Sophia Duleep Singh

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Sophia Duleep Singh
Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette in 1913.
Full name
Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh
Born Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh
8 August 1876
Elveden Hall, Elveden, Suffolk, England
Died 22 August 1948(1948-08-22) (aged 72)
Tylers Green, Buckinghamshire, Englan
Religion Christian
Occupation Prominent suffragette in the United Kingdom
The three sisters from left to right: Bamba, Catherine and Sophia

Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh (8 August 1876 – 22 August 1948)[1] was a prominent suffragette in the United Kingdom. Her father was Maharaja Duleep Singh, son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, known as the "Lion of the Punjab", who abdicated his kingdom of Punjab to the British Raj due to political maneuvering by Governor-General Dalhousie in India[2] and was exiled to England where he converted to Christianity.[3] Sophia's mother was Maharani Bamba Müller. Her godmother was Queen Victoria. She was a firebrand feminist who lived in Hampton Court at the apartment in Faraday House, granted to her by Queen Victoria as a grace and favour. She had four sisters (including two step sisters) and four brothers.[2] She fashioned herself as an Edwardian lady, though of brown skin.[3] In 1895, Sophia (who later in life became a suffragette) and her sisters Princess Bamba and Princess Catherine, were introduced as aristocratic "debutantes" into Buckingham Palace, all three dressed in regal finery.[4][5]

Secret documents revealed her identity as a firebrand “harridan law breaker” for her diaries revealed that she maintained contacts with the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement like Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Sarala Devi and Lala Lajpat Rai.[3] In the early part of the twentieth century she was one of the leading South Asian women who pioneered the cause of women’s rights in Britain.[6]

She is best remembered for her leading role in the Women's Tax Resistance League, but she also participated in other women's suffrage groups including the Women's Social and Political Union.[3]

Early life[edit]

Sophia Duleep Singh was the third daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh (the last king of the Sikh Empire) and his first wife Bamba Müller.[2] Bamba was the daughter of a German merchant banker with the company Todd Müller and Co., by his mistress of Abyssinian descent called Sofia.[7] The Maharaja and Bamba had 10 children out of whom six survived.[4][5][7] Sophia thus combined Indian, European and African ancestry with an upbringing among the British aristocracy. Her father Duleep Singh, became famous for abdicating his kingdom to the British (at the age of 11) and also surrendering the famous Kohinoor diamond to Queen Victoria. He was exiled from India by the British at the age of fifteen, moved to England where Queen Victoria treated him very kindly and provided for his upkeep.[1][5] But his handsome stature and regal bearing made him the platonic lover of Queen Victoria.[4] Once in London, Duleep Singh converted to Christianity,[5] but in later life reconverted to Sikh religion,[7] when he realized that he had lost a large empire by deceit he decided to espouse the cause of the freedom movement in India.[2]

Sophia fell sick with typhoid at the age of 10. Her mother, who was attending to her bedside, contacted the disease, went into a coma and died on 17 September 1887. Her father remarried to Ada Wetherill (who was a chambermaid[4]), whom he had known earlier, on 31 May 1889.[1] They had two daughters.[7]

Sophia's brothers included Frederick Duleep Singh, while among her two blood sisters was the suffragette Catherine Duleep Singh and Bamba Duleep Singh.[7] Sophia inherited substantial private wealth from her father upon his death in 1893, and in 1898 her godmother, Queen Victoria, granted Sophia a grace and favour apartment in Faraday House, Hampton Court.[1]

Victoria was very fond of Duleep Singh and his family, particularly Sophia who was her god-daughter, and fully supported her and her two sisters to become royal socialites. Sophia wore most fashionable dresses from Paris, took to breeding of champion dogs, photography, cycling, attended fancy parties, and was the favourite Indian princess, with a fashionable address. She was a chain smoker of 600 cigarettes a month; the cigarettes were made from Turkish tobacco. She even became a poster girl for cycling driving her "Columbia Model 41 Ladies Safety Bicycle".[2][5]

