On this day in history : 25th June 1912 – Prime Minister Herbert Asquith comes under attack in the Commons over the force-feeding of suffragettes….George Lansbury is suspended from Parliament for his outburst….
George Lansbury was Labour MP for Bow and Bromley; he was a peace activist, opposed to the Boer War and World War I…. He was also a staunch supporter of Women’s Suffrage….
The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had engaged in an active campaign and many had been imprisoned for acts such as smashing windows and refusing to pay fines…. Soon Holloway was full and women were sent further afield, to prisons such as Aylesbury and Birmingham and overcrowding meant conditions were even poorer than usual…. Denied the status of political prisoners and so not receiving the certain privileges that such were entitled to, many of the women resorted to going on hunger-strike in protest…. The authorities responded with forcible feeding….
Force-feeding was a brutal procedure…. The woman was either tied to a chair, which was then tipped back, or she was tied down on to a bed…. A rubber tube was then forced up her nose or down her throat, into the stomach…. If administered via the mouth, a ‘gag’ was used, occasionally made of wood but more often steel…. The steel option was particularly painful as it was pushed into the mouth to force open the teeth and then a screw was turned to open the jaws wide…. Sometimes the rubber tube would be accidentally forced into the windpipe, causing food to enter the lungs, thus endangering life…. Which ever method was used, damage to the nose or throat was pretty much inevitable…. Some women had to endure being force-fed more than two hundred times….
On the 25th of June 1912 George Lansbury well and truly lost his temper in the House of Commons…. Prime Minister Asquith, in replying to an appeal to release the suffragettes, had stated if the women gave the undertaking not to repeat their offences – meaning give up the cause – then they would be released…. Lansbury shouted “You know the women cannot give such an undertaking! It is ridiculous to ask them to give an undertaking!”….
Shouts of “Order! Order!” Rang out around the Commons…. But Lansbury continued with his tirade; white with fury he advanced to the front bench – shaking his fist in the face of Asquith and other ministers…. With his face just inches from that of the Prime Minister’s he screamed “Why, you’re beneath contempt. You call yourself a gentleman, and you forcibly feed and murder women in this fashion. You ought to be driven out of office”…. He carried on ranting despite MPs shouting their disapproval and the Speaker ordering him to leave…. Lansbury shouted at Asquith “You will go down to history as a man who tortured innocent women”….
Eventually the Speaker regained control, telling Lansbury if he didn’t leave of his own accord then he would be forcibly removed…. His fellow Labour colleagues persuaded him to leave….he was temporarily suspended from Parliament….
Lansbury got little support from other Labour MPs in his fight for Women’s Suffrage – he dismissed theses colleagues as “a weak, flabby lot”…. Later in the same year he resigned his post to fight a by-election in Bow and Bromley for Women’s Suffrage…. He lost to his Conservative opponent – who’s campaign slogan was ‘No Petticoat Government’….
In 1913 Lansbury addressed a WSPU rally at the Albert Hall ~ “Let them burn and destroy property and do anything they will, and for every leader that is taken away, let a dozen step forward in their place”….
Charged and convicted with incitement Lansbury received a three month prison sentence….he immediately went on hunger-strike….