Constance Bulwer-Lytton

West Horsley Place has touched the lives of many pioneering women from the medieval period to the modern day. Therefore it feels particularly appropriate that our latest discovery in the Library has uncovered the story of another remarkable and courageous woman: Constance Bulwer-Lytton.

Our library recording project - in partnership with with The Arts Society East Surrey and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund - is to record, clean and begin to repair our huge book collection. Hilary Ely, lead volunteer, shares Constance's story:

A Copy of My Sister's Book

Our volunteers found a copy of "Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences" by Lady Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Spinster. It was published in London by William Heinemann in 1914.

The book is bound in suffragette purple. A letter from Constance's brother the Earl of Lytton is inserted. He is writing to gift the book to the Marquess of Crewe (owner of West Horsley Place). 

About Constance

Lyttons letter to CreweLady Constance Bulwer-Lytton (1869-1923) was the daughter of Robert 1st Earl of Lytton, statesman and poet (writing as ‘Owen Meredith’) and his wife Edith née Villiers, and the granddaughter of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist (of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame).  Constance, third child in a large family, was born in India while Lord Lytton was Viceroy.  She was inspired by the feminism of Olive Schreiner during a visit with her mother to South Africa in the 1890s, but from her father’s death in 1891 she devoted herself to home life and the care of her mother, while quietly developing independence of thought and a social conscience. 

In 1905 Constance received a legacy, which she donated to the revival of Morris Dancing.  Through Mary Neal, a pioneer of the folk dance and song revival, and her link to the Esperance Club for working class girls she met Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).  Constance joined the movement, becoming a passionate advocate, taking part in protests and petitioning parliament for votes for women.   


In 1909 she was arrested and imprisoned in Holloway, and later in that year arrested and imprisoned in Newcastle.  Both times she received medical attention, including an intervention to prevent her from self-harming, and was released on health grounds.  It was clear to her that her position in society had led to preferential treatment, so to test this she assumed the persona of Jane Warton, a working-class London seamstress.  Her next arrest came about at a protest in Liverpool, where she gave her name as Jane Warton; she was imprisoned in Walton Gaol and force-fed numerous times with no medical supervision or intervention.

"I had decided to write the words "Votes for Women" on my body, scratching it in my skin with a needle, beginning over the heart and ending it on my face. I proposed to show the first half of the inscription to the doctors, telling them that as I knew how much appearances were respected by officials, I thought it well to warn them that the last letter and a full stop would come upon my cheek, and be still quite fresh and visible on the day of my release." 

When on her release in 1910 she gave a speech in which she revealed her experiences and wrote about them in The Times, her powerful testimony helped bring about the end of force-feeding.  In that year Constance became a full-time activist in WSPU, but her health had been undermined by her prison experience, and a series of heart attacks and strokes affected her for the rest of her shortened life. In a reversal of fortune, her mother nursed her until she died in 1923, aged 54. 

Shining a Light on Women's Ordeals

Between 1912 and 1914, paralysed by a stroke, she wrote Prisons and Prisoners with her left hand, with the contrasting narratives of Lady Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, spinster.  On publication it proved influential in the cause not only of women’s suffrage, but also of prison reform.    

An Advocate in Parliament

The 2nd Earl of Lytton (1876-1947) succeeded his father in 1891.  He sat in the House of Lords in the Conservative interest but was not brought into government until later given a ministerial role in WWI because of his propensity to espouse causes at odds with Conservative policy – free trade, labour conditions, parliamentary reform and women’s suffrage (not to mention eugenics and what we would now call complementary medicine).   

He was inspired by his sister’s courage to advocate strongly for votes for women through involvement with the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, supporting the aims of the WSPU (while not condoning violent and criminal acts) and joining a parliamentary group that attempted to legislate in 1910.  The strength of his feelings on women’s suffrage and of his continued support for the cause comes through in the letter he sent with this book to Lord Crewe.