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Hunger Strike in British Prisons 1913-1940


There were 25 recorded strikes in 1938, spread over 13 prisons. As the tables below show, each of the strikes with a known start and end date lasted less than two weeks. a large majority of the strikes lasted less than a week. Nearly half of the strikes in 1938 were for individual or personal reasons, and in well over half of the cases (17 out of 25), there were no records of force feeding.

While there is no evidence of a coordinated group strike in 1938, in this year John Syme began his frequent appearances on the record. Syme, a former Police Inspector, is the only example in the record of the 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act. Known also as the "Cat and Mouse Act," the law was a response to the hunger strikes of suffragettes in prisons. According to the act, prison officials could release hunger striking suffragettes who were weak, ill, or presumably near death. Once they recovered, officials could rearrest the suffragettes and return them to prison, starting the whole thing over again.

According to records, John Syme was upset with the police department, particularly over his pension. In 1938 he was sentenced to two different crimes, "Breach of Peace," and later "Malicious Damage to Window" (he had thrown rocks at a Home Office window, but reportedly did not break it.) But whenever he was sent to prison, Syme went on a hunger strike. In 1938 alone he was released from prison six times under the Cat and Mouse Act.

Another prisoner who went on hunger strikes in response to conditions outside of prison was Thomas Sidney Overberry. Overberry first appeared in the record in 1935, when he was sentenced to 21 days (or pay a fine) in Leeds for failure to pay rates (taxes). From the day of his sentence, March 6, 1935 until the day of his release on March 26, Overberry carried out a hunger strike to protest his treatment by local authorities and get the sympathy of the Secretary of State. In 1938 Overberry was again sentenced to 13 days in Leeds (or pay a fine) for failure to pay rates. Once again, he refused food from the day of his sentence until the day of his release. He also blamed local authorities for this strike, claiming that they "had demolished some huts of his and therefore had no right to ask him to pay rates." 

Duration of Strikes

This table includes the 19 strikes for which there was a definite start and end date. 

There were 6 strikes for which the length could not be determined, due to a missing start date, end date, or both.

Notable Strikes, 1938

John Syme

John Syme First and Second Strike
John Syme Third Strike
John Syme Strikes Four, Five, and Six

Thomas Sidney Overberry

Thomas Sidney Overberry First Strike
Thomas Sidney Overberry Second Strike