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Sophia Duleep Singh: princess and suffragette

Anita Anand introduces the extraordinary life of Sophia Duleep Singh and how she fought for equality and women's suffrage.

During the four years it took to research the life of Sophia Duleep Singh, she became something of an obsession of mine – a mass of contradictions overloading my journalist brain. She was the vacuous socialite who developed an all-consuming social conscience. A royal pauper, who appeared on every aristocratic guest list, yet lived on state handouts. An obedient goddaughter to Queen Victoria, she revelled in giving the establishment a good kick-in. Most intriguingly of all Sophia fought for British women – for their democracy and the right to vote – even though Britain had taken everything from her family. The suffragettes were all extraordinary women, but even in their midst, Sophia stands out.

Newspaper article about Sophia Duleep Singh’s trial

Newspaper article about Sophia Duleep Singh’s trial

In her fight for women's suffrage, Sophia Duleep Singh often drew attention from the press. This article details one of her court trials for refusal to pay tax. 

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Punjab, the Koh-i-Noor and British expansionism: the background to Sophia Duleep Singh’s family

Born in Belgravia in 1876, Sophia had much to live up to. Her grandfather was the mighty Ranjit Singh, ruler of the North of India from 1801 to 1839. Known simply as Sher-e-Punjab or Lion of Punjab, his realm stretched from the lush green Kashmir Valley to the craggy foothills of the Khyber Pass.

As the map of India slowly turned red in the 19th century, marking the territorial gains of the British East India Company, Punjab remained a fortress against their expansionism. Punjab enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity under Ranjit Singh and his numerous wives gave him numerous sons. His Toshakhana or treasury brimmed with gold and jewels, chief among them the Mountain of Light, or Koh-i-Noor.

The Koh-i-Noor, which was once the size and heft of a hen’s egg, now sits in the Queen Mother’s crown in the Tower of London. According to ancient Hindu scripture, it was the gem of the Hindu sun god Surya and contained the light of the universe. As such, it was said to have the power to destroy mere mortals who dared to wear it.

Unlike his predecessors, all of whom came to gruesomely violent ends, Ranjit Singh lived long and died peacefully in his sleep in 1839, though he had worn the diamond as an amulet. In contrast, his family and kingdom would not fare nearly as well.

Punjab’s succession was mired in blood, as the royal family poisoned, bludgeoned, shot and hacked each other to death. In just four years Punjab lost a dowager queen, two of Ranjit’s oldest sons, two grandsons and numerous aristocrats. By 1843 the last man standing was no man at all, but a doe eyed, five-year-old boy by the name of Duleep Singh.

Ranjit Singh’s youngest son, who would one day become Sophia’s father, ruled his kingdom from his mother’s lap. Sensing a weakness in the Sikh Empire, the British East India Company made its move and approached two of the most important men in Duleep’s court. After the first Anglo Sikh War of 1845, thanks to their treachery, the British marched into Lahore as victors. Marching into a kingdom is not the same as keeping it, and the British realised that removing Duleep Singh from the throne would provoke rebellion. Instead they left the little maharaja where he was and signed a treaty with him extracting exorbitant reparations but also promising to leave as friends when Duleep reached the age of majority.

The agreement wasn’t worth the paper it was written on and over the course of the next four years the EIC amassed troops and prepared logistics for a takeover. The Second Anglo Sikh War crushed the Sikh Empire. Duleep was forced to sign a new treaty in 1849 giving up his Kingdom. He was exiled and his Koh-i-Noor swiftly shipped to Queen Victoria.

Cartoon of Queen Victoria as Queen of India, from Punch magazine

Cartoon of Queen Victoria as Queen of India, from Punch magazine

This 1858 cartoon of Queen Victoria represents the beginning of Britain assuming monarchical control of India. This included Queen Victoria receiving the Koh-I-Noor and later being crowned Empress of India. 

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Usage terms: © Punch Ltd. Further commercial reproduction of this material is prohibited without prior consent. All enquiries to info@punch.co.uk, www.punch.co.uk

Extravagance and destitution: the Singhs in England

Five years later, Duleep would follow, and when he reached England in 1854 he became a favourite of Victoria and Albert. He later married and set up home in Elveden, a large country estate on the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. Duleep ripped apart the original building, and built instead a place which reminded him of his lost childhood. Sophia, the second youngest of his six children, grew up amidst dazzling opulence where rooms were filled with Persian rugs, tiger skins and jewelled artefacts. Mouldings were crusted in gold leaf, surfaces covered in light catching pietra dura and plasterwork was made to look like finely carved marble. When Duleep asked Queen Victoria to become Sophia’s godmother, she agreed without hesitation, such was the warmth between the two families.

Elveden became a pilgrimage for aristocratic England and while Sophia learned to toddle in the nursery, the Prince of Wales and an assortment of dukes and earls kicked off muddy boots in the great hall below and swapped hunting stories with her father. Outside, leopards scowled through the drizzle and baboons picked fights with local jackdaws. There was an air of madness, extravagance and decay at Elveden, exemplified by the sight of Indian hawks and jewelled parrots which regularly fell out of the trees, defeated by the hostile climate.

