Despite her royal roots, she became a fervent advocate for women’s suffrage in early twentieth-century England, marching shoulder-to-shoulder with her fellow suffragettes.
Sophia’s lineage can be traced back to Maharaja Ranjit Singh who, in the nineteenth century, had unified diverse regions of India, thus establishing a vast Sikh empire. Sophia’s father, Duleep Singh, ascended the throne at the tender age of five following a power struggle that resulted in the death of his elder brothers. However, a weakened empire subsequently fell prey to the East India Company in 1849. Duleep Singh was sent to England in 1854, alongside the renowned Koh-i-Noor diamond, which Queen Victoria incorporated into a brooch.
In England, Duleep Singh married Bamba Muller, a daughter of a wealthy German banker, and started a family. Sophia, born in 1876, was raised with her siblings as English aristocrats at Elveden Hall in Suffolk. Queen Victoria took a particular interest in the family, becoming Sophia’s godmother. Despite the comfort of England, Sophia’s father harboured an unfulfilled desire to reclaim his throne, dying in Paris a disheartened man.
Following the death of her mother in 1887, Queen Victoria appointed guardians for the children. Sophia, having received an education in Brighton and broadened her horizon through a European tour with her sisters, was given a lifetime grace and favour house at Hampton Court in 1896 by Queen Victoria.
A Trip to India
A trip to India in 1903 marked a turning point in Sophia’s life, transforming her from a high-society socialite to a passionate campaigner. She was deeply affected by the poverty she witnessed and inspired by tales of her grandfather’s reign, which brought prosperity to his subjects. Back in England, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), convinced of women’s right to vote. Sophia also joined the Women’s Tax Resistance League, echoing their motto of ‘no taxation without representation’.
Fearlessly using her royal status to champion the cause, she sold newspapers at the entrance of Hampton Court Palace. Despite several arrests, her royal connections kept her out of prison. Sophia was a visible figure in many major suffragette events. Notably, during the 1910 ‘Black Friday’ march from Caxton Hall to Parliament, in response to the government’s continued refusal to grant women the vote, Sophia marched in the front line alongside Emmeline Pankhurst.
When the WSPU boycotted the 1911 census, Sophia proudly wrote: ‘no vote, no census. As women don’t count, they refuse to be counted.’ During World War One, Sophia volunteered as a nurse caring for wounded Indian soldiers. She also supported and promoted the role of Indian troops in the war.
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh passed away in 1948, and for many years, her contributions went unrecognised. However, her legacy has recently been honoured with a Royal Mail stamp and an English Heritage plaque near her former residence near Hampton Court.
For further reading on this fascinating character, consider Anita Anand’s “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” (London, 2015).
Join Kirstie’s Suffragettes of Westminster walking tour and learn more about the Suffragettes and their impact in Westminster. Their slogan, “Deeds not Words,” reflected their action-oriented approach. Indeed, it begs the question – did their determined activism play a crucial role in the enactment of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which finally extended the right to vote to some women?