hunger strikes and ‘the Cat-and-Mouse Act’



the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, 1913 – image:


The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, 1913 was rushed through Parliament by Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberal government in order to deal with the problem of hunger-striking suffragettes, who were force-fed, which led to a public outcry. The Act allowed for the early release of a prisoner as soon as she appeared weak or ill. However, once the prisoner had recovered, she was to be recalled to prison to serve out the rest of her sentence, and the process would begin again. Because the repeated imprisonment and release of the women brought to mind a cat playing with a mouse, the bill became popularly known as the Cat-and-Mouse Act. The repeated imprisonment of the women was held in distaste by the general public and proved to be counter-productive.
—Cf. also Flypaper Act, slang for the Prevention of Crimes Act.

The Devon and Exeter Gazette of Friday 25th April 1913 reported how the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, 1913 was rushed through Parliament:



In the House of Lords yesterday,
The second reading of the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge (for ill-health) Bill was moved by the Lord Chancellor. He asked the House to pass the Bill through all its stages because of the urgency of the situation.
Lord Salisbury said the Opposition assented to the request of the Government with reluctance, because it was not the proper way of passing legislation affecting the liberties of the subject.
The Bill was passed through all its stages so that it may receive the Royal Assent to-day.

The following statement was published by The Preston Herald (Lancashire) of Saturday 25th October 1913:

Her Statement to the Press.

Mrs. Edith Rigby, who was so dramatically re-arrested at the Public Hall last Wednesday night and conveyed to Walton Gaol, Liverpool, on the “Cat and Mouse” licence, has been hunger and thirst striking again, and her health was so impaired after 130 hours’ incarceration that she had to be released again on Monday afternoon. This was her fifth term of imprisonment, making 32 days all spent in hunger striking during the last three months:—
Mrs. Rigby supplied us with the following statement:—
“Mrs. Rigby has from this experience, to record that each succeeding hunger strike finds the prisoner with less strength to bear it. If she had been kept in prison the last three times for as many days as she was on the first two incarcerations, viz., 9½ days and 8 days, or for as long as our prisoners have been kept in Holloway and Manchester just recently the result could only have been to reduce the prisoner to a physical rag, some results of which even the strongest constitution would permanently bear.
“This proves that the ‘Cat-and-Mouse’ Act is really unworkable except upon terms of either death or entirely breaking up the prisoner’s health. Anyone who doubts this is challenged to try it in person—the sure way to know. The pain and suffering involved by the thirst strike, as well as hunger strike, no one can know who has not tried it.
“To say that the prisoner might be thus driven to recant from principles of rebellion and give in, is to speak of another class of fighters more self-seeking than these. Joan of Arc was asked to recant on these terms; but if she had recanted she had not been the woman who inspired France to free herself from the English invaders.
“This English prisoner, whose lot by chance, has fallen in a better prison than Holloway or Strangeways, asks again of English people how long they will suffer such a brutal coercive measure as this Act to stand on their Statute Book. There is a better way, just to all—give the vote, overdue, to women.
“The message this local prisoner wished to deliver from the platform of the Public Hall, and, being interrupted and arrested, afterwards sent out of the cells of the Preston Police Station, was:
I defy the law that defies women. I am too English to sit down under a Government that mocks at the political liberties of women.”

The Act did not apply to all offenders, and force-feeding continued to be practised, as The Scotsman of Friday 10th October 1913 reported:


The Home Office last night issued the following:—
“The Home Secretary has decided that Mary Richardson and Rachel Peace, alias Jane Short, who are charged with arson at Hampton, and who have refused food in prison, are not to be released under the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge For Ill-Health) Act. This decision is in accordance with the statement made by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons on the second reading of the Bill, that while the Bill would make it possible to abandon forcible feeding in ordinary cases, it would not apply to the case of a prisoner whose offence was of such a kind, or whose determination to repeat the offence at every opportunity, was so pronounced that it would be unsafe in the public interest to allow such a person to be at large. Instructions have been given to the prison authorities to take all proper medical measures, including, if necessary, artificial feeding, to prevent the prisoners from endangering their lives or health by their voluntary starvation. The decision does not imply any change of policy in the administration of the Act, which will continue to be applied in the case of minor offenders of the suffragist class and those whose crimes do not include actual acts of serious violence.”

The Gloucestershire Echo of Friday 17th April 1914 evoked the consequences of force-feeding:


Miss Kitty Marion, the Suffragette, who was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude last July for setting fire to the Hurst Park racecourse stand and has been in and out of prison under the “Cat-and-Mouse Act” ever since, was released again from Holloway Prison on Thursday.
The Women’s Social and Political Union states that Miss Marion has been forcibly fed 232 times. She is, they state, a young woman, and looks like a woman of seventy. She has lost 2st. 8lb. in weight, and is now in a nursing home.

The Act did not apply to suffragettes only. For example, the Illustrated London News of Saturday 30th October 1920 reported the death on the 25th of that month, the seventy-fourth day of his hunger strike, of the Irish author and politician Terence MacSwiney (aged 41), Cork’s Lord Mayor.



January 1916 and last August he was arrested seven times for Sinn Fein activities. In November 1917, after a three days’ hunger strike, he was released under the “Cat-and-Mouse” Act. In 1918 he was elected Sinn Fein M.P. for Cork, but went to Dublin instead of Westminster, and attended the first meeting of Dail Eireann, when the Irish Republic was proclaimed. In one of the documents for the possession of which he was sentenced in August, he had written: “Our spirit is … to show ourselves eager to work for, and, if need be, to die for the Irish Republic. Facing our enemy we must declare an attitude simply … We ask for no mercy and we will make no compromise.”

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