Sophia Duleep Singh, the forgotten Revolutionary royal

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The goddaughter of Queen Victoria and a determined advocate for the Suffragette movement, Sophia Duleep Singh should be a notorious name in history. She played a prominent role in the fight for women’s rights and risked it all — her freedom, royalty and life — for the advancement of women. However, Princess Sophia is a figure who is often forgotten, and whose story has previously gone untold. For instance, the 2015 film Suffragette — a historical drama focused solely on women’s suffrage in the UK — practically erased Sophia from history, neglecting to feature the Princess, despite her integral role in the movement. Here, looks at the life of Sophia Singh, a royal and a Suffragette who slipped through the cracks of history.

Heiress of the Sikh empire 

Born Sophia Jindian Alexandrovna Singh, she was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of Lahore. He was deposed by the British aged 10, brought to England, and naturalised as a British Citizen. It was from the Singh family that Queen Victoria took the infamous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which has recently been at the centre of widespread controversy.

In England, Duleep lived on a pension of £25,000 a year — a sum he was granted provided he “remain obedient to the British Government”.

Victoria became incredibly fond of the young Maharaja, as did her husband Albert, Prince Consort, and their unlikely alliance saw the monarch shower Duleep with affection and encourage him to mix with the royal household. Duleep spent time with the British Princes and holidayed at Osborne House, the Queen’s Isle of Wight residence.

He became fond of Prince Leopold, the Queen’s youngest son, and developed a long-lasting friendship with Edward, Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII.

In 1864, he married Bamba, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy German banker and enslaved Abyssinian (Ethiopian) woman named Sofia, and the pair had seven children. Victoria and Albert were made godparents of Duleep’s eldest son, Prince Victor, who the Maharajah named after the Queen, and their youngest daughter, Princess Sophia.

Goddaughter of Queen Victoria

At first, Duleep and Bamba raised their family in Elvedon Hall in Suffolk, “a truly wondrous place to be a child,” according to the official Hampton Court Palace website, which “provided the family with all the pastimes expected by the English aristocracy”.

However, this familial bliss did not last. Sophia’s parents’ relationship broke down and Duleep became increasingly dissatisfied with his life in Britain and embittered with its people.

As historian Marlene Koenig told “He felt betrayed. Queen Victoria did nothing to help him get his country or his throne back. He and the family tried to go back and were stopped.”

Sophia, who would fall foul of the law numerous times, was arrested for the first time aged nine. Soon after, Duleep abandoned his family and dedicated the remainder of his life to reclaiming his birthright. Having reverted to Sikhism, Duleep attempted to travel back to India but was thwarted and forced to return to Europe.

“He eventually ended up in Paris and died penniless,” Ms Koenig explained.

Worse still, in 1887 — a year after Duleep had tried to return to his home country — Bamba died. Sophia and her siblings were put into the care of Arthur Craigie Oliphant, Queen Victoria’s chosen guardian for the children.

“They grew up in opulence, in court and were educated,” said Ms Koenig. “Victoria hosted Sophia a ‘Coming Out’ party, making it clear she had a place in Royal Court.”

Similar to her father’s early relationship with the monarch, Sophia became a firm favourite of Victoria.

In 1896, Victoria honoured Sophia with a grace and favour home, Faraday House. The Grade II listed property faces Hampton Court Green and its garden backs onto the River Thames just west of Hampton Court Bridge. The Queen also granted her goddaughter an allowance of £200 a year to maintain the home.

Sophia threw herself into a socialite’s life. Ms Koenig explained: “She had a role in society, of course, she attended many, many parties and events, especially because she was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter.”

And as Anita Anand, journalist and author of, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, wrote in 2018: “She attended every party and social event of note, gracing the pages of women’s magazines with her taste in fashion and more scandalous antics. When Sophia wore pearls in her hair, it became material for newsprint. She became one of the first women in England to ride a bicycle, and won the precursor competition of Crufts, with her Pomeranians beating those of the royal family. Life was good.”

But a forbidden trip to India soon changed everything.

Rebel Princess

In 1903, Sophia and her sisters secretly travelled to India to attend Delhi Durbar, a spectacular celebration of King Edward VII’s coronation.

The Duleep Singhs were banned from India and, therefore, Sophia sneaked into the country against the wishes of the Secretary of State for India. It was there that she experienced racism for the first time.

Ms Koenig said: “She discovered that she was not treated as an equal there, and she saw how the British Raj treated the people who lived in India and that really changed everything.

“That visit to India changed her life. It was — what we would call — an epiphany.”

While Sophia was a celebrity in London, in India she joined a sea of brown faces, all of whom were considered second-class citizens. Ms Anand wrote: “She saw famine and suffering at first hand, and attributed them to the harshness of colonial rule.”

Upon her return to England, she found another cause she could believe in. Sophia joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and became a leading member of the movement for women’s rights, funding suffragette groups and leading the cause.

Ms Koenig said: “Sophia really moved away from royal life because she had taken up two causes: one, of course, was India emancipation support and then she also discovered another cause — probably what she is best known for — the Suffragette movement. She built a whole new social circle around that, meeting other people, other women, getting involved and being a major player.”

However, her newfound passion dismayed her former royal acquaintances. Victoria had died two years earlier, passing the throne down to her eldest son, Edward, who according to Ms Koenig, did not have much of a relationship with Sophia. When he died in 1910, his son King George V inherited the throne and Sophia soon became an enemy of the new monarch.

Her royal title, however, was useful. Sophia was often seen selling The Suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace. According to a letter from Lord Crewe, King George was within his rights to have her evicted.

She refused to pay taxes, frustrating both the government and George V, who once asked in irritation: “Have we no hold on her?”

