Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was a political activist and prominent member of the British suffragette movement. She also had a leading role in the Women’s Tax Resistance League.
Singh was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last king of the Sikh Empire. He had become the Maharaja of Punjab in 1843 at the age of 5 but only ruled until the age of 10 when he was deposed from his throne by the British East India Company (EIC). The EIC annexed Punjab in 1849, making it part of the British Raj and plundering everything, including the fabled Koh-I-Noor diamond. At 15, The Maharaja was exiled to England where he was forced to become anglicised and converted to christianity. He eventually settled at Elveden Hall in Suffolk which he transformed into a Moghul palace, with grounds full of leopards, monkeys and exotic birds. It was at Elveden Hall that Singh was born in 1876, to the Maharaja and his wife Bamba Müller.
At the age of ten, after the Maharaja had started running out of money and obsessed with the idea of reclaiming his throne and kick the British out of Punjab, the Duleep Singh family set out to travel to India, in defiance of British orders. They did not get far before they were turn back due to a warrant for their arrest. The Maharaja remained abroad, disowning Singh who was sent back to England. She was then given a place to live by her godmother, Queen Victoria. Singh was then raised to become a genteel aristocratic Englishwoman. She made her debut in court, wore fashionable dresses from Paris and her pastimes included breeding champion dogs, photography, cycling and attending parties. She was often photographed for the society pages of magazines. She was given Faraday House in Hampton Court as a grace-and-favour home by Queen Victoria, along with an allowance of £200 a year. She would live there for much of her adult life.
Singh travelled secretly to India with her sister, Bamba in 1900 where they attended the Delhi Durbar, at which they were snubbed. This became the point at which Singh realised that her popularity was hollow and worthless. During her visit, she met relatives in Amritsar and Lahore and began to understand what her family had lost when the EIC took over the Punjab. She experienced the reality of poverty, something which her wealthy upbringing had shielded her from. She also met Indian freedom fighters like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai who were fighting for self-rule and supported their cause.
On her return to England, Singh initially supported the Indian soldiers and Lascars during WWI. In 1909 she turned her attention to women’s suffrage, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She rose quickly through the party, becoming a prominent member as well as helping to fund it. She fought to promote activities in the colonies for similar rights for woman. Her position as a royal proved useful, allowing her to sell copies of a suffragette newspaper outside her home at Hampton Court Palace. Singh was also a huge draw for the party, and appeared at fundraisers where women flocked to meet the Indian royal.
In 1910, Singh took part in the the first deputation to the House of Commons along with Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and many others. The event came to be known as ’Black Friday’. During the demonstration, the police clashed with the Suffragettes, leading to many injuries and some instances of sexual assault. During the chaos, Singh got in front of a woman on the ground who was being beaten by the police. As soon as the policeman recognised her, he fled. Singh also ran in front of the Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s car, sticking a poster which read ‘Votes for Women’ onto his window. She publicly supported the militant suffragette bomb makers and arsonists who were causing terror throughout Great Britain.
Singh was a leading member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL), refusing to pay her taxes until women were granted the right to vote. She felt that if women could not vote to determine the use of the taxes, they should not pay them. On a number of occasions, Singh was fined for unpaid taxes and items of jewellery were confiscated from her to pay her debts. The jewellery was then bought back in auction by members of the WTRL and returned to her. Her actions greatly increased the public awareness of the women’s movement.
During World War I, Singh joined a protest of 10,000 women fighting to be allowed to volunteer for the war effort. She later worked as a nurse during the war for the Red Cross, tending wounded Indian soldiers in a Brighton hospital. Sikh soldiers could not believe that their nurse was the granddaughter of the great Ranjit Singh.
In 1918, after “The Representation of the People Act” was enacted, giving women over the age of 30 the vote. Singh joined the Suffragette Fellowship. That same year, she arranged for a flag day as a show of support for Indian troops which sent shock waves through England and New Delhi. A year later, she hosted Indian soldiers of the peace contingent, at her home in Faraday House. In 1924, she visited India once again with her sister Bamba. They visited Kashmir, Lahore, Amritsar and Murre and were mobbed by people eager to see their Maharaja’s daughters. Singh’s visit increased activism for female suffrage in India.
In 1928, Singh became the President of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship following the death of its founder Emmeline Pankhurst. During her leadership, the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship were influential in achieving the Royal consent given to the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which enabled women above the age of 21 to vote on par with men. Singh was eventually recognised for her contribution in the suffragette movement, all she had wanted to achieve within her life was the advancement of women. She remained a member of the Suffragette Fellowship until her death in 1948.