A story of forced feeding – Suffragettes

A story of forced feeding

By Beryl Kingston  from her novel


The moment Octavia had been dreading arrived so unobtrusively that it had begun and the whole terrifying chain of events had been set in motion, before she was aware enough to realise it.

It was a blustery morning in March, not long after baby Dickie’s first birthday and she and Betty had gone up to London to help at the national headquarters, as they often did when there were committee meetings there and one or the other of them had been delegated to attend. They’d been the first to arrive that morning and had settled down to work at once while they waited for the others. Betty had gone straight into the inner office to do some filing while Octavia stayed in the outer office and started to open the mail. She was slitting open the second letter when an odd fluttering movement caught her attention and, turning her head, she saw that there was a sparrow frantically trying to get out of the upper window, throwing itself at the unyielding glass over and over again, its wings in perpetually baffled motion.

It must have been shut in all night, poor thing, she thought, and she took her chair over to the window to climb up and let it out. It was in such a panic she was afraid it would do itself a mischief before she could release it, so she pulled her clean handkerchief out of her pocket, shook it out, and after a brief struggle managed to catch hold of the bird and soothe it until it was still. She could feel its heart beating wildly through the white cloth, poor little thing. ‘Hush! Hush!’ she said, speaking to it as if it was a baby. ‘You’ll be free soon. I’ve got you.’ It wasn’t easy to hold a bird with one hand and open a window with the other and she was still struggling to lift the sash when she heard footsteps and voices coming up the stairs towards her.

‘There’s one of them!’ a man’s voice called. ‘Look there sir!’

And another said. ‘You girl! Get down! Get down at once!’

Alarmed by the noise, the sparrow tried to struggle out of her handkerchief. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said, aiming her words at the speaker but not taking her eyes from the bird. She was irritated to be called a girl, which she most certainly was not. ‘I shan’t fall. I’ll get down when I’ve got the window open and let this… ‘

‘She’s throwing something out the window,’ the voice said. ‘Grab her legs!’

Then everything happened at once and in an odd disconnected way as if time had been fractured. The window gave and she pushed it up at last and eased the bird out into the air giving her handkerchief a shake to set it free; someone seized her legs – how dare they! – she was being pulled backwards off the chair and kicked out instinctively to disentangle herself from his objectionable hands and stop herself from falling. She was aware that there were other women in the room, and that one of them was asking, ‘Do you have a warrant for this intrusion, Officer?’ And she looked down and found she was staring into the reddened face of a policeman. He was rubbing his ribs so her kick had obviously landed. Good!

‘You’re under arrest,’ he said.

She was appalled. ‘What on earth for?’

‘Obsructing a police officer in the execution of his duty. Go an’ see what she threw out the winder, Fred. It could be evidence.’

The idiocy of the man! ‘Try not to be more of a fool then you look,’ she said. It was probably risky to speak to him like that but really, he was asking for it. ‘It was a sparrow. That’s all. A bird. I was…’

He didn’t believe her. She could see that from the mocking expression on his face. ‘You wanna watch your lip young lady,’ he said, and his tone was threatening. ‘You got a lot too much to say for yourself, you ask me. Won’t do you no good, all this argy-bargy.’

The words were as insulting as his expression. She had to fight back the urge to hit him again. But she could see Betty standing in the doorway, slightly out of focus, shaking her head and miming that she shouldn’t say any more, and she hesitated long enough to notice what was going on around her and to feel angry at that instead. One of the policemen was scooping all the letters off the table into a sack and another was collecting all the leaflets. Dear God! she thought, we’re being raided. I have been arrested. But really it was too absurd.

The second constable tossed the last of the leaflets in the sack and stepped up to take her by the arm. She still felt bemused and aggrieved at what was going on but she followed him almost obediently. It was pointless to make a fuss at that stage. It would all be resolved when they got to court and the magistrate heard what she’d actually been doing. She might even get an apology.

She got six weeks, for resisting arrest and attacking a police officer. It was totally, hideously unfair. The objectionable policeman made a great to-do about his ‘bruised ribs’ and the magistrate didn’t believe a word she said. Afterwards, sitting in the Black Maria as she was driven away to Holloway Gaol, she tried to make sense of what had happened, but it was as if her mind had been switched off, like one of the new electric lights, as if she’d been suddenly plunged into darkness. There was a terrible inevitability about what had happened, almost a pattern, linking the frightened bird beating its wings against that high window, to the prisoner she had become crouched in her cell with its own high filthy window and its chokingly remembered smell, beating the wings of her mind, endlessly and uselessly against the injustice of it.

She had been admitted as a category C prisoner, with no rights, no books and no means of writing, told that she would work sewing mail bags, that she was allowed to write and receive one letter a week and warned that they ‘wouldn’t stand no nonsense from her.’ Then she was left on her own. Trying to be practical, she decided that her first letter must be to Tommy. She knew she ought to send a message to her parents, because they were bound to be anxious, but he was expecting her in Paris at the end of the month, and would have to be told that their plans had been changed. The trouble was that she had no idea when she going to be allowed to write it and that made her feel bleak and lost. Oh Tommy, she thought, what a long way away you are. Then since there was no one there to see her, she put her head in her hands and wept. It was weak of her but she couldn’t help it.