When she turned nine, Sophia too found herself falling. The Maharajah began to question the legality of the treaty he had been forced to sign as a child. He could not understand why Queen Victoria, a mother figure, would not intercede on his behalf. Incredulity gave way to bitterness, and soon the Maharajah found himself on a collision course with Victoria and her Raj. In a doomed campaign, Duleep Singh uprooted Sophia and her family and attempted to drag them to Punjab, where he believed their very presence would spark an uprising.

The family was detained at the port of Aden, and Sophia, who would fall foul of the law numerous times in her life thanks to her suffragette antics, suffered her first arrest at the age of nine. Her father, consumed by thoughts of revenge, jettisoned his family soon after and dedicated the rest of his life to reclaiming his birth right. He would die penniless and alone in a shabby Parisian hotel, but not before he had reduced his young family to destitution.

From socialite to suffragette

Sophia was saved by her godmother, who not only gathered in the distraught and fatherless family upon their return from Aden, but also took control of Sophia’s schooling when her mother died of alcoholism and despair soon after. She personally granted Sophia a grace-and-favour house at Hampton Court Palace and hosted her ‘Coming Out’ at Buckingham Palace, making it very clear that despite her father’s actions, Sophia had a place in the royal court. In return, Sophia spent her twenties working extremely hard to become incredibly vacuous.

Transcript of telegram for Lord Crewe about Sophia Duleep Singh

Transcript of telegram for Lord Crewe about Sophia Duleep Singh

After a photograph of Duleep Singh was published in The Suffragette, officials considered evicting her from her grace-and-favour apartment in Hampton Court Palace.  

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She attended every party and social event of note, gracing the pages of women’s magazines with her taste in fashion and more scandalous antics. When Sophia wore pearls in her hair, it became material for newsprint. She became one of the first women in England to ride a bicycle, and won the precursor competition of Crufts, with her Pomeranians beating those of the royal family. Life was good.

But then a forbidden trip to India in 1903 transformed her. Despite the Duleep Singh’s being banned from India, Sophia and her sisters were desperate to attend the Delhi Durbar, an epic celebration of Edward VII’s coronation. Never able to resist a good party, Sophia sneaked into the country against the wishes of the Secretary of State for India. There, in the land of her forefathers, she experienced racism for the first time in her life.

Though she was a celebrity in London, in India she was one in a sea of brown faces, all of whom were second class citizens. She saw famine and suffering at first hand, and attributed them to the harshness of colonial rule. The cry of the Indian nationalists of ‘Awaz doh’ (‘Give us a voice’) proved irresistible and awoke a sense of dispossession in Sophia which had long lain dormant. Never again would she be carefree.

Arriving back in England, Sophia heard the same cri de coeur coming from British suffragettes, who were, like the Indian nationalists, fighting for a say in their future. At last she had a cause she could believe in. As a suffragette, Princess Sophia found herself in Emmeline Pankhurst’s inner circle. She drove press carts though London for the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) attracting the attention of the press and embarrassing her former friends. Sophia donated and raised vast sums of money for suffragette acts of militancy, never abandoning the cause even when the WSPU employed arson as a weapon. She refused to pay her taxes, spoiled her census papers and defied court judgements awarded against her. She took to selling the suffragette newspaper The Vote outside Hampton Court, in all weathers, with a sandwich board next to her.

Photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette

Photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette

Sophia Duleep Singh often sold newspapers, including the WSPU's The Suffragette and the WFL's The Vote, outside her home in Hampton Court Palace.

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The battle became physically dangerous too, when Sophia led the Black Friday march of 1910 with Emmeline Pankhurst at her side. That march was met by unprecedented brutality and Sophia personally fought with one police officer who was battering a sister suffragette. On another occasion Sophia threw herself at Prime Minister Asquith’s car, slamming a ‘Votes for Women’ pamphlet against his window, daring the state to send her to prison where she longed to go on hunger strike like the others, attracting maximum attention to the cause.

Black Friday pamphlet

Black Friday pamphlet by Mrs Solomon

On Friday 18 November 1910 approximately 300 suffragettes marched to the House of Commons to protest at the failure of the first Conciliation Bill. The march was was met with unprecedented brutality, as this open letter to Winston Churchill describes.

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Held by: © Museum of London

Sophia made enemies of the most powerful men in the Empire, including Winston Churchill and King George V. Every time I thought I was done with her story, I would come across another example of her defiance and bravery. Sophia held the cause of women’s rights close to her heart until the day she died. In her later years, when asked for an entry to Who’s Who, she gave just a one line answer. Under ‘interests’ she simply wrote: ‘The advancement of women’.

I remember my debt to Sophia and her sister suffragettes every time I hear a parliamentary debate, deal with callers on Any Answers?, or mark a ballot paper at election time. This year more than ever, I know I am not alone.

  • Anita Anand
  • Anita Anand is the presenter of Any Answers on Radio 4, and the author of Sophia, Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary and Koh-i-Noor, the story of the world’s most infamous diamond, both published by Bloomsbury.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.