Who Was Sophia Duleep Singh? Indian Princess Lived in Exile in UK

  • Sophia Duleep Singh was an Indian princess and activist who campaigned for women’s rights.
  • Sophia lived in the UK and was arrested multiple times while campaigning, according to BBC News.
  • She used her royal status to promote the causes she was passionate about.

While many may be familiar with British women’s rights activists Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, one campaigner who remains lesser known is Sophia Duleep Singh — an Indian princess who fought for equality while her family was living exiled in Britain.

Sophia was born in London Elveden Hall, a stately home in Suffolk, England, in 1876 to Bamba Müller and Duleep Singh, the last Sikh emperor of the Punjab, whose official title was Maharaja of Punjab, according to The Open University.

Duleep, after whom Sophia was named, was exiled to Britain in 1849 after Punjab was annexed by the British Empire, as BBC News reported.

Although her story may not be as well known, the princess, who was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, used her royal status and connections to campaign for women’s rights to vote. Sophia’s contributions to the suffragette movement were recognized earlier this year by English Heritage, a charity that takes care of hundreds of historic buildings, monuments, and sites in England.

On May 26, the organization placed a blue plaque on Faraday House in London’s Hampton Court Palace. The home was gifted to Sophia and her sisters by Queen Victoria, according to a press release published on English Heritage’s website.

Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage, said in the press release that there has been an increased interest from the public in Sophia’s story in recent years, and hoped the plaque would ensure the princess was “firmly established in the pantheon of great campaigners for women’s suffrage.”

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A blue plaque is pictured after its unveiling at a house once inhabited by Princess Sophia Duleep Singh on May 26, 2023, in London, England.

Carl Court/Getty Images


Sophia had a difficult childhood

Growing up in Suffolk, Sophia experienced challenges throughout her early years.

Her father abandoned his family and relocated to Paris to be with his mistress, Ada Weatherill, in 1886 when Sophia was 10, according to English Heritage.

After Duleep left the family, Sophia’s mother “retreated into alcoholism,” according to English Heritage, before she died in 1887.

Sophia’s godmother, Queen Victoria, took responsibility for the child and her sisters, Bamba and Catherine, and formally proclaimed them princesses in 1896, according to English Heritage.

Later, the royal became active in the suffragette movement

In her 30s, Sophia joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) shortly after meeting one of the society’s members, Una Dugdale, in 1908, according to English Heritage.

The royal used her platform to drive traction to the cause and was often seen selling copies of “The Suffragette” newspaper outside her home in Hampton Court, according to the historical palace’s official website.

Sophia attended protests with the group and was arrested several times, according to BBC News, which reported that the charges against her were dropped each time, though this wasn’t the case for many other suffragettes.

On one occasion, BBC News reported, the princess was arrested after her involvement in the “Black Friday” demonstration in London. On the historic day — November 18, 1910 — Sophia was one of more than 300 suffragettes who protested the British parliament after it failed to give more time to the Conciliation Bill. If passed, the bill would have allowed approximately one million women who owned property to vote, according to the UK’s National Archives.

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An unnamed suffragette is pictured struggling with a policeman on “Black Friday” in Westminster, London, on November 18, 1910.

Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images


The police responded to the protest with violence and around 200 women said they were physically and sexually assaulted, according to The National Archives. Sophia was one of 119 women arrested that day, with her charges later dropped, BBC News reported.

The next year, in 1911, Sophia joined the Women’s Tax Resistance League, an organization in which members abstained from paying taxes as a means of protesting women’s lack of voting rights.

Shortly after joining the group, one of Sophia’s diamond rings was impounded and was later bought at auction by a fellow member of the organization, who returned it to the princess, according to English Heritage.

Then, when campaigning temporarily ceased during the First World War, Sophia became a Red Cross nurse and took care of British-Indian soldiers, according to English Heritage.

Later, after the war ended, she returned to campaigning.

Sophia saw key victories for women’s rights during her lifetime

In 1918, women over the age of 30 who owned land were given the right to vote for the first time after the British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, according to the legislative body’s official website. However, women’s right to vote was not equal to men’s at this time, as the same act gave men over the age of 21 the power to vote.

It wasn’t until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 that all women over the age of 21 were given the right to vote, according to the UK Parliament’s website. And according to the same source, May 30, 1929, marked the first time women voted on the same terms as men in a UK general election.

A black-and-white image of Sophia Duleep Singh talking to sister suffragettes at London's Bow Street.


Sophia Duleep Singh talking to sister suffragettes at London’s Bow Street on May 2, 1913.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Decades later, in 2023, English Heritage erected the blue plaque on Sophia’s former home just four days before the 94th anniversary of the law.

Sophia continued to campaign for women’s rights long after the right to vote was passed, along with several other Indian women’s rights activists in the UK, including Lolita Roy — a prominent activist who moved from India to England in 1900, according to the University of Bristol. Roy would later use her platform to raise money for scholarships for women and petition the British government to give women in India the right to vote, according to the university’s website.

Years later, in the 1934 edition of “The Women’s Who’s Who” — an annual record of the careers and activities of the leading women of the day, published in the UK — Sophia cited “Advancement of Women” as her only interest, according to Historical Royal Palaces.

Following Sophia’s death at the age of 71 on August 22, 1948, according to English Heritage, her sister Bamba took her ashes to India.

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