Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh (8 August 1876 – 22 August 1948) was a prominent suffragette in the United Kingdom. Her father was Maharaja Duleep Singh, who had been taken from his kingdom of Punjab to the British Raj owing to political manoeuvring by Governor-General Dalhousie in India, and was subsequently exiled to England. Sophia's mother was Maharani Bamba Müller, and her godmother was Queen Victoria. She had four sisters, including two stepsisters, and four brothers. She lived in Hampton Court in an apartment in Faraday House given to her by Queen Victoria as a grace and favour.
During the early twentieth century, Singh was one of several South Asian women who pioneered the cause of women's rights in Britain. Although she is best remembered for her leading role in the Women's Tax Resistance League, she also participated in other women's suffrage groups, including the Women's Social and Political Union.
Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh was born on 8 August 1876, at Belgravia and lived in Suffolk. She was the third 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. The Maharaja and Bamba had ten children, of whom six survived. Singh combined Indian, European, and African ancestry with a British aristocratic upbringing. Her father had become famous for abdicating his kingdom to the British at age 11 and giving the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria. He was exiled from India by the British at age 15 and moved to England, where Queen Victoria treated him kindly and provided his upkeep; his handsomeness and regal bearing made him her platonic lover. In London, Duleep Singh converted to Christianity. In later life, he reconverted to Sikhism and espoused the freedom movement in India when he realised that he had been deceived out of a large empire.
Singh developed typhoid at age 10. Her mother, who was attending her, contracted the disease, fell into a coma, and died on 17 September 1887. On 31 May 1889 her father married Ada Wetherill, a chambermaid, with whom he would have two daughters.
Singh's brothers included Frederick Duleep Singh; her two blood sisters were, Catherine Duleep Singh, a suffragette, and Bamba Duleep Singh. She inherited substantial wealth from her father at his death in 1893, and in 1898 Queen Victoria, her godmother, granted her a grace and favour apartment in Faraday House, Hampton Court.
Queen Victoria was 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, pursued photography and cycling, and attended parties.
At age ten, with her father's fortune disappearing in London, Singh attempted to move to India with her father and sisters but they were turned back in Aden by arrest warrants. Although her father disowned her, in 1896 Victoria gave her the three-story Faraday House and a £200 allowance for its maintenance. Singh, who styled herself the Queen of the Punjab, did not initially live in Faraday House; she stayed at the Manor House in Old Buckenham, near her brother Prince Frederick. After a period of ill health, her father died in a rundown Paris hotel on 22 October 1895 at age 55.
The British government lessened their vigil on the shy, silent, grief-stricken Singh, which proved a misjudgment. She made a secret trip to India with her sister, Bamba, to attend the 1903 Delhi Durbar, where she was ignored. This impressed on Singh the futility of public and media popularity, and she returned to England determined to change her course. During a 1907 trip to India, she visited Amritsar and Lahore and met relatives. This visit was a turning point in her life, as she faced the realities of poverty and what her family had lost by surrendering to the British government. In India, Singh 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 freedom fighters such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai and expressed sympathy for their cause. Singh admired Rai, and his imprisonment by the British on "charges of sedition" turned Sophia against the Empire.
In 1909 her brother bought a house in Blo Norton, Thatched Cottage, for his sisters and Blo Norton Hall in South Norfolk for himself. That year, Sophia attended a farewell party at the Westminster Palace Hotel for Mahatma Gandhi.
After Singh returned from India in 1909, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) at the behest of Una Dugdale, a friend of the Pankhurst sisters; Emmeline Pankhurst had co-founded the Women's Franchise League in 1889. In 1909 Singh pioneered the movement for women's voting rights, funding suffragette groups and leading the cause. She refused to pay taxes, frustrating the government; King George V asked in exasperation, "Have we no hold on her?"
Although as a British subject Singh's 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, but was not bound by allegiance to a single nation and supported the women's cause in a number of countries. Her title, Princess, was useful. Singh sold a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace, where Queen Victoria had allowed her family to live. According to a letter from Lord Crewe, King George V was within his rights to have her evicted.
Singh, Emmeline Pankhurst and a group of activists went to the House of Commons on 18 November 1910, hoping for a meeting with the Prime Minister. The Home Secretary ordered their expulsion, and many of the women were seriously injured. The incident became known as Black Friday.
At first, Singh kept a low profile; in 1911 she was reluctant to make speeches in public or at Women's Social and Political Union meetings. She refused to chair meetings, telling her WSPU colleagues she was "quite useless for that sort of thing" and would only say "five words if nobody else would support the forthcoming resolution". However, Singh later chaired and addressed a number of meetings. Hirabai, an Indian student in England, noted in 1911 that she displayed a small yellow-and-green badge with her motto: "Votes for women".
Singh authorised an auction of her belongings, with proceeds benefiting the Women's Tax Resistance League. She solicited subscriptions to the cause, and was photographed selling The Suffragette newspaper outside her home and from press carts. On 22 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 license 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; a friend bought it and returned it to her. In December 1913, Singh was a fined £12/10s for refusing to pay license fees for two dogs, a carriage and a servant. On 13 December 1913 she and other WTRL members appeared in court and Singh was again accused of keeping dogs without a license. Singh tried to fall in front of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith's car while holding a poster reading, "Give women the vote!" She supported the manufacture of bombs, encouraging anarchy in Britain. Despite Singh's activism as a suffragette, she was never arrested; although her activities were watched by the administration, they may not have wanted to make a martyr of her.
During World War I, Singh 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 eventually wore a Red Cross uniform as a nurse, tending, at Brighton hospital, wounded Indian soldiers who had been evacuated from the Western Front. The Sikh soldiers could hardly believe "that the granddaughter of Ranjit Singh sat by their bedsides in a nurse's uniform".
After the 1918 enactment of the Representation of the People Act, allowing women over age 30 to vote, Singh joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death. Her arrangement of a flag day that year for Indian troops generated shock waves in England and New Delhi. In September 1919 Singh hosted the Indian soldiers of the peace contingent at Faraday House. Five years later, she made her second visit to India with Bamba and Colonel Sutherland. Singh 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.
Singh eventually received a place of honour in the suffragette movement alongside Emmeline Pankhurst. Her sole aim in life, which she attained, was the advancement of women. Queen Victoria had given Singh an elaborately-dressed doll named Little Sophie, which became her proud possession. Near the end of her life she gave the doll to Drovna, her housekeeper's daughter.
On 14 June 1928 Singh became president of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship after the death of founder Emmeline Pankhurst. During her term, royal consent was given to the Equal Franchise Act enabling women over age 21 to vote on a par with men. In the 1934 edition of Who's Who, Singh described her life's purpose as "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.
Singh died in her sleep on 22 August 1948 in Coalhatch House, now known as Hilden Hall, a residence once owned by her sister Catherine, and was cremated on 26 August 1948 at Golders Green Crematorium. Before her death she had expressed the wish that she be cremated according to Sikh rites and her ashes spread in India.
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