In 1913, the struggle for women’s right to vote was at its height and many suffragettes who had been sent to prison for acts of protest, were going on hunger strike. The Prison authorities with the backing of the Liberal Government had started force feeding the suffragettes. The Government genuinely feared that one of the Suffragettes might die in prison from refusing to eat or being force fed and become a martyr for the cause. So great was their concern that they rushed through the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, which became commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act.
This Act allowed the early release of suffragette prisoners who were so weakened by hunger striking that their health was in danger. They could be re-arrested and taken back to prison when their health recovered. Hence the imagery of the Cat (the Government) playing with the poor mouse before its ultimate demise.
Ethel Smyth, (suffragette, composer and conductor) had this to say about the Act in her memoirs:-
“The so-called 'Cat and Mouse' Act, of which the murderous, cowardly, pseudo-humane refinement is to my mind more revolting than any torture invented in the Middle Ages, was now in full swing. The authorities dared not let the women die, so would release them, sometimes half-dead, to be rearrested as soon as they were judged fit to serve the remainder of their sentence. Whereupon the whole hideous business would begin again, the idea being that by degrees bodies and wills would be broken past mending. How a group of civilized Christian men could lend themselves to this proceeding rather than perform a simple act of justice already fifty years overdue is inconceivable - but so it was.”
However, the ineffectiveness of the Act was very soon evident as the authorities experienced much more difficulty than anticipated in re-arresting the released hunger-strikers. One of these was Lilian Lenton, who had been arrested on charges of arson including burning down the Tea Pavilion at Kew Gardens.
While in Holloway Jail she held a hunger strike for two days before being forcibly fed, which caused her to become seriously ill with pleurisy caused by food entering her lungs. It took two doctors and seven wardens to restrain her. She was quickly and quietly released. Months later, on another arson charge she had been released from Leeds Jail after starting a hunger strike and then managed to evade the police on several occasions. Even though the house she was living in was under surveillance, she disguised dressed herself as a young man and walked out under their noses!
She then led the police a merry dance up and down the country escaping justice in Cardiff dressed as an old lady – managing to hobble to the station and onto a train for London! The inability of the government to lay its hands on Lilian Lenton and high-profile suffragettes caused a public scandal.
The Asquith government's implementation of the Act caused the militant WSPU and the suffragettes to perceive Asquith as the enemy and led to an increase in support for the Labour Party.