It was in 1906 that the first suffragette entered the imposing gates of Holloway Prison, marking the beginning of a harrowing era in the struggle for women’s rights that would see hundreds of women imprisoned for their activism. Among them was Margaret Eleanor Thompson. Born in 1864 in Berwick-upon-Tweed and inspired by a rousing speech by Emily Davies, Margaret and her sister, Mary Dawes Thompson, joined the suffragette movement in 1906. Six years later, Margaret was sent to Holloway for six months—her third time in prison—along with a collective of other suffragettes that included the indomitable Emmeline Pankhurst. Nine days after she wrote the following diary entry, Margaret joined a mass hunger strike, a defiant act that led to her being force-fed just three days later—a torment she braved for two weeks.
The Diary Entry
June 10th. In the afternoon in the yard, we felt we ought to have something of an entertainment for the last before the two left us. The three grandmothers, Mrs. Heward, Mrs. Boyd and Mrs. Aldham sang together very prettily songs and catches. Mrs. Pankhurst remarked to Miss Haig that Mrs. Boyd was very pretty. She was pleased as they are cousins. Then Mrs. Lawrence told stories again, Doreen Allen squatting at her feet with an arm on her knee. Very entertaining they were. Vera made a speech as Lord Cromer, with button in eye—very amusing, but not quite so good as at the May day sports. Miss McCrae sang ‘Justice Lawrie.’ One of the prison visitors, a commissioner or something of the sort, came and spoke to us as we were all sitting together. It amused me to see his attitude; wavering between amusement, kindness and the necessity to be stern over sinners, and patronising over women. Mrs. Pankhurst’s and Mrs. Lawrence’s expressions of face were also interesting.
While at sewing from 4.15, a telegram came from Mr. Marshall, telling of the decision in the House for the transference, but no official notice had yet been received by the two.
In 1957, when they were in their nineties, Margaret and Mary Thompson told their story in a brilliantly titled book, They Couldn’t Stop Us! Experiences of Two (Usually Law-abiding) Women in the Years 1909-1913. Now out of print, copies are hard to track down, which is a huge shame.
However, you can find a selection of Margaret’s diary entries in Glenda Norquay’s excellent book, Voices and Votes: A Literary Anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign, which is far easier to find.
The Museum of London website has an interesting article on the suffragettes’ hunger strikes, and an interview with Caitlin Davies whose 2018 book, Bad Girls, centres on the many women who have spent time at Holloway Prison.