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The history of female protest and suffrage in the UK
The history of female protest and suffrage in the UK

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5.2 The Cat and Mouse Act

Most suffragettes were denied the privileges in prison owed to political prisoners and in response they went on hunger strike. Many were repeatedly force-fed with nasal or mouth tubes (Figure 8), a horrific process that could have long-term consequences for their health.

This picture in black and white shows a woman restrained in a chair, surrounded by four people – a man and three women. One of the women is pouring something into a tube which leads to the restrained woman’s nose. The other three people are holding the woman down.
Figure 8 Suffragette being force fed with the nasal tube in Holloway Prison.

With the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act of 1913, commonly known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, the government attempted a different policy, abandoning force-feeding and releasing hunger-strikers when they were weak, only to reimprison them when they had got their strength back. But the policy was a failure, one reason being that released prisoners tended to go into hiding and evade capture.

The next activity will involve you undertaking a web-based search to find out some specific information on a particular suffragette’s experience of the Cat and Mouse Act.

Activity 6 Searching for information about the Cat and Mouse Act

Use your favourite search engine to find out about a suffragette called Lilian Lenton and her experiences of the Cat and Mouse Act. You may find lots of interesting information during this search, but you should spend only about 20 minutes searching before moving on to read the Discussion.

Hint: you can narrow your search by using double quotation marks around phrases.


If you first searched for information on Lenton herself, you may have found one or more of the following:

The Wikipedia page, on first look, contained an error regarding the date when women were granted the vote, claiming that it was 1914. (This error has since been corrected on the site.) Wikipedia is often more accurate on the facts that are directly relevant to the subject of an article (such as Lilian Lenton’s biographical information).

You may also have found information during your search about a book called Rebel Girls by the historian Jill Liddington (Liddington, 2006), which contains information about Lenton.

Searches for ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, as you may have found, bring up educational websites in the main. Some sources, such as Spartacus Educational are short but factual. Some of the wording used on the History Learning Site is very similar to that used in the timeline for the Working Class Movement Library, which mentions the Act. Perhaps one of them copied the text from the other? This topic also has a Wikipedia entry, which appeared to be accurate.

‘“Lilian Lenton” and “Cat and Mouse Act”’, combined, may have produced fewer hits. The BBC archive film of Lenton explaining about the Act, or Lenton’s Wikipedia entry, may have come up. This shows how the use of double quotation marks around phrases can help to narrow searches.

Were you surprised by what you learned of this Act? Does its popular name do justice to what was involved, or does it diminish the experiences of those affected, do you think?