Suffragette Hilda Burkett with her colleague Florence Tunks burnt down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe as part of the Votes for Women campaign. She was sentenced in May 1914 to two years imprisonment, and was transferred from Ipswich prison, where she had been force-fed throughout the remand period, to Holloway.
There are several accounts by suffragettes of the agonies they suffered through force-feeding. Already weak from refusing to eat or drink, they would be taken against their will to a medical room within the prison, tied to a reclining chair and gagged whilst a tube was pushed up their nose into their stomach and a milky food poured through a funnel into the tube. This was repeated three or four times a day, for weeks at a time. Remarkably, it served in many cases to increase the determination of these brave women.
A suffragette released from Holloway at the end of July 1914 reported that Hilda Burkett was being force-fed daily. She ‘suffers agonies with her nerves … She is sick after every feeding … Her throat is in a terrible condition.’
Recently-released prison records, shown to me by Dick Moffatt, author of A View of Felixstowe from the Bath , detail the force-feeding process from a different perspective. Each day, a report was made detailing how much food was force-fed, the attitude of the prisoner, their overall health and weight and any other occurrences. Hilda Burkett was generally in good health, apparently, despite regular complaints of chest pain at night (said to be due to indigestion). Her decreasing weight was noted. By the middle of July, her weight had gone down to 98 lbs, ’16 lbs below average weight for her height’.
In terms of her mental state, it was often reported that she was ‘hysterical’ whilst being force-fed, which would sometimes happen four times in a day. At times she would vomit on each occasion and the amount would be measured (between 2 and 5 fluid ounces). It is not said whether her vomiting was due to the physical effects of food being poured through the tube inserted into her stomach, or whether it was an act of resistance.
On 7th August 1914, Hilda Burkett petitioned the Home Office for release. ‘I’ve been in prison since April 28th,’ she wrote, ‘and have been forcibly fed during the whole time, 292 times so far.’ She was released soon afterwards.