S O P H I A S I N G H THE FORGOTTEN INDIAN PRINCESS
The expatriate Indian Princess Sophia was recently honoured by the British Royal Mail with a stamp to mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave women over 30 and all men over 21 the right to vote. She was one of the earliest women to fight for social justice and equality in the UK and had a massive impact on the social movements of that time. Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh (8 August 1876 – 22 August 1948) was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, who had been taken from his kingdom of Punjab to the British Raj owing to political manoeuvring by Governor-General Dalhousie in India, and was subsequently exiled to England. Sophia’s mother was Maharani Bamba Müller, and her godmother was Queen Victoria. She had four sisters, including two stepsisters, and four brothers. She lived in Hampton Court in an apartment in Faraday House given to her by Queen Victoria as a grace and favour. Once upon a time a timid girl who used to squirm before the camera, Sophia took the well-travelled route of private tutors and debutantes balls and eventually became an unabashed show-off. She would strike absurd poses for newspaper photographers, marrying her two greatest loves: high fashion and dogbreeding. On one voyage to north-western India aboard the SS Barbarossa, Sophia paid considerable attention to the etiquette of the captain’s banqueting table and avoided the more vulgar guests. Throughout the voyage, she obsessed about her pooches, refusing suggestions that she might put the dogs in steerage with her maid, and “adamant that she was the best person to care for them, she fed the dogs on fine cuts of meat and the occasional nip of brandy”.
HER INDIAN EXPLORATIONS LEADING TO A REFORM IN HER WORLDVIEW
In due course of time she made a secret trip to India with her sister, Bamba, to attend the 1903 Delhi Durbar, where she was ignored. This impressed on Singh the futility of public and media popularity, and she returned to England determined to change her course. During a 1907 trip to India, she visited Amritsar and Lahore and met relatives. This visit was a turning point in her life, as she faced the realities of poverty and what her family had lost by surrendering to the British government.
In India, Singh hosted a “purdah party” in Shalimar Bagh in Lahore (her grandfather’s capital). During the visit, all the while shadowed by British agents, she encountered Indian freedom fighters such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai and expressed sympathy for their cause. During World War I, Singh initially supported the Indian soldiers and Lascars working in the British fleets and joined a 10,000-woman protest march against the prohibition of a volunteer female force. She eventually wore a Red Cross uniform as a nurse and took care of wounded Indian soldiers at Brighton hospital who had been evacuated from the Western Front. The Sikh soldiers could hardly believe “that the granddaughter of Ranjit Singh sat by their bedsides in a nurse’s uniform”. Another event which changed her was her elder sister’s inability to continue studying as a doctor in the United States. Due to her uncontrollable tongue and prickly personality, as well as a justifiable bitterness about her family’s status, Bamba Singh looked to America to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. She was accepted at Northwestern University, but part of the way through her studies, the university decided women would no longer be allowed to be doctors as the American public was not in favour of women doctors at that time.
A FIREBRAND WITH HUGE IMPACT ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN ENGLAND
During the early twentieth century, Singh was one of several South Asian women who pioneered the cause of women’s rights in Britain. After Singh returned from India in 1909, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and pioneered the movement for women’s voting rights, funding suffragette groups and leading the cause. Although as a British subject Singh’s primary interest was women’s rights in England, she and her fellow suffragettes also promoted similar activities in the colonies where her title of Princess was useful. At first, Singh kept a low profile; in 1911 she was reluctant to make speeches in public or at Women’s Social and Political Union meetings. She refused to chair meetings, telling her WSPU colleagues she was “quite useless for that sort of thing” and would only say “five words if nobody else would support the forthcoming resolution”. Over the subsequent years, Sophia would show herself to be more than a mere token signatory. She would sell suffragette pamphlets outside Hampton Court, where she resided.
She marched on Parliament and was held against St. Stephen’s Gate as officers and thugs beat and molested female marchers— that is, until she “elbowed her way through the seething mass” and tried to save a protester. She was arrested numerous times. On one occasion, she threw herself at the car of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith brandishing a protest banner. She became notorious for her refusal to pay taxes so long as she could not vote, but her notoriety and position meant that the government was terrified of putting her in jail (where she might go on hunger strike and end up becoming a martyr). Her home would be raided for jewels to pay the fines instead, all of which only created more publicity for the movement. Her speech against paying up was reprinted in full in The Times and covered by all the major papers.
In 1914, she gave £51 to the WSPU, which represented nearly 10 percent of her yearly income. Singh authorised an auction of her belongings, with proceeds benefiting the Women’s Tax Resistance League. She solicited subscriptions to the cause, and was photographed selling The Suffragette newspaper outside her home and from press carts. It also came at a time when the WSPU was becoming increasingly controversial, particularly over the use of arson as a tactic. She supported the manufacture of bombs, encouraging anarchy in Britain. After the 1918 enactment of the Representation of the People Act, allowing women over age 30 to vote, Singh joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death.
Singh died in her sleep on 22 August 1948 in Coalhatch House, now known as Hilden Hall, a residence once owned by her sister Catherine, and was cremated on 26 August 1948 at Golders Green Crematorium. Before her death she had expressed the wish that she be cremated according to Sikh rites and her ashes spread in India.