At the age of ten, with her father's tribulations in London and his fortunes disappearing in meeting his wayward life, Sophia made an effort to move to India along with her father and her co-born sisters, only to be turned back from Aden under an arrest warrant.[2][3] Her troubles started then and continued as her father disowned her,[3] but the magnanimity of Victoria provided her with a roof to live under in 1896, a triple-storied building known as the Faraday House, and an allowance of £200 for its maintenance.[1] Sophia behaved as if she was "Queen of the Punjab". She did not reside there initially but stayed at the Manor House, Old Buckenham in Suffolk, close to her brother Prince Frederick.[1] Her father died a lonely death in a rundown hotel in Paris due to ill health[3] on 22 October 1895 at the age of 55.[1]

Seemingly affected by grief, she gave an impression of a silent girl which made the British government slacken their vigil on her, which turned out to be a misjudgment. She made a secret trip to India along with her sister Princess Bamba, to attend the Delhi Durbar where she was insulted. This made her realize the worthlessness of popularity in the media and among the public, and she returned to England to venture on something new.[3] During her trip to India in 1907 she visited Amritsar and Lahore and met her relatives.[1] Her visit to India was a turning point in her life as she came face to face with reality of poverty and the fact of what her family had lost by surrendering to the British government.[5] While in India, she gave a "purdah-party" at Shalimar Bagh in Lahore, the city where her father had been interned as a boy, although during her visit she was shadowed by British agents. During this visit, she also came across the Indian freedom fighters like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai who were agitating for self-rule, and she sympathized with their cause.[2][5] Lala Lajpat Rai was her hero and his unjustified imprisonment on "charges of sedition" by the British turned Sophia against the British Empire.[2]

In 1909, her brother bought a house named 'Thatched Cottage’ in Blo Norton, for his sisters to live, apart from buying the palatial Blo Norton Hall in South Norfolk for his own living.[1] In the same year, Sophia attended a farewell party hosted at Westminster Palace Hotel for Mahatma Gandhi.[1]

Sophia was married to Dr. Colonel Sutherland, who was principal at King Edward's Medical College, Lahore and had settled there. They had no children.[7]

Later life and activism[edit]

After Sophia returned from India, she initially supported the Indian soldiers and Lascars during WWI.[3] In 1909, she took to militant activism when she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) at the behest of Una Dugdale who was a friend of Pankhurst sisters who had established the Women's Franchise League in 1899.[1] In 1909, she pioneered the cause of the "suffragette movement" for women's voting rights. She funded the movement and became a leader for the cause. She defiantly refused to pay taxes which frustrated the government with King George saying in desperation: "Have we no hold on her".[3]

As a British citizen her primary interest was for woman's rights in England. She and her fellow suffragettes were also interested to promote activities in the colonies for similar rights for woman. In this respect, she pursued her Indian heritage and was not bound down by notions of allegiance to the cause of a single nation, and strongly supported the women's cause of many countries and their countrymen. In her activist role her royal title as "Princess' did help.[8] Princess Sophia Singh sold copies of a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace where Queen Victoria had let her family live.[9] There was some correspondence that suggested that the King could have her evicted for this behaviour.[9]

Her aggressive activism even involved her in a riot on 18 November 1910, led by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and herself[9] there was on a march to the parliament (House of Commons) when her co-lady activists were attacked and even molested by the police. This was called the 'Black Friday'.[1]

Initially, she kept a very low profile as an activist. In 1911, she was reluctant to even make speeches in public gatherings or in meetings of WSPU. She would refuse to chair meetings and say to her colleagues of the WSPU "quite useless for that sort of thing", and would only speak "5 words if nobody else would support the forthcoming resolution". She later chaired and addressed a number of meetings.[10]

In 1911, Hirabai, an Indian student in England, noted that Sophia always displayed a small badge, in yellow and green colour, which had an inscription that proclaimed her motto "Votes for women".[11]