The conflict began that evening when a tray full of unappetising food was pushed through the flap into her cell and she told the warder, very calmly and politely, that she wasn’t going to eat it. ‘I am a political prisoner,’ she said, ‘and should be treated as such.’

The warder wasn’t impressed. ‘You eatin’ it or ain’tcher?’ she said.

Octavia’s hands were shaking but she spoke firmly. ‘When I am reassessed as a category A,’ she said, ‘I will eat my meals. Until then I will not.’ And she repeated her reason. ‘I am a political prisoner and should be treated as such.’

‘You’re a blamed fool,’ the warder said, ‘and you’ll live to regret it. If you won’t eat, you won’t. We give yer four days, that’s all. Then you’ll pay fer it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

They were four increasingly anxious days during which Octavia sewed the mail bags they’d given her, as well as she could which was extremely clumsily because the sackcloth tore her fingers, wrote a long careful letter to Tommy telling him what had happened, and tried not to think about the horror to come. On the third day she felt so hungry she had pains in her stomach and on the fourth the pains were so bad it was all she could do to sit up, let alone sew. And the next day they would feed her by force.

This is a fearful place, she thought, as the room darkened and the fourth night began. And so cold. It’s March outside but it feels like January here. There were perpetual frost flowers on the high window and the small square of sky was the sort of dirty grey that usually led to snow. She was shivering even though she’d gone to bed in her clothes and was lying with her blanket tightly wrapped round her. Up and down the corridor, feet tramped and stamped, keys rattled and the women were banging the walls with their mugs, ting, ting, ting, sending their nightly defiance into the chill air, like a tinny morse code. ‘We are here! You might have locked us up but we’re still here.’

She slept very little that night and when a grey dawn finally lightened the window she was wide awake and terribly afraid. I don’t want to be here, she thought. I want to get out and walk in the fresh air and breathe to the bottom of my lungs. I want see Tommy again. Oh Tommy, Tommy, I do miss you and it’s such a long time since we were together. Weeks and weeks. She pulled the memory of that last time into her mind, aching for comfort, remembering how they strolled along the Boulevard St Michel arm in arm, stopping for coffee and croissants at one of the little cafes, spinning out the time until they could take possession of the room he’d booked for them. Oh the aroma of that coffee! The sharp rough smell of the French cigarette he was smoking. The sharp rough scent of his skin as he pulled her towards him to kiss her. Oh Tommy, Tommy. But the remembered ache of desire was no proof against her present terror. She was in a place dedicated to punishment and about as far away from the tenderness of love as it was possible to get and she was so afraid that her stomach was shaking. She knew exactly what was going to happen to her and that nothing she could say or do would prevent it, apart from giving in to them and eating, which wasn’t an option. It was a matter of principle. She had to make her stand the same as all the others had done. Being force-fed was almost part of your imprisonment these days.  If only she wasn’t so terribly aware of what it would entail.

By midday her fear was so extreme it had swollen her tongue and blocked her ability to think. The long unexplained waiting was making everything worse. She couldn’t speak to them now even if she wanted to. The only thing left was to endure. So that is what she did, all through the afternoon and into the evening, trying to control the shaking and to ignore the pangs of hunger that were knifing her stomach. Supper was pushed through the door at her as usual. She didn’t eat it, as usual. It was taken away. The waiting and the pains went on.

And then just as she was beginning to hope that they’d forgotten all about her, there was a clatter out on the corridor, the cell was unlocked and within seconds was full of strange people crowding her view  – two warders, one she recognised, three men in dark suits, a skivvy in an apron and someone else behind her standing in the shadows. They smelled of sweat and vomit and their faces were hard, their eyes glaring. They hate me, she thought, and her stomach shook again.

‘This is yer last chance,’ the strange warder said. ‘Make yer mind up to it. If you won’t eat we’ll ‘ave ter feed you by force.’

‘No good talking to ‘er,’ the second warder said. ‘She’s a hard case. Best get on with it.’ And before Octavia could speak or think, they all moved at once, coming at her from all directions. She was pushed into her chair and gripped there as though she was in a vice. Her legs were tied to the legs of the chair with a rough towel, her arms pulled back and bound behind it. She tried totwist her face away from them but they were too strong for her. One grabbed her head from behind, pulling it backwards as though he wanted to break her neck. ‘Keep still!’ he ordered when she struggled again. ‘Keep still or it’ll be the worse for you.’

Then they were pushing a sheet of rubber under her chin and she could see the instruments of torture being held above her, the long rubber tube that would be pushed down her throat, the clamp that would hold her jaws apart. Oh dear God, she thought, I can’t bear it.

They paused for breath, looking down at her, their faces full of that dreadful hatred. One bent to look at her mouth. She wondered if he was a doctor. He looked as though he might be, in his fine suit and waistcoat and that clean white shirt. She noticed that he was wearing expensive cufflinks, that his hair was well cut, his nails manicured. A doctor. Surely not. Would a doctor be so cruel?

