Scotland’s suffragette hunger strikes brought to life in play

Suffragettes marching for the right for women to vote.
Suffragettes marching for the right for women to vote.
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The brutal ordeal inflicted on Scotland’s suffragette hunger strikers is being brought to life in a ground-breaking play by an acclaimed writer.

`Cat and Mouse’, by Ajay Close, relives the story of four women held at Perth Prison and subjected to a harsh regime of force-feeding in 1914.

1910, suffragettes gathering to protest in London. Picture: PA.

1910, suffragettes gathering to protest in London. Picture: PA.

The suffragettes, Arabella Scott, Frances Gordon, Maude Edwards and Fan Parker, were treated by prison medical officer Dr Hugh Ferguson Watson – the only Scottish doctor prepared to force-feed hunger-striking women.

After being imprisoned for acts of political violence as they fought for equal rights, the suffragettes refused food and water and were fed via a tube which went into their stomach.

The play explores the story of Arabella Scott who was imprisoned for setting fire to a stand in Kelso racecourse and held in solitary confinement at Perth Prison for five weeks.

She refused to eat or drink and Dr Watson was in charge of her traumatic and humiliating twice-daily feeding regime.

British suffragette Charlotte Despard addresses a crowd.    (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

British suffragette Charlotte Despard addresses a crowd. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Between procedures, the pair talked a great deal and a strange and complex relationship developed between the university-educated suffragette and the ambitious doctor she described as her `torturer’.

Their relationship, which lies at the heart of the play, was discovered and developed by Ajay Close as she researched the suffragette movement during her time as Perth’s writer-in-residence.

She said: “I’ve always been interested in the suffragettes and when I moved to Perth, it was in the back of my mind that this was the place where they were force fed.

“Through my research I found out about the personalities and the chemistry between Arabella and Dr Watson and it was so interesting.

“They were both very earnest, intellectual and moral and on the opposite side of the divide.

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“I was hooked by the idea that two people could be in this position of being absolute enemies and yet, because both were so isolated, they did forge some kind of a relationship.”

Ms Close’s research including trawling historical archives, prison records and newspaper reports plus interviews with relatives of the protagonists.

She said: “You’re a bit like a detective, you sift through immense quantities of data and then you find a fascinating nugget which in turn leads onto other things.”

Her findings led to the script for `Cat and Mouse’ which was later followed by her best-selling novel `A Petrol Scented Spring.’

The play was the focus of a series of rehearsed readings several years ago and is now set for its world premiere in a production by Perth Drama Club later this month.

It stars the club’s president Martin Nickolls as Dr Watson, Carolyn Duffin as Arabella and is directed by Max Clay.

READ MORE - On this day in 1918: Britain grants women the right to vote

Ms Duffin, of Blackford, Perthshire, was shocked by what she learned about the force feeding methods during research for the role.

She said: “What they did to the women was really quite horrific, their mouths were prised apart with a steel gag which meant they often ended up with chipped teeth.

“Then a mixture of eggs and sweetened milk was poured from a jug, through a funnel, into a rubber tube greased with Vaseline which was forced down the throat into the stomach.

“When the jug was empty, the tube was removed but the suffragette’s ordeal still wasn’t over.

“She’d then have to endure someone clamping their hand over her mouth – sometimes for several hours - to stop the mixture being vomited out.

“It was barbaric and I found it quite humbling to learn what these women went through as they fought to get us the vote nearly 100 years ago.”

‘Cat and Mouse’ is performed for four nights from Wednesday October 19 until Saturday October 22 at 7.30pm in Perth’s Goodlyburn Theatre.

Tickets are available via Ticket Source, www.ticketsource.co.uk/perthdramaclub, and there will be an after-show talk by the author Ajay Close on Thursday October 20.