Forgotten Indian Princess Was One Of The Earliest Feminists Of The 20th Century


New Delhi: The expatriate Indian Princess Sophia was honoured by the British Royal Mail with a stamp to mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave women over 30 and all men over 21 the vote.

She was one of the earliest women to fight for social justice and equality in the UK and had a massive impact on the social movements of that time.

Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh (8 August 1876 – 22 August 1948) was the daughter of 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.

Her Indian explorations leading to a reform in her worldview

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.

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 and took care of wounded Indian soldiers at Brighton hospital 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".

Impact on women’s rights

During the early twentieth century, Singh was one of several South Asian women who pioneered the cause of women's rights in Britain.

After Singh returned from India in 1909, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and pioneered the movement for women's voting rights, funding suffragette groups and leading the cause.

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 where her title of Princess was useful.

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".

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.

She supported the manufacture of bombs, encouraging anarchy in Britain. Despite Singh's activism as a suffragette, she was never arrested as the authorities may not have wanted to make a martyr of her.

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.


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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