‘Open your mouth,’ he said.

She shook her head, clenched her teeth, prepared herself to fight.

He repeated his order. ’Now come along,’ he said, talking down to her as though she were a naughty child. ‘You don’t want your teeth broken, do you.’

She tried to swallow and couldn’t because her mouth was too dry. Will they really break my teeth?  she thought. They looked as though they could. Would it be better to open my mouth and just get it over with? Indecision made her lips tremble and seeing the involuntary movement the doctor had his fingers on either side of her jaw at once, pressing and forcing. Her mouth opened even though she struggled with all her might to prevent it and the clamp was wedged in place so tightly and brutally that it made her bleed. She could taste the blood in her mouth and instinctively tried to lick the wound but her tongue was held down and she couldn’t move it. The tube was forced between her lips, past the clamp and down her struggling tongue. It made her retch, and at that it was withdrawn a little and forced again. This time it was pushed into her throat. The pain of its pressure was excruciating, the smell of rubber filled her nose, she was screaming inside her throat but she couldn’t make a sound, she retched again, heaved to vomit, arched her back, but they were holding her, pushing at her, forcing their hideous tubing down and down. For a second she felt herself sliding away into unconsciousness, then another searing pain pulled her back to awareness. They were pouring something down the tube, something hot and evil smelling. It was in her throat swelling the tube, in her nose, falling hard and hot into her stomach. She was struggling for breath now and mortally afraid. They will kill me, she thought.

They held the tube a little higher, looking down at her, and she managed to pull some air into her lungs. Then they resumed the torture, pouring their abominable liquid into her silent screams. Oh stop! Stop! Or I shall die.

It went on and on without pause or pity. She retched and groaned but they paid no attention to her. When they finally pulled the tube from her throat, she was totally exhausted and in so much pain she didn’t notice as they untied her fetters, gathered their instruments and left. She slid from the chair to the concrete floor and lay there panting and retching, unable to move. Even when she was sick – and she was so sick – all she could do was turn her head to one side and wait for the vomiting to subside. She felt as if she was heaving up her heart.

She lay on the floor for a very long time, drifting in and out of consciousness, sore and sick and defeated. The room darkened. After a while, the sounds of the prison impinged on her senses, a door banged, feet clumped along the walkway, someone was shouting, and she was reminded of where she was. She got up with a great effort, moving slowly like an old woman and crept to her bed. All she wanted to do was to lie down and sleep.

But once she’d fallen onto her unyielding mattress, sleep was impossible. Thoughts buzzed in her brain as the hours passed achingly by.  She wondered if they’d done her any lasting damage. There were traces of blood in her vomit. She could see them even in the half-light. But there was nothing to be gained by wondering about it. If they had injured her there was nothing she could do about it.  It’s done, she thought, it’s over, and the thought encouraged her. I’ve stood up to them. I’ve lived through it. They haven’t won.

But she was wrong. It wasn’t over. They left her alone for three more days, offering food, which she refused, and water which she drank eagerly, while the pains in her stomach became a dull perpetual ache and the agony in her throat eased from knife sharpness to a painful prickling as if she’d been grazed.

Then, and with the awful suddenness she remembered from the last time, the trolley was rattling outside her door and the torture team were in the cell and binding her arms and legs.  This time she had less energy to fight them, although she struggled as hard as she could, desperate to avoid that searing pain. This time they pushed the tube into her throat with such force that blood rose into her mouth and spilled out onto their abominable rubber sheet. This time they left her barely conscious and she took a long time to come round. I can’t bear it, she thought, as she crawled back onto her bed and tried to wrap herself in the blanket. If they’re going to do this to me every four days for the rest of my six weeks, I shall have to give in. She tried to work out how long she’d been inside, but her brain wasn’t functioning and she couldn’t do it.  More than a week, certainly, but less than a fortnight. I can’t bear it, she thought. Please God don’t let me be tortured any more.

There was a key rattling in the door. Oh God! Now what are they going to do? But it wasn’t the trolley. It was the doctor with the neat hair and the manicured hands, followed by the warder with the hard face. He walked to the bed and took her chin in his hands. ‘Open your mouth,’ he said, and then a little more kindly. ‘It’s all right. I’m not going to feed you.’

She opened her mouth, fearfully and painfully. He produced a torch from his pocket and shone it down her throat. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Discharge.’ Then he and the warder turned away from her and left.

Her heart was juddering with alarm. What did he mean, ‘discharge’? Had her wounds turned septic? Was that what it was? And if they had shouldn’t he be doing something to treat them? She understood enough about wounds to know that if a septic wound was left untreated you could get blood poisoning and die. Oh dear God, what is going to happen to me now?

What happened was that the fierce warder arrived in her cell the next morning carrying her clothes. ‘Get dressed,’ she said. ‘You’re being discharged.’

It was agony for Octavia to speak but she croaked a question. ‘Do you mean I’m going home?’

‘Not that you deserve it,’ the warder said. ‘But yes. Doctor’s orders.’

Tears were rolling from Octavia’s eyes. Home, she thought. The very word was a comfort.


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