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Portrait Highlight - Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh - Prominent Suffragette

Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh (1876 - 1948) Prominent suffragette and campaigner for women's rights, daughter of the exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh (last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire) and god-daughter to Queen Victoria.

Sophia (right) with her sisters

Sophia was the third and youngest daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh (the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire) and his first wife, Bamba Müller. Bamba was the daughter of Ludwig Müller, a German merchant banker of Todd Müller and Company, and Sofia, his mistress, who was of Abyssinian descent. Sophia, her two sisters, Catherine Hilda and Bamba, and brother Frederick, combined Indian, European, and African ancestry with a British aristocratic upbringing. The children were brought up at Elveden Hall on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, which their father had transformed into a Mughal palace with an ornate and exotic interior. It was also home to leopards and parrots.

Sophia’s father had become heir apparent of the Sikh empire in 1839, at the age of five when his father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had died. He was separated from his mother for eleven years, during which time the ruling British ensured that the Sikh empire, a long-standing threat to their colonial pursuits, crumbled. Duleep Singh was forced to abdicate his kingdom and hand it over to the East India Company at the age of 11, transferring the Koh-i-Noor diamond (the largest diamond in the world, now part of the Crown Jewels) into the hands of Lord Dalhousie, a Scottish statesman and colonial administrator in British India, and was exiled to England at 15, where Queen Victoria provided for his upkeep. In London, Duleep Singh converted to Christianity, but reconverted to Sikhism later in life and espoused the independence movement in India when he realised that he had been deceived out of a large empire.

Maharaja Duleep Singh and Bamba Müller

In 1886, when Sophia was ten, her father attempted to return to India with his family against the wishes of the British government; but they were turned back in Aden by arrest warrants. That same year, Sophia developed typhoid and her mother, who was nursing her, sadly contracted the disease and died on 17th September 1887. A couple of years later her father married Ada Wetherill, a chambermaid, with whom he would have two daughters.

Queen Victoria was very fond of Duleep Singh and his family, particularly Sophia, who was her goddaughter, and encouraged her and her sisters to become socialites. Sophia, with her fashionable address, wore Parisian dresses, bred championship dogs (which she showed on several occasions, including at the Annual Toy Dog Show at Crystal Palace), pursued photography and cycling, and attended parties. She kept all sorts of instruments and sheet music, and at one point she bought a Steinway grand piano costing £136, about a quarter of her annual budget.

Sophia with her dogs and horses. Image on right © Peter Bance

The Maharaja could never accept his diminished circumstances and the loss of his empire and unfortunately fell into gambling, drinking and debt. After a period of ill health he died in Paris in October 1893 at the age of 55. Sophia inherited substantial wealth from her father and in 1898 Queen Victoria also granted her a grace and favour apartment in Faraday House, Hampton Court. After her father’s death, the British government lessened their vigilant watch on the shy, silent, grief-stricken Sophia, which enabled her to make a secret trip to India with her sister, Bamba, to attend the 1903 Delhi Durbar, where the Empire was being handed over to her father’s best friend Edward VII. This impressed on Sophia the futility of public and media popularity, as she realised what her family had lost by choosing to surrender to the very people she called friends.

She returned to England determined to change her course. She also managed to make a (non-secret) trip to India during 1907, visiting Amritsar and Lahore and meeting relatives. This trip proved a turning point in her life, as she witnessed poverty and inequality on a scale she’d never seen before. Whilst there she hosted a "purdah party" in Shalimar Bagh in Lahore (her grandfather's capital). During the visit, all the while shadowed by British agents, she encountered Indian independence activists such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai and expressed sympathy for their cause. She admired Rai, and his imprisonment by the authorities on "charges of sedition" turned her against the Raj. The concept of Indian independence from the British, and her sister Bamba’s inability to pursue a medical career due to her sex, sowed the seeds of radicalism in her. In 1909 her brother Frederick bought Blo' Norton Hall in South Norfolk for himself and a house in Blo' Norton, Thatched Cottage, for his sisters. That year, Sophia attended a farewell party at the Westminster Palace Hotel for Mahatma Gandhi.

Lala Lajpat Rai, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi

Una Dugdale, portrait by Ethel Wright

After Sophia returned from India in 1909, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) at the behest of Una Dugdale, British suffragette and marriage reformer, and a friend of the Pankhurst sisters. Although at first she kept a low profile and rarely spoke at meetings, she went on to become a leading member of the movement (her title, Princess, was useful), funding suffragette groups, selling The Suffragette newspaper outside her apartment at Hampton Court Palace and from press carts, and leading the cause. She also refused to pay taxes, frustrating the government and causing King George V to ask in exasperation, "Have we no hold on her?”

"When the women of England are enfranchised and the state acknowledges me as a citizen I shall, of course, pay my share willingly towards its upkeep."

At one stage she authorised an auction of her belongings, with proceeds benefiting the Women's Tax Resistance League.

