requested a library book but was informed she was not entitled to anything other than devotional books. When asked her religion Violet replied, ‘Votes for Women’. In protest Violet smashed four panes in her cell windows. In the margin of the report of Violet’s actions someone has noted that after this incident Gladstone amended the policy for the provision of books and later, Winston Churchill, established a committee to investigate. Matron reported to the Governor that Violet had broken the glass and was violent although absolutely no mention is made of any such behaviour in other reports. In consequence, he ordered that Violet should be removed to a special cell with ‘handcuffs behind her back’ which were removed to allow force feeding several hours later. The report states that handcuffs were not used when Violet was returned to the special cell. It is interesting to note that this is a key difference between her account, see below, and the Governor’s.
Still confined to the special cell Violet declined to take any exercise. By this point she had submitted two petitions, one queried her allocation to the Third Division as Violet passionately believed the Magistrate had ordered her to the Second Division and the other was requesting to see her solicitor. Both were declined. The report of 17 December notes that Violet had ‘discovered a new method of obstructing the passage of the tube with her tongue’ but it did not prevent her being fed twice. The following day the process took place again but, it was noted, Violet had consented to do some needlework which she had hitherto refused to do or clean her cell. A few days later Violet requested a hot water bottle, and it only becomes known at this point that her prison slippers did not fit and therefore she could not walk in them. The Governor, noted, that her own boots were returned to her. Violet, who remained in the special cell as she refused to undertake not to cause any more damage, then began to take exercise along a prison corridor and the following day took a half an hour walk around the prison yard.
By Christmas Eve Violet had been force fed for over two weeks. For the first time she complained of feeling faint. The doctor felt this was surprising as Violet had, in his opinion, had an exciting day. She had requested to see the Governor to ask that dirty washing she had brought in with her be laundered. This was agreed to so long as Violet paid to which she consented. Still confined to the special cell Violet asked to attend church on Christmas Day which was granted so long as undertook to refrain from causing a disturbance. It was also agreed that Violet could return to a normal cell. On Christmas Day Violet attended the Roman Catholic service twice but was as usual force fed twice. Concerned at the exertion of the day the doctor advised her to lie down for the remainder.
The force feeding continued. Violet attended a church service again and requested a bucket of water with which she cleaned her cell. However, when she requested to attend again permission was only given if Violet agreed to take some food beforehand as she had complained of feeling faint. This she did eating some bread and butter accompanied by a cup of tea. By this stage Violet had been force fed twice a day for twenty-three days. In his report on New Year’s Day the Governor notes that Violet apologised to him for her previous behaviour. Arrangements were made for Violet’s release. She was to be conveyed in a cab to a friend’s address in Preston accompanied by a prison officer dressed in plain clothes.
Violet was released on 5 January 1910. She sent an account to Votes for Women of her experience in Preston Gaol. The Governor informed Violet that there had been prisoners before her ‘who were not amenable to reason, but we have ways to manage them’. Violet observed that all that followed bore out the Governor’s threat ‘till the authorities found my principals stronger than their regulations’. When she refused to wear prison clothes eight wardresses stripped her but as soon as Violet was locked in her cell, she shed the uniform until only one garment was left. This was all she had to keep her warm as both her bed and bedding had been removed. When nothing happened when Violet complained of her cell being airless, she smashed the windows. As a result, she was taken before the Visiting Committee who sentenced her to seven days in close confinement.
Violet refused food and the decision was taken to commence force feeding. The wardresses forced, Violet recounts, her into a canvas dress with ‘straps at neck, wrists, and waist’. Violet remained undefeated using a shard of glass to cut through the straps and then using one of the straps to smash the glass pane over a gas jet. She then etched on to the wall ‘Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow’. When all of this was discovered, Violet was taken to a punishment cell and placed in irons. Twenty-four hours later and unshackled Violet was force fed by nasal tube; too weak she did not put up any resistance. The following day the nasal tube was abandoned in place of the oesophageal one. The punishment cell was bitterly cold so Violet requested a hot water bottle which the doctor declined instead suggesting she wore her boots rather than bare feet.
By now weak Violet wished at attend the Catholic services over Christmas. As she had collapsed the doctor agreed she could attend New Year’s Day mass if she ate which reluctantly Violet agreed to but thereafter the force feeding continued. Only when the Priest intervened was Violet allowed to take Holy Communion. After seven days in the punishment cell Violet was returned to the regular accommodation but after only a day, she was sent back for breaking a window in protest at not being allowed a book. This time the handcuffs were only in place for a few hours as the skin of her wrist had been pinched in the hinge.
In a ceremony at the Albert Hall Violet was presented with a hunger strike medal by Emmeline Pankhurst.
The official records state that Violet was born in 1883 and this concurs with all the newspaper coverage but there are no births recorded that year. While it is said she was a nurse in London it could be that she moved to the city to train rather than being born there. Sadly, no further trace has been found of a woman who had a gigantic resolve to match her physique.