Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh was the daughter of Bamba Muller and Maharaja Duleep Singh (said to be Queen Victoria’s lover). She was born in the UK after her father, the Maharaja, was exiled to the UK by the British Raj in May 1854 when he was just 15 years old. When he arrived in the UK, he was befriended by Queen Victoria (then 35 years old). The Maharaja married Bamba in 1864 and Princess Duleep Singh was born in 1876, third daughter to the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.
Queen Victoria was close to the Maharaja’s family; she showered them with gifts and was Godmother to Princess Sophia and several of her siblings. In 1887, after the Princess’ mother died the Queen encouraged the Princess and her sisters to become fully fledged British socialites, attending fashionable parties and taking part in elite activities of the upper class including breeding dogs and photography. When the Maharaja died in 1893, Queen Victoria granted Princess Sophia a “grace and favour” apartment at Hampton Court.
An unsanctioned visit to India in 1903 inspired in Princess Sophia a lively interest in the the Suffragette movement. She actively participated in the Women’s Social and Political Union and the the Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL). The WTRL formed part of the better known Suffragette movement, aimed at giving women the right to vote, essentially, a fight for equality.
The 1842 Income Taxes Act defined married women as incapacitated persons, along with infants, lunatics, idiots and insane persons, and women’s incomes were chargeable on their husbands. This meant that husbands had to declare their wives’ income on their tax returns and pay the appropriate taxes.
Naturally some women were of the same view as League member and author Beatrice Harraden:
The least any woman can do is to refuse to pay taxes, especially the tax on actually earned income. This is certainly the most logical phase of the fight for suffrage. It is a culmination of the Government’s injustice and stupidity to ask that we pay an income tax on income earned by brains, when they are refusing to consider us eligible to vote.
These women simply did not tell their husbands what they earned. Their husbands were unable to declare the income and pay the taxes and since the women were not subject to tax, the Government found this a difficult pill to swallow. Some men were jailed for the conduct of their wives and despite this, did not try and persuade their wives to declare their income, thus supporting the suffrage and tax resistance movement.
An example of this was Mark Wilks. Mr Wilks was a teacher and a member of the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement. His wife, Elizabeth Wilks was a doctor. Mr Wilks was taken to court for not declaring his wife’s income, citing the argument that she had refused to give him details of it. He was imprisoned for 14 days in 1912.
Without forward looking men like Mr Wilks, I imagine it would have been that much more difficult to obtain as much equality as we have today. There is still a long way to go and the support of men should not be underestimated in progressing women’s equality, particularly in the workplace.
Another more entertaining case centres around a British man resident in New Zealand whose wife was living in the UK. By virtue of his non resident status, the husband was not subject to UK tax. The UK tax authority asserted that the wife, as a married woman, needed to declare her earnings on her husband’s (non-existent) tax return. Needless to say, the courts had no jurisdiction in New Zealand.
As an unmarried woman, Princess Sophia was subject to the same tax laws as men and she set an example for the WTRL, as an upper class woman refusing to pay taxes and openly opposing the British tax system, despite having a lot more to lose. Her behaviour caused the Government officials to consider evicting her from Hampton Court.
In 1913 a group of WTRL members met the Chancellor, Lloyd George, who agreed that treating married women as incapacitated was a “legal humiliation”, but put forward the same argument as chancellors before him: cost.
In broad terms, each married couple had one “personal allowance”. If women were taxed as separate persons, this would double the tax free income permitted per couple and reduce tax revenues. The obvious solution was to increase tax rates, but of course the political cost of doing so was too high.
Princess Sophia used her title and wealth to publicise and fund activism, auctioning her belongings to fund the WTRL. When she refused to pay her taxes and licence fees, the Princess was divested of a diamond ring, which was auctioned to raise the monies owed. One of her friends purchased the ring and returned it to her.
The princess was at the forefront of the crowd with Emmeline Pankhurst on “Black Friday” when the suffragettes marched on Parliament. In 1928, Princess Sophia was appointed President of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship after Mrs Pankhurst’s death.
Princess Sophia died on 22 August 1948 and was proud to have devoted her life to furthering the suffrage movement and “advancement of women” all over the world. She was not afraid to challenge male leaders of the day – including Winston Churchill and King George V (Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand) – to stand up for what she believed in. I greatly admire her and suggest that today, possibly more than ever, this confidence should be valued, respected and nurtured in future generations.