“The photo [of Sophia selling The Suffragette] got inside the Palace, and we know George was not keen on women’s suffrage, and he basically said: ‘Have we no hold on her?’ Ms Koenig explained.

“The thought was that he wanted to evict her from the grace and favour home…He was exasperated by her — and Winston Churchill didn’t like her either — simply because of who she was and here she was fighting for women’s rights. King George wanted nothing to do with her.”

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Passionate suffragette

As a suffragette, Sophia found herself in Emmeline Pankhurst’s inner circle. The Princess was present on ‘Black Friday’, November 18, 1910, a time described as one of “democracy’s darkest days”. More than 300 suffragettes marched from Caxton Hall to Parliament Square, demanding to see the Prime Minister who, at that time, was Herbert Henry Asquith.

When Prime Minister Asquith refused to see them and the protestors subsequently refused to disperse, the police responded with brutality. Over the course of six hours, 200 women were physically and sexually assaulted. Two would later die from their injuries.

Sophia, who was in the vanguard with Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Emmeline Pankhurst herself, rescued a suffragette from a police officer when the violence erupted. Soon after, she stated: “The policeman was unnecessarily and brutally rough and Princess Sophia hopes he will be suitably punished.”

Sir Winston Churchill, Home Secretary at the time, was blamed by the Metropolitan Commissioner for encouraging the police in their violent response — an accusation he denied.

More than 100 protestors were arrested on Black Friday, but all were released the following day without charge on Churchill’s orders. An official enquiry was subsequently refused.

On another occasion Sophia threw herself at Prime Minister Asquith’s car, slamming a ‘Votes for Women’ pamphlet against his window.

The Princess was daring the state to send her to prison, Ms Koenig said, saying Sophia was also known as a member of the Women’s Tax Reform League (WTRL), which campaigned on the principle: ‘No Vote, No tax!’

“She didn’t pay taxes: she didn’t pay taxes on her staff; she didn’t pay taxes on her dog licence,” the historian explained.

“And they would come and take [her belongings]. One time, they took a diamond ring and one time they took a pearl necklace. But, the WSPU would buy it back and give it to her. This was basically the government keeping her out of jail simply because of who she was.”

Forgotten Fighter

While Sophia had found her voice in the fight for women’s rights, it was not being heard by the masses.

Ms Koenig said: “Her voice was heard by other women but because she was Queen Victoria’s daughter, the government didn’t want her arrested. While that protected her, I think it also disappointed her because her actions were not recognised among the public.”

Just as Sophia did not receive the same recognition as other suffragettes, she did not receive the same punishment.

Ada Wright, a prominent suffragette who was imprisoned on several occasions, recalled one incident with Sophia and the police in 1914: “The first arrest, my seventh, was near Notting Hill Gate and the Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and I were both knocked down together by the police. The Princess was not convicted, but I was and was sentenced to a fortnight’s imprisonment.”

Sophia’s royal status and close relationship with Queen Victoria stopped the government, police, and the Royal Family from serving the Princess with severe punishments.

But, as both Ms Koenig and Ms Anand claim, Sophia longed to receive the same treatment as her suffragette sisters. She wanted “to go on hunger strike like the others,” and attract “maximum attention to the cause,” wrote Ms Anand.

Ms Koenig echoed this, saying: “She did the work but didn’t do the time and I think that bothered her. She wanted to be force-fed. She wanted to go through what every other woman who was arrested was going through, to fight for this, but she had a ‘get out of jail card free card’.”

Nonetheless, Sophia continued to play a significant role in the movement. As previously mentioned, her suffragette newspaper was sold at Hampton Court Palace, and she set up a large board stating “Suffragette Revolution” — transforming the simple act of selling papers into a political theatre by turning a royal residence into a ‘votes for women battle ground’, as Elizabeth Baker noted in her 2020 journal, Sophia Duleep Singh (1876–1948), Hampton Court Palace and votes for women.

And as Emmeline Pankhurst once commanded in a meeting, the suffragettes should “be militant each in your own way”.

Ms Koenig said: “Her voice was silenced. Her actions weren’t…She became, what I would call, a stealth fighter because she could continue to speak out.”

Following the 1918 enactment of the Representation of the People Act, which allowed women over 30 to vote, Sophia joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death.

And while she didn’t campaign directly, her dedicated involvement and revolutionary actions in the British suffrage movement became an inspiration for the fight for women’s rights in India. However, it was not until 1950, when India became a republic, that all adults got the right to vote.

In the 1934 edition of Who’s Who, Sophia described her life’s purpose as “the advancement of women”.

Revolutionary royal  

Sophia died in her sleep on August 22, 1948. On her instructions, she was cremated and her ashes were taken to India for burial.

Ms Koenig noted: “It is only after her death and years later, that her voice was heard.”

Now, 75 years after her death, Sophia is to be honoured with a blue plaque at Hampton Court Palace, recognising her work as a suffragette and campaigner for women’s rights.

In January, The English Heritage announced the first plaque recipients of 2023. Professor William Whyte, English Heritage Trustee and new Chair of the Blue Plaques Panel, said: “Every year, English Heritage’s blue plaques offer a glimpse of the very best of human achievement. In my first year as Chair of the panel, I am particularly excited to recognise so many who fought for what they believed in.”

At the time of the announcement, Ms Anand tweeted: “Princess Sophia Duleep Singh will finally get the recognition she deserves. Six new blue plaques have been granted for 2023. The Princess, suffragette and revolutionary will have her plaque on her grace and favour home at Hampton Court.”

Ms Koenig said: “She should be honoured, not for being Queen Victoria’s goddaughter but for finding her voice, finding where she really belonged and fighting for it.”

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