This article first was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Born on 8 August 1876 in London, Sophia Duleep Singh’s early life was characterised by a combination of Punjab heritage and links to members of the British aristocracy. Her godmother, Queen Victoria, supported Sophia after the princess’s father abandoned her and left her destitute, finding her an apartment at Hampton Court Palace. Relations with Buckingham Palace were increasingly tested by Sophia’s involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage after 1907, a role that combined her celebrity status with a burgeoning desire to effect real change. Sophia died in 1948 at the age of 72.
You explore Sophia’s background in depth. Why did it prove so important?
Sophia had the most mismatched parents you can imagine. Her grandfather, Ranjit, was the maharaja of the Sikh empire of the Punjab, one of the most powerful empires of India, with an enormous army and wealth beyond our imaginings. When Ranjit died his young son, Duleep – Sophia’s father – was suddenly propelled to the throne.
The British had always had their eye on the Punjab, but couldn’t touch it while Ranjit was alive. When he died, they entered the kingdom, separated the little boy from his mother and locked her in a tower so that there was nobody to advise Duleep. And they forced the king, this terrified little boy, to sign everything over. The East India Company, in their generosity, left him the title of maharaja – but took everything else.
How did Queen Victoria enter his life?
After his mother was imprisoned, Duleep was given two guardians in India – a Scottish doctor, Login, and his wife. He craved attention, so learned to talk like an Englishman, and in the evening they’d play quaint Victorian games. He was desperate to please and be pleasing, because he was so uprooted.
Dispatches from India often mentioned how beautiful Duleep was, and Victoria became obsessed with him. So, eventually, he was taken to Britain where he found a new mother figure – the very woman who had robbed his true mother of everything.
Victoria lavished him with praise. She thought him charming, beautiful, refined – the Logins had done a very good job – and he revelled in it. He had finally found his ‘mummy’ after a very long time. There was a real tenderness – a murky, tangled, ghastly tenderness. It’s the stuff of epic tragedy.
How did Sophia’s parents meet?
Victoria pressured Duleep to settle down and find a wife because he and Bertie, the Prince of Wales, were very good friends and behaving very badly. They were whoring their way around London, essentially, and Victoria was sick of hearing about it. So she told them both that they were going to settle down and stop behaving like such fools.
But, though Duleep had been involved in affairs, nobody wanted to marry a ‘heathen’ like him. He was quite hurt, and looked instead for a pious Christian girl among the missionaries in Cairo – a stop-off point on voyages from India to England. One of them was almost made to order: poor old Bamba.
Having been living a happy life teaching Bible studies, she was plucked from it and thrown into paradise – then hell. It’s heartbreaking.
What happened to Sophia’s parents?
Though Duleep was living his life as if he was the maharaja, he had a limited (but quite generous) stipend to live on. His house was crackers: he wanted to make a Mughal palace in the Suffolk countryside, to be in the middle of a triangle of power with aristocrats all around him. Bertie had just bought Sandringham and, not to be outdone, Duleep decided to get something and make it even showier. It was a bizarre place, with beautiful artworks and exotic animals dotted around.
People soon started running out of patience with his spending. Victoria essentially asked him to stop being such a maniac, though in more queenly terms! Instead of paying attention, though, he spent even more. But he also started looking into where his money had gone. A lot of his property was not included in the treaty that he’d signed, and should arguably still have belonged to him.
So he was simmering with rage, and drove his family mad with his obsession of getting it back. When Sophia was about a year old he also started having very public affairs with showgirls, while Bamba was left wondering what had happened to her life. He then abandoned her, poor woman, and attempted to head back to India. He was arrested on the trip and never made it to his homeland again.
How did these early experiences influence Sophia’s later character?
They did such damage: she was so insecure that she couldn’t talk to or look at anyone, and so introverted that people worried she was ‘backwards’. Victoria took a special interest in bringing her on gently, and making up for the neglect that she suffered.
But then, at the age of 18, the prospect of a grand public occasion forced her to transform herself: she had to make her debut in society at Buckingham Palace. She suddenly did an extraordinary thing of which not many people are capable: she bucked up. She turned into this wonder woman, forcing herself to become fearless – but when she got a lot of praise for her incredibly successful debut she realised that she liked being praised. She started craving it in quite an unhealthy way. That’s my least favourite part of her life, because she’d have been the last person with whom I’d want to be stuck in a lift. She was so self-obsessed.
So all of the ingredients from her parents were evident in her personality: she liked spending, and could be quite irritating. But she also turned out to have an uncompromising moral compass. If she decided there was a right course of action, nobody could sway her – not even the British government.
How did Sophia get involved in the women’s suffrage movement?
Against the wishes of the British government, she visited India. It completely changed her: she became more politically aware after seeing the country’s revolutionary movement, and came back looking for something useful to do. She didn’t want to just be a do-gooder who gave money to people, either. She wanted to change things – and she did.
It sometimes seems as if she crossed paths with every famous person in England and India. Winston Churchill was absolutely sick of her because she kept complaining about police conduct – he wrote a note insisting that her letters were no longer answered, which is terrific. She also met a suffragette, Una Dugdale, through the socialite circuit. She joined the movement on that day and committed to it totally from that point.
What was her role in the movement?
Sophia joined as a celebrity totem, I suppose. She was famous – the kind of person who would be recognised when she walked down the street. She would host parties that proved magnetic to women who wanted to meet a princess – which was helpful to suffragettes, both for fundraising and beefing up numbers.
But she still wanted to do more. So she refused to sign her census papers, and got involved in the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Then she became really quite militant and started going on marches.
The Black Friday march on 18 November 1910 was just seismic for her. Emmeline Pankhurst had asked her to lead because she was such a celebrity, accompanied by a group of rock-star women of their day. Instead of staying in safety she went wading out, and was beaten up slightly and arrested. It wasn’t worthwhile for the British authorities to throw Victoria’s goddaughter in prison, so they kept arresting her and letting her go. She absolutely hated it – her friends were going to prison and she wasn’t.
I think she’s a Princess Diana-type figure who will go somewhere and for ages everyone will talk about what they wore. I can’t think of a single person with the profile and privilege she had who would give it all up so easily. She could have had the most comfortable life, but instead threw herself in front of police batons and under horses’ hooves.
What was the legacy of Sophia’s work, and why has it been overlooked?
She greatly helped, just as all of these women did, in changing the country and getting votes for women. Had they not pushed that door, god knows how long it would have stayed closed – because there was no tearing rush to give women the vote, no appetite for it. It was down to dogged determination on the part of these very, very brave women.
There are a cluster of reasons why her story has been forgotten. She and her siblings had no children, so there was nobody to carry the torch. At the time of her death, India and Pakistan were being born and the British empire was dying, so the relevance of the Duleep Singh name was fading: there was a whole pantheon of new gods – Gandhis, Nehrus and Jinnahs – to talk about in India. And in Britain there was an active campaign to bury her name. The Punjab was simmering, and the British authorities didn’t want her name to be up in lights.
There are so many suffragettes whose names we no longer know. But I hope that her story will influence people just to get up and do something. If the only thing people take from this book is: if you can do good, try to do good, that’s enough.
What can her life teach us today?
It shows us that, though people think Victorian England was all so very pleasant, it wasn’t. These suffragettes were the terrorists of their day, and people were afraid. It was a very different time, but also very similar.
Every time I hear people such as Russell Brand telling people not to vote, it makes me want to tear my hair out. It’s not so long ago that we didn’t have that right – so don’t squander it. If you don’t have a voice, you can’t change anything. Sophia’s story shows that one person can make a huge difference.
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand (Bloomsbury, 432 pages, £20)