Emma’s prison experience

In her autobiographical notes Emma provides a graphic description of her first experience in prison:

‘We were not treated as political prisoners at this time. I was number eight… My cell was 7 x 9, with one small window much above my sight. I measured my cell with my feet, and the shoes they gave me were too big and different sizes. My dress was a coarse grey linsey, covered with broad arrows… The bed was coarse, fibre mattress and pillow, placed on a plank 4” from the floor… Near the top of the thick iron door, such as you see in a large safe, was a space that converged to a glass-like bull’s eye. When I heard a click, I knew that a Warder was using it for observation… I did not sleep the first night.’

Emmeline Pankhurst in prison uniform

Emmeline Pankhurst in prison uniform

Emma also describes the food prisoners were given: ‘My supper was a small brown loaf, and a pint of tea without milk or sugar, but that did not matter as I had no desire for food of any kind… The dinners alternated. One day about 1 ½ oz. of fat bacon boiled, and potatoes neither hot nor cold, boiled in their jackets, or a thick soup with no attraction either in smell or appearance, or suet dumpling and fat bacon. On Sunday, a small portion of bully beef’.

The daily routine was as monotonous as we might expect: ‘the first thing I had to do in the mornings was clean up the cell, roll up the bed for the day, breakfast, chapel, then exercise. We were not allowed books or newspapers at this time. It was the Bible, or The Narrow Way, prayer, exercise or food we couldn’t eat and the rest in darkness and the space of a prison. One night the length of ten’.

It is clear that not only was Emma’s physical health affected but also her mental state, (remember that she hadn’t long given birth to George): ‘It was unfortunate for me that I had left my baby, and my breasts were very painful, and I was subject to fits of laughing or crying, so much so, that one morning I did not get up when the morning bell rang.’

Emma writes that she was allowed to send one letter out but not receive any. Wolverhampton Archives has copies of these letters. Frank wrote to his wife on Feb 17th

My dear Emma, I am writing this to you on the understanding that it will be read to you by Miss Wildman, to who I am greatly indebted for her kindness in conveying to me information as to your health, etc. The fact that your comrades in London are so kind in looking after you and the other prisoners is to me a great relief and so long as I know that you are well I shall be alright….I am sorry to learn that some of the others were rather badly hurt, I was not surprised at your arrest, I looked at the first morning paper I could lay my hands on, and as I expected ‘Emma Sproson, Wolverhampton’, among the arrested, I fully expected you to get a month so 14 days is somewhat of a relief. Now whatever you do don’t put to worry about us, we are all right. Polly is here looking after us, and the children are all well, baby takes his food like a man…I still sing to him, and he still laughs so all is well here…I am having the usual sneers but am sufficiently thick skinned enough to take no notice of such childishness. I am quite proud of you and admire your courage, so don’t be downhearted…with fond love and kisses from the children, Polly and your affectionate husband, Frank.

There is also a copy of a letter Emma wrote to Frank:

My dear husband, I have received no communication from you during my stay here nor do I expect what I wrote to you has been posted. Of course I shall receive what communications there are immediately I am released…I am constantly wondering how you are all going on and I fear you have had to suffer from cruel criticisms…we have not been allowed a single visitor, the rules have been exercised with the strictest stringency and in some instances with severity…but the time is getting close now and the shorter it is the longer it is going…I am inclined to think by the tone of the papers our efforts are likely to bring things to a successful head.

Emma also described the reception that she, and the other suffragette prisoners, received after they left prison: ‘we used to face the vilest and dangerous opposition from the press and public in general, and whenever we went out to speak at public meetings we went with our life in our hands, and each woman released had created a storm centre’. This was demonstrated in Wolverhampton when Emma went to give a speech in the Market Place, to find it ‘covered with a howling mob, and the police had their work cut out to prevent very dangerous results’. She also received hate mail including letters from people who threatened to take a knife to her throat or drown her. She writes ‘I was so isolated by the hatred of my fellows that the meaning of Ibsen, when he said in one of his dramas, ‘the strongest amongst you is the one who can dare to stand alone’ – and thus I was inspired to go on from strength to strength’. Frank wrote an article in the local paper, ‘Defence of the Suffragettes’ (25 March 1907) in which he remarks ‘all the gibes and sneers cannot deter these earnest women in their struggle for freedom’.

Emma Sproson

Emma Sproson

The deputations to Parliament continued and in April 1907 Emma joined another. Again she was arrested and was committed to one month’s imprisonment this time but was in much better health on this occasion. Her 40th birthday was spent inside; she said to one of the warders ‘it’s my birthday today, could I have just one cup of tea?’ to which the warder retorted ‘you shouldn’t have come here for birthday celebrations’. This time she was allowed a visitor, Christabel Pankhurst, and on the day of release Emma and the other prisoners were met with crowds of suffragists.

Emma was now secretary of the Wolverhampton branch of the WSPU. In 1908 there were a series of by-elections and the suffragettes campaigned to keep the Liberal out, the Liberal Herbert Asquith was now Prime Minister and was a staunch anti-suffragist. During the campaign the WSPU established themselves in Committee Rooms in Broad Street under the control of ‘General’ Flora Drummond, part of the Pankhurst’s inner circle. The special correspondent for the WSPU paper Votes for Women described Wolverhampton in less than glowing terms:

‘to anyone who sets out to find a bit of Merry England I would say do not go to East Wolverhampton to look for it…You will find dull and monotonous streets and waste places where mines have been. You will see careworn and apathetic men, forlorn looking women and pale-faced little children. East Wolverhampton is not the place to make any English heart glad or proud of the country in which we live. It is Liberal; Liberal from the commencement of Liberalism; Liberal to the backbone; and the problem of unemployment grows worse and worse there, and the conditions of the people ever more sordid and deplorable. The wages of the men are low; the wages of the women are a scandal. The homes are poor, the children are not properly clothed or adequately fed’.

In the autumn of 1907 there was a split within the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League was formed. About one fifth of WSPU members, including many working-class women, left to join the WFL as they didn’t wish to break from the Labour Party (which the WSPU had done that year). Many also disagreed with Christabel Pankhurst’s announcement that the organisation’s annual conference was cancelled and that future decisions would be taken by a committee which she would appoint. Emma later joined the WFL and became a leading member of the local branch of the group. This new role and her previous prominence within the WSPU was remarkable – most of the leaders and many members of these groups, and the NUWSS, were from the middle class and could rely on comfortable incomes. The WFL were less militant than the WSPU however, whose tactics were becoming increasingly extreme, and they advocated protests like non-payment of taxes, refusing to participate in the 1911 census and organising demonstrations. It was during her membership of this group that Emma served a third prison sentence. In 1911 she refused to take out a licence for her dog and was imprisoned in Stafford jail. Reported in local paper, the charges were for not keeping a dangerous dog under proper control, for having allowed an unmuzzled and ferocious dog to be at large, and for having kept a dog without a licence. Two young children had been attacked by the dog. Frank stated during the trial that Emma’s decision not to take out a licence was a political one, as she was opposed to taxation without representation. She writes in her autobiography that she was committed by the local magistrates to 14 days as an ordinary prisoner and ‘against this I protested by going on hunger strike and after a few days this was changed to the second division as a political prisoner’. Emma was fortunate in that she was not forcibly fed.