Letter from Lady Constance Lytton to the Home Secretary on the treatment of prisoners, 8 December 1911 (Catalogue ref: HO 144/1119/203651)
Lady Constance Lytton,
15 Somerset Terrace,
Duke’s Road, W.C.
Friday Dec 8th 1911
In a petition which I was recently allowed to send you from Holloway Prison, I called your attention to a matter of injustice connected with the sentences passed on suffrage prisoners at Bow Street Police Court on Nov 24th.
As I have received no acknowledgment of this communication I conclude that, because of my premature release from prison, the petition was not shown to you.
The particular point on which I wish to appeal to you is this. In the case of Mrs Leigh, the wife of a working man, everyone of her previous convictions was quoted against her, the most was made of her past record, Mr. Muskelt for the prosecution commenting on her case in terms of sweeping condemnation, + she was sentenced to two months imprisonment without the option of a fine. In my case, my previous offences where skimmed over, one conviction was omitted altogether from mention, + I was given a sentence of 14 days with the option of a fine.
I know Mrs. Leigh personally. I have the very greatest admiration for her heroic altruism + for the fortitude with which she has endured great + prolonged suffering on behalf of others. The motives of her law-breaking are identical with my own. She has served our militant movement for a longer period than I have, consequently the number of convictions is greater in her case than mine, but there is no act which one has committed on behalf of the women’s cause that I have not also committed. On the occasion of our recent charges (Nov 24th), my actions were more violent than hers + I was responsible for wilful damage to property of which she was innocent.
It has unfortunately been characteristic of the treatment of Suffrage prisoners that, both in Police Courts + Prisons, those of us who have influential friends have been treated with comparative leniency, whereas working-class women + women who can count on no supporters in political circles have had the harshest treatment.
I am willing to believe that you, sir, are not personally responsible for the recent instances of partiality under you jurisdiction. But these essentially undemocratic specialisations inevitably reflect discredit on the Government of which you are a member, + unless you take steps to counteract them, your consent must be assumed.
I appeal to you, in no controversial or carping spirit, but as one Liberal to another, to remedy the injustice of this particular case by reducing the term of Mrs. Leigh’s sentence.
I should be grateful if you would quickly let me have an answer by Monday. Unless you have any objection, I propose to make public this letter on your reply.
I am, sir,
The Rt. Honr. Reginald McKenna
The Home Office