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Spotlight on Reginald McKenna (1863-1943): The Man who Introduced the Cat and Mouse Act

Reginald McKenna, the man who introduced the infamous “Cat and Mouse Act”, was Home Secretary from 1911 to 1915. Born into a Catholic family in London, he later converted to Protestantism. He studied at Cambridge University, in 1887 became a barrister, and in 1895 he was elected Liberal MP for North Monmouthshire.

McKenna was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1908, and from there moved to take up the post of Home Secretary. The appointment pitched him into the forefront of the Liberal government’s battle with the militant suffragettes. Over the next few years he was engaged in a rancorous struggle with them for the moral high ground, a struggle which already seemed lost when he took up the post.
The appointment pitched him into the forefront of the Liberal government’s battle with the militant suffragettes. Over the next few years he was engaged in a rancorous struggle with them for the moral high ground, a struggle which already seemed lost when he took up the post.

In 1909 imprisoned suffragettes had started using the hunger strike as a protest against the government’s refusal to grant them political prisoner status. When their refusal to eat threatened to put their lives in danger, prison authorities had no choice but to release them on  medical grounds. This meant that the women were effectively evading their prison sentences. In an effort to put a stop to this, McKenna’s predecessor, Herbert Gladstone, introduced forcible feeding. But the sheer brutality of the treatment meted out to women during what was disguised as a medical procedure only seemed to increase their defiance – and brought down a barrage of criticism on the government.

Worse still, forcible feeding didn’t work. The women persisted in their hunger strike in spite of it and, as before, as their health failed they had to be released. Caught between the risk of creating martyrs and letting convicted criminals go free, McKenna sought an extension of his powers. Hitherto his only option had been to release the prisoners with a pardon. What he needed was a mechanism for releasing prisoners without pardoning them. He obtained that under the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913 (the Cat and Mouse Act). Under the Act, hunger striking women could be released on licence to recover from their ordeal, then readmitted to prison to continue serving their sentences.

It was a neat solution to the Home Secretary’s dilemma, as he told the House of Commons in July 1913: “When we are confronted with the situation in which these women refuse to take their food, we have now power which we had not got before to liberate them in order to prevent them committing suicide, and yet, while we liberate them, we still retain power to enforce the law and to compel them to serve the sentence imposed upon them by the Courts.”[1]

But as far as his critics were concerned, the Cat and Mouse Act was a cruel refinement of the torture of forcible feeding – especially since McKenna had not relinquished the right to order forcible feeding on hunger striking prisoners. In vain he protested that all the women had to do was eat. The opposition countered: all the government has to do is grant the women what they asked for – political prisoner status. 

A contemporary postcard labels McKenna: "Reggie the Mouser"

A committee to campaign for the repeal of the Act was established. Their attempt to deliver a petition to the House of Commons ended in exactly the same way as previous attempts to deliver suffrage petitions, with arrests and imprisonments. Mrs Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, former treasurer of the WSPU, and the writer Evelyn Sharp were amongst the women who went to prison, where they went on hunger strike.

McKenna was vilified as a coward and a torturer of women. The militant Mary Richardson, speaking in court after her arrest for slashing The Rokeby Venus, a painting by Velasquez in the National Gallery,  declared, “Mr McKenna has made the criminal code into a comic valentine...I have great contempt for any Administration which does not treat all persons equally. Mr McKenna has not rearrested me under the “Cat and Mouse” Act, as he has done other women, presumably because he is afraid of killing me in the forcible feeding torture. But I am not afraid of dying. Therefore he is the greater coward. He cannot coerce me, he can’t make me serve my sentence, he can only again repeat the farce of releasing me or else kill me. Either way, mine is the victory.”[2]

Labour leader Keir Hardie and other MPs raised awkward questions in the House of Commons. They demanded to know by what right police entered private houses to arrest women subject to the Cat and Mouse Act. They also condemned the unnecessary violence with which the arrests were carried out. Others criticised the cost of policing the scheme.

And critics pointed out that the Cat and Mouse Act had failed: suffragettes were still not serving their prison sentences. Many of the women released on licence went on the run, and added insult to injury by continuing to carry out militant acts. Inevitably, McKenna himself was a target for militancy. He was accosted by suffragette Helen Cragg in Llandaff on 28 June 1912; she accused him of “jaunting about the country while women were starving in prison”.  In October 1913 his brother’s house in Hampshire was targetted by arsonists.

McKenna lost his seat in the 1918 general election. He became chairman of Midland Bank, and an expert on financial matters who was consulted by Bonar Law’s Conservative government in the 1920s. He took the lease of Mells Park, in Somerset, and commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had built a house for him in Smith Street, London, to rebuild the house, which had been damaged by fire in 1917. Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll designed the gardens. 

The McKenna tomb designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens - St Andrew's Church, Mells

Lutyens’s work is to be found all around the village of Mells: he designed the avenue of clipped yews at St Andrew’s Church, as well as the war memorial and other structures. Reginald McKenna died in London on 6 September 1943, and was buried in St Andrews Church, which is also the resting place of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. McKenna’s tomb was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

[1] Hansard: HC Deb 23 July 1913 vol 55 cc2171-6.

[2] Glasgow Herald 11 March 1914.


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