finding Christ in prison – Helen Sprott and Fred Hankinson

Why did militant women’s disillusionment with the Church bring deliberate provocation and rage, and why was the Church made such a target (although far from the only one)?

imagesThe answer lies partly in personal experiences, especially those of suffragette prisoners, whose particular religious sensibilities were quickened by Holloway and other jails. For on the creative level, as reflected in several suffragette testimonies, the experience of the struggle and its sufferings led some to a heightened sense of themselves and their perceived mission.  (see left the prison brooch, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst: a literal badge of honour for ex-prisoners, backing a broad arrow enameled in WSPU colours (purple, green and white) with a portcullis, the medieval gate that is the traditional symbol of Parliament)

Such suffragette reflection was commonly phrased in Christian language. Holloway-PrisonThe first time she went into the prison chapel at Holloway, remarked Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence for example, she saw six or seven hundred women there, and could not pick out the suffragettes. It was a revelation, she said:

No claim left, no sign of education left, no distraction of any kind – everything swept away, except humanity and womanhood I felt like a wave in a great sea, the sea of Humanity – great, restless, infinite, unfathomable! Oh how I longed in that chapel to get up, just as I was, in my prison clothes I knew I could have made them understand the Gospel. It was a wonderful sight! That congregation clothed in the dress of shame. There, over the altar, the picture of the human God, executed as a criminal between two thieves; I knew perfectly well that the drama of the Cross and Passion, infinitely less in degree – as I felt very deeply during those Passion week services we had in church – infinitely less in degree, but the same drama, was being worked out there.
(Votes for Women, 23 April 1909)

Prison was not therefore without its spiritual consolations. As Olive Walton’s diary during her imprisonment in Aylesbury prison shows, the time to talk and reflect together as women could be turned to good effect. As she noted in her entry for 12 May 1912:

Not so hot. Church twice. Sit about outside and listen to experiences and interesting arguments in theology. (Suffragette Fellowship Collection, Museum of London)

399784Many other accounts of prison experiences were similarly full of the spiritual sustenance found by hunger strikers in their Christian faith and the prayers of others (cf. for example, Constance Lytton in Prisons and Prisoners, pp.193, 276 and Mary Richardson in Laugh a Defiance, p.147).

Suffragette sentences were also occasionally lightened by such visitors as Fred Hankinson, the Unitarian minister of Kentish Town, who acted as an unofficial chaplain to the militants.  Raised in an Unitarian atmosphere, he became as a result, he said, ‘without knowing it a Suffragist.’ Brought up amongst seven sisters (one of whom was a close friend of George Bernard Shaw, to whom Shaw dedicated his play St.Joan), and educated in a mixed school at first, ‘Hank’ remembered startling his mother at an early age by proclaiming that women ought to have the same rights, or otherwise travel free on the railways! A committed suffragist, and also an enthusiastic supporter of female preachers, he was a very welcome visitor to Holloway and other jails between 1907 (or 1908) and 1913, until he was caught allegedly passing unauthorised information to prisoners. Testimonials in his papers witness to the deep warmth and appreciation that his visits brought to the suffragettes.

The greater part of the prison experience however, was miserable and sometimes horrendous.  In this religion was occasionally used as a means of punishment, with chaplains acting as accessories. According to Katherine Marshall for example, one of a number of clergy daughters who were imprisoned in Holloway:

the first Governor had to retire. He wept and told my husband that the women were nearly driving him mad. We were not allowed to go to Holy Communion for the first few weeks because we were so wicked.
(Suffragette Escapes and Adventures, Museum of London)

This issue was taken up by Helen Sprott, a W.F.L member who was also the Church League branch secretary in Brighton. She wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury after having had great difficulty, along with sixteen others, of receiving communion in Holloway.  In particular she complained about a letter from the chaplain which had stated that:

while recognising that we committed these unlawful deeds from what we held to be good motives, we were nevertheless being justly punished for our wicked deeds.

What was the purpose of chapel and prison chaplains, she asked, for:

those who started the Hunger strike were forbidden chapel (not on account of weakness as they were ordered to remove their baggage, unaided, from one part of the prison to another at some distance, up and down many steps) – but apparently as a punishment.

The Archbishop replied that he had indeed written to advise prison chaplains facing these ‘peculiar’ difficulties, hoping to facilitate rather than hinder the receiving of Holy Communion: advising the prison chaplain, he said, to direct such ladies: to ???????????????what the Prayer Book says about such requirements, and then to leave to them the responsibility.

Such an eirenic spirit was difficult to maintain. Certainly some felt that this still missed the point.  As other correspondence in Davidson’s papers shows, the Archbishop also received rulings from canon lawyers, indicating that the suffragettes, being impenitent about their actions, therefore should not be admitted to holy communion. Above all, the chaplains themselves were at a loss as how to minister in the face of the vitality and determination of the suffragettes, and their reported actions do not show them in a good light. As Jane Terrero recorded:

At one time, so lately as last May, the atmosphere in the Chapel was such that people used to faint in all directions during service, and one Sunday, one of the wardresses fainted and had to be carried out. It was only after a threat to smash the Chapel windows that the Chaplain was induced to have 16 panes of glass taken out I may add he was only just in time.  (Suffragette Fellowship Collection, Museum of London).

In her celebrated book Prisons and Prisoners, Constance Lytton similarly made equally telling comments on the chaplains she encountered.

The Manchester suffragette Miss Edmee Manning hence summed up the feelings of many when she related her prison experiences to fellow workers in the Women’s Freedom League:

The religious instruction at Holloway seemed to be chiefly directed to impressing us that we were all miserable sinners – (laughter). Every Wednesday we had the Commination Service. I had never seen or heard of it before. The chaplain told us that the very best thing we could do was to sit down during our busy lives and think – (laughter) – and it seemed to me we had reached the best place to do it If any of you should go to prison the best advice I can give you is: Be cheerful, meek, a vegetarian, and a Nonconformist. You can be cheered by a Nonconformist minister twice a week.  
(newspaper clipping in Hankinson Papers, unattributed, undated).


God of courage and comfort,
we pray for all who are imprisoned for conscience sake
and for all who support them in their incarceration.
Enable us to be inspired by those who have led the way,
that we too may seek justice and fair conditions for all.
In the name of Jesus, tortured and crucified as a criminal, Amen.

About blessedimp

Anglican priest, theologian and peace, justice & inter-religious activist, seeking wholeness in a fragmented world, transgender female
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