Sophie Duleep Singh was an Indian princess, turned rebel suffragette, who marched alongside Emmeline Pankhurst and dedicated her life to the cause of votes for women.
Sophia was born on 8th August 1876, at her family’s stately home in Suffolk. But she was no normal English aristocrat; her father was Maharaja Duleep Singh – the last king of the Sikh empire, who was withdrawn from his throne (after the British Empire conqured the Punjab), and was exiled from India to England a couple of years later when he was still just a teenager. He brought with him the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, which now sits in the crown jewels. He converted to Christianity and enjoyed the favour of Queen Victoria. When Sophia was born she (the Queen) became her godmother.
When she was just 10 years old Sophia contracted typhoid and became very ill. Her mother, Bamba Müller (of German & Ethiopian descent) sat by her bedside as she was really worried about her daughter. Although Sophia eventually saw a full recovery, in a cruel twist of fate, her mother contracted the illness and died soon after.
Sophia’s father began to realise the wrongs which had been done to him and his people by the British Empire and started to identify with the Indian Nationalist movement. In 1856 he took his young family and attempted to flee for India. However, with warrants out for their arrest, he wasn’t able to get far. The Maharajah never returned to England, instead settling in Paris. Sophia and her siblings were sent back alone.
As Sophia grew she became a well known socialite. She was given a flat rent-free by Queen Victoria, directly opposite Hampton Court Palace, and enjoyed a yearly allowance to live off. She was known for her interest in fashion, her love of cycling and her passion for dogs, of which she had several! She was a popular and well respected figure.
In 1910 she secretly travelled to India with her sister Bamba. It was the first time she had been to her father’s homeland and she was shocked by what she saw, particularly the stark contrast between the wealth and luxury the colonialists enjoyed, and the sheer poverty that many Indians lived in. Whilst there she met several key leaders of the Indian Nationalist movement, including Sarala Devi the founder of the first women’s movement in India, who she remained in contact with. She returned to Britain with a deeply altered point of view.
In 1909 Sophia was convinced to join the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) by her pal, suffragette Una Dugdale. From here on in her mind and actions turned to equal suffrage for women, and she devoted herself to the cause. She realised that as a well known name, she could use her celebrity to attract attention to the plight of the suffragettes.
In 1910 she marched alongside Emmeline Pankhurst in the now-famed ‘Black Friday‘ march to the Houses of Parliament. When the police attacked the peacefully-marching women things quickly turned violent. One account says that Sophia acted as something of a human shield to a woman who was being beaten by a police officer. When the officer realised who she was he stopped his attack and quickly backed off.
Sophia became increasingly involved with the Suffragette movement. She sold Suffragette newspapers outside Hampton Court Palace and publicly supported the use of the bombs & violence which the Suffragettes became known for. One one occasion she ran out infront of the Prime Minister’s car and stuck a ‘Votes for Women’ poster to his windscreen. The royals were none too pleased; King George V, exasperated, asked ‘Have we no hold on her?’
She became a prominent member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL), refusing to pay any taxes. As she explained:
“When the women of England are enfranchised and the State acknowledges me as a citizen I shall, of course, pay my share willingly towards its upkeep. If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?”
Several times she appeared in court because of this evasion, and items of hers, including expensive jewellery, were conviscated to be sold at auction to pay the fines. However her cunning suffragette friends went to the auction and bought her jewellery back, returning it straight to her.
When the First World War began Sophia marched with almost 10,000 other women who were protesting for the right of women to volunteer. They eventually were, and Sophia went on to serve as a nurse in a hospital in Brighton. She did much to support Indian troops during the war, and when they were treated by her in the hospital many were overwhelmed to be in the presence of the Maharaja’s daughter.
When the war ended some women were finally granted the vote (only those over 30 and with a certain amount of property.) Sophia continued to campaign for full suffrage, and joined the Suffragette Fellowship, which was headed by Emmeline Pankhurst. When Emmeline died in 1928 Sophia became the president of the Fellowship. In the same year the vote was finally extended to all women and men over 21, regardless of property ownership.
Just over a decade later, when the Second World War began Sophia moved to the countryside with her sister Bamba. They took in a family of evacuees; three children and a mother. One of the children, Shirley remembered their time with the princess: