Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh is my absolute idol. I mean, this situation has become so extreme that last year my family named our puppy Bamba after her mother and eldest sister.
Sophia (pronounced so-fire) was the daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire and the Goddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was an all round fabulous lady, and she was born on my birthday (albeit 117 years before me). August the 8th this year marked what would have been her 140th year.
I first read about Duleep Singh in a newspaper article, and then last year for my birthday I was given her biography Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand. It was official. Sophia was the one for me.
And it’s not just the woman herself; Sophia’s whole family is awe-inspiring. Her grandmother Rani Jindan was just twenty-three years old when she became Regent of the Sikh empire on behalf of her 5 year old son. It was the first half of the 19th Century and Jindan made waves by stepping out of the Purdah to rule with her own voice. She made a fierce, headstrong and controversial ruler and quite the role model for her English-born Granddaughters who only knew about her through the stories their father told.
It’s not surprising then that Sophia and her sisters, who shared a close bond their whole lives, proved quite different to the large majority of Edwardian gentlewomen. The eldest, Bamba, was particularly outspoken and rebellious, and moved straight back to India the second the government let her. The middle sister, Catherine, was just as controversial, although quietly so; she settled down in Germany with her governess Lina Schaffer. The two remained together until Shaffer’s death finally separated the two.
Sophia herself was the prime example of the new woman; riding around the city on her bicycle, competing in hockey tournaments and fighting for the causes she believed in. She raised money and awareness for the Lascars who at the time were badly mistreated and their plight was neglected by most in England. She tended to Indian soldiers as a Red Cross Nurse in WW1 and became one of the most important Suffragettes of the era. She didn’t just rub shoulders with Emmeline Pankhurst but became part of her inner circle witnessing the horrors of Black Friday, throwing herself at carriages and ended up getting arrested for her involvement.
She was fantastic; boycotting the 1911 census by scrawling on it, ‘no vote no census. As women do not count, they refuse to be counted’ She was also a great supporter of the tax resistance league and ended up being fined and sent to court. After refusing to pay her fines, bailiffs took jewels from her house. In a brilliant victory against the patriarchy, suffragettes filled the auction hall and bought the jewels back for a fraction of their value and immediately handed them straight back to Sophia.
When Singh sold a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace, where Queen Victoria had given her Faraday hourse as a grace and favour residency. At his wits end the King famously asked ‘have we no hold over her?’
The answer was quite clearly no. Princess, aristocrat, godmother to the late Queen. None of it mattered. Sophia was a law unto herself. She was unstoppable.
Most of the information in this piece was gained from Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand. It’s well worth a read, and gives a good background on the Sikh Empire and the Suffragette Movement as well as Sophia’s own life.