© Museum of London

Although as a British subject her primary interest was women's rights in England, she and her fellow suffragettes also promoted similar activities in the colonies. She valued her Indian heritage and formed close ties with the Sikh community in London, regularly visiting the Sikh temple in Shepherd's Bush. She also attended events organised by the India Office and supported the Indian Women’s Education Association.

On the 18th November 1910, Sophia, along with Emmeline Pankhurst and a 300-strong group of activists went to the House of Commons hoping for a meeting with the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, who had sabotaged legislation that gave property-owning women the right to vote. The protest was met by the police who, instead of making arrests, had been ordered by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, to tire them out with various 'alternative tactics'. Over the course of six hours, 200 women were physically and sexually assaulted. Two would later die from their injuries. Towards the end of the violence, Sophia broke through the cordon to charge at an officer assaulting a fellow suffragette. She caught hold of him, demanded his serial number and formally complained about police brutality - "The policeman was unnecessarily and brutally rough and Princess Sophia hopes he will be suitably punished." Churchill was compelled to sign a secret memo ordering officers to drop the investigation against suffragettes. The incident became known as Black Friday.

On 22nd May 1911 Singh was fined £3 by the Spelthorne Petty Sessions Court for illegally keeping a coach, a helper, and five dogs and for using a roll of arms. She protested that she should not have to pay the licence fees without the right to vote. That July a bailiff went to Singh's house to collect an unpaid fine of 14 shillings, which she refused to pay. Her diamond ring was then confiscated by the police and auctioned a few days later; her friend, Mrs Jopling Rowe, bought it and returned it to her. In December 1913, she was fined £12/10s for refusing to pay licence fees for two dogs, a carriage and a servant. She and other WTRL members appeared in court and Sophia was again accused of keeping dogs without a licence.

“Taxation without representation is a tyranny… I am unable to pay money to the state, as I am not allowed to exercise any control over its expenditure.”

© Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

In February 1911 the King’s Speech to Parliament was scheduled to be held. Sophia joined the Suffragette protest outside Downing Street, blending into the crowd so as not to alert the attending police. As Prime Minister Asquith got into his car, she made her way between the crowds waving a ‘Give Women The Vote’ poster and threw herself at his vehicle shouting Suffragette slogans. Though Asquith was furious, he couldn’t muster the courage to have Queen Victoria’s god-daughter arrested when her grandson was scheduled to make a speech.

Sophia became a frontrunner in the WSPU's direct-action militancy when West End shop-windows were shattered and Kew Gardens was burnt as a mark of protest. She vocally supported the manufacture of bombs and encouraged anarchy in Britain. Despite her activism as a suffragette, she was never arrested; although her activities were watched by the administration, they probably didn’t want to make a martyr of her.

© Peter Bance

During World War I, Sophia initially supported the Indian soldiers and Lascars working in the British fleets and joined a 10,000-woman protest march against the prohibition of a volunteer female force. She volunteered as a British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, serving at an auxiliary military hospital in Isleworth from October 1915 to January 1917. She tended wounded Indian soldiers who had been evacuated from the Western Front. Sikh soldiers could hardly believe "that the granddaughter of Ranjit Singh sat by their bedsides in a nurse's uniform”. In 1916 she, along with other Indian women, raised money for the Red Cross selling Indian flags at Dewar House in Haymarket as part of the 'Our Day' celebration of the anniversary of the British Red Cross.

After the 1918 enactment of the Representation of the People Act, allowing women over age 30 to vote, Sophia joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death. Her arrangement of a flag day that year for Indian troops generated significant interest (and panic) in England and New Delhi. In September 1919 she hosted the Indian soldiers of the peace contingent at Faraday House. Five years later, she travelled to India with Bamba and Dr Colonel Sutherland (Bamba’s husband). She visited Kashmir, Lahore, Amritsar, and Murre, where they were mobbed by crowds who came to see their former maharaja's daughters, and this visit boosted the cause of female suffrage in India. The badge she wore promoted women's suffrage in Britain and abroad.

Her sole aim in life, which she described in the 1934 edition of Who’s Who, was the advancement of women. She espoused causes of equality and justice far removed from her royal background, and played a significant role at a crucial point in the history of England and India.

In 1930, Sophia was President of the Committee tasked with providing flower decorations at the unveiling of the Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens.

During the Second World War Sophia moved to Coalhatch House, Penn in Buckinghamshire with her sister Catherine where they took in evacuees who made friends with the resident parrot called Akbar. Before her death in August 1948, Sophia had expressed the wish that she be cremated according to Sikh rites and her ashes spread in India. Her will was proven in London on 8th November 1948, with her estate amounting to £58,040 0s. 11d. (roughly equivalent to £2,126,032 in 2019).

© Royal Mail

She is featured in the Royal Mail's commemorative stamp set "Votes for Women", issued on 15 February 2018. She appears on the £1.57 stamp, selling The Suffragette.Her name and picture (and those of 58 other women's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in April 2018.


Sophia Duleep Singh, pen on paper (2020)

Available as

- a wooden pin badge (coming autumn 2021)

- coaster (coming autumn 2021)

Sophia can also be found on many of the products in the Up the Women Collection.



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