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Forcible feeding the kind way: Dr Helby of Winson Green Prison

Many suffragettes went on hunger strike in prison and were forcibly fed by prison doctors. A number of the hunger strikers published descriptions of their experiences in horrifying detail: the pain and sickness they endured, the injuries they sustained in struggles with prison staff, the humiliation of the procedure. It’s easy to characterise the men who were willing to inflict such suffering on the women as amongst the villains of suffragette history, particularly when they are viewed in the light of the suffragettes’ powerful testimonies. 

Dr Ernest Hasler Helby has the unenviable distinction of being the first prison doctor to forcibly feed suffragettes when the procedure was used on the hunger strikers for the first time in 1909 at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, where he was medical officer.

The suffragettes were in no doubt that he was to blame for the forcible feeding in Winson Green. They protested outside his home while their comrades were still in prison. After their release one of the women, Mary Leigh, brought a claim for damages against Dr Helby; Captain Percy Green, the prison governor; and the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, who had authorised the forcible feeding. Mary Leigh lost her case when the jury found in favour of the defendants. In his summing up, the judge suggested that Dr Helby’s actions had probably saved Mary’s life.

Suffragette Mary Leigh, who sued the prison doctor, prison governor and Home Secretary after she was forcibly fed

Nevertheless, the suffragettes continued to insist that prison doctors like Dr Helby were in the wrong, and some of them took more extreme measures to obtain justice – or revenge. In 1914 Dr Forward of Holloway Prison forcibly fed Zelie Emerson for five weeks. Emerson, with two other women, waylaid him on his way to the prison and beat him with a whip. Sylvia Pankhurst, describing the incident, commented, “Dr Forward was not, in my judgement, a bad man, or a cruel one…The unquestioning assumption that those in authority must be right is all too common. Refusal to obey the Home Secretary’s command would have meant dismissal for the prison doctors. If anyone were to be whipped, I preferred it should be a member of the government”. As far as she was concerned, the blame lay with the men who ordered the doctors to carry out forcible feeding.

So was Dr Helby “a bad man, or a cruel one”?

Like Dr Forward, he was acting on orders from his superiors. Previously, when a suffragette had deteriorated to the point where the hunger strike was endangering her life, prison doctors had been able to order their release on medical grounds. However, Dr Helby had been told he could not release Mary Leigh for health reasons, so that course of action was closed to him. This put him in an extremely difficult position. Mary Leigh’s condition was so serious her life was in danger, and since she refused to eat, he judged that he had no choice but to use forcible feeding.

Much of the court case centred around his decision to use the nasal tube – a tube inserted into the nostrils and passed down into the stomach – and whether or not it was medically justified. Medical opinion on this method of feeding was divided, as the conflicting evidence given by a number of eminent physicians showed.

Justified or not, it was undeniably painful. But Dr Helby had tried other methods before he resorted to the nasal tube: persuasion, a feeding cup, and finally a spoon. When Mary still refused to eat and he saw that he would have to use more forcible methods, he had even suggested a compromise. “If you insist on being fed by force,” he told her, “won’t it be sufficient if I put my hand on your shoulder and say you must take food?” (Votes for Women, 17 December 1909). Certainly, the impression he gave was that he had tried all he could think of to avoid using the nasal tube. The judge quickly took up this point: “You wanted, in a kind way, to make it compulsion, but not to do anything to her?” – “Yes. She refused.”

The crux of Dr Helby’s difficulty was that there is arguably no such thing as “kind compulsion”. Yet he had tried to be kind. At the very least, it must be acknowledged that he had not been deliberately cruel. The same may not be true of other doctors, and some suffragettes reported being insulted and slapped during their forcible feeding.

Ernest Hasler Helby was born in Lewes, Sussex in 1870. He married Agnes Maud Marshall in 1898. Before working at Winson Green, he had been a deputy medical officer, first at Manchester prison and then Wormwood Scrubbs. By 1913 he had moved from Winson Green and was the medical officer at Dartmoor Prison. During the First World War he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a lieutenant, later captain, in the 1st Wessex Field Ambulance. At the end of the war he returned to his work at Dartmoor, suffering from shell shock.

He was killed in a motor cycle accident in March 1921 when a fault developed in his machine. At the inquest the coroner, H C Brown, asked Dr Hillyar, temporary medical officer at Dartmoor who attended the scene of the accident, if the shell shock could have had any bearing on his death. Dr Hillyar said, “Not in the slightest. He was absolutely normal in every respect, but his nerve was not what it used to be.” (Western Morning News, 28 March 1921).

Dr Helby’s wife, Agnes, remembered him as a “dear and most kind husband”. The coroner also spoke highly of him. Mr Brown said he was “extremely grieved at the death of Dr Helby…They all appreciated his good qualities and ability as a prison officer, and it was awfully sad that he should have met with such an untimely end”.

Dr Helby’s part in the suffragette story is an unfortunate one, but for all that it is one that deserves to be told. Far from painting him as one of the suffragette “villains”, it is possible to remember him as a prison doctor who did his best in difficult circumstances; a shell-shocked war victim; and a kind and loving husband. Which is the “true” story may depend on who is telling it. 


Picture Credits:-

Mary Leigh, Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions


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