With her consent, Women's Tax Resistance League (WTRL) members had organized sale of her confiscated goods by auction. She raised funds for the cause by pleading for subscriptions. She was even involved in selling the newspaper The Suffragate outside her house and in press carts and did not mind her being photographed selling the newspaper. [11] On 22 May 1911, she was fined £3 by the Spelthorne Petty Sessions Court for illegally keeping a coach, a helper and five dogs and also an armorial. Her protest was against the denial of right to vote for woman.[1] In December 1913, she was charged by the court and levied a fine of £12 and 10s as she refused to pay the license fee for two dogs, a carriage and a servant.[10] On another occasion, in July 1911, a bailiff went to her house to collect an unpaid fine of 14 shillings, which she refused to pay. Consequently her diamond ring was confiscated by the police, which was auctioned a few days later. It was bought by her friend who returned it to her.[1] On 13 December 1913 she was again summoned by the court along with her Women's Tax Resistance League (WTRL) for keeping dogs without license. On another occasion, she tried to fall in front of the Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith's car, holding a poster which read "Give women the vote!". She supported manufacture of bombs, encouraging rowdy elements and thus created mayhem in Great Britain.[1][11] However, in spite of all her aggressive activism as a suffragette, she was never arrested, though her activities were watched by the administration; probably they did not want her to get a martyr status.[4]

During World War I she joined a protest march of 10,000 women for not allowing a woman force to volunteer for the war effort. She eventually wore a Red Cross Uniform and worked as a nurse during the war.[4] During this war she tended to the wounded Indian soldiers in the hospital at Brighton; for the soldiers had fought in Europe on the Western Front.[2] The Sikh soldiers could hardly believe "that the granddaughter of Ranjit Singh sat by their bedsides in a nurse's uniform.[4]

Following the enactment of "The Representation of the People Act" in 1918, which allowed women over the age of 30 to exercise their franchise, she joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained its member till her death.[1]

In 1918, when she arranged for a successful flag-day for Indian troops it sent shock waves both in England and New Delhi.[4] In September 1919, she also hosted the Indian soldiers of the peace contingent, at her residence in Faraday House.[8] In 1924, she made her second visit to India with her sister Bombina and her husband Colonel Sutherland. She visited Kashmir, Lahore, Amritsar and Murre where she was mobbed by people who came to see their Maharaja's daughters.[1] This visit was a boost to activism for female suffrage in India. The badge which she wore proclaiming her cause to women's vote not only promoted her cause in Britain but also came to be known internationally.[11]

Eventually Sophia was recognized and held a place of honour in the suffragette movement along with Emmeline Pankhurst. Her sole aim in life was for the advancement of women which she succeeded in achieving.[3]

Queen Empress Victoria had presented to Sophia, an elaborately dressed up doll named "Little Sophie", which became her proud possession. However, towards the end of her life she gifted this doll to Drovna, her housekeeper's daughter.[4]


On 14 June 1928, she became the President of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship following the death of its founder Mrs Pankhurst.[1] One of her notable achievement was the Royal consent given to the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, which enabled women above the age of 21 to vote on par with men.[1] In the 1934 edition of Who's Who, she stated that her life's purpose was "The advancement of women".[1]

She espoused noble causes to remove inequality and bring justice, which was far removed from her hereditary bearings. She played a significant role at crucial stages in the history of England and India.[8]


Sophia died on 22 August 1948 in the Coalhatch House (now called Hilden Hall), which was once owned by her sister Catherine. She was buried on 26 August 1948 at Golders Green Crematorium.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u "Princess Sophia Duleep Singh – Timeline". History Heroes organization. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Sarna, Navtej (23 January 2015). "The princess dares: Review of Anita Anand's book "Sophia"". India Today News Magazine. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Anand, Anita (14 January 2015). "Sophia, the suffragette". The Hindu. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Tonkin, Boyd (8 January 2015). "Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand, book review". The Independent. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Kellogg, Carolyn (8 January 2015). "'Sophia' a fascinating story of a princess turned revolutionary". LA Times. 
  6. ^ Ahmed & Mukherjee 2011, p. viii.
  7. ^ a b c d e f "Maharani Bamba Duleep Singh". 
  8. ^ a b c Ahmed & Mukherjee 2011, p. 173.
  9. ^ a b c Suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh, 1910, British Library, retrieved 13 February 2015
  10. ^ a b Ahmed & Mukherjee 2011, p. 171.
  11. ^ a b c d Ahmed & Mukherjee 2011, p. 175.


External sources[edit]