Story of a suffragette

Lilian_lenton_1 The Times has been running a series of articles on the suffragettes over the past few days; it isn’t entirely clear why, although it seems likely that some documents have become available via the public records office.

Last Thursday, in a piece entitled "Suffragettes planned to kill PM", Nicola Woolcock describes a Home Office memo in which the suffragettes were described as "half-insane women" with fairly advanced plans to assassinate leading political figures of the day. The next day, a follow-up article "Women, the bullet and the ballot box" was accompanied by a striking array of photographs of the women, sadly not present in the online version.

I mentioned the articles to Cathy, who said there is nothing new in the revelations — she’d already learned in history lessons that the suffragettes planned to shoot Asquith, and what’s more she firmly disapproved of the movement. I was shocked! I was bought up to regard the suffragettes as heroines.

Yesterday, Nicola Woolcock continued her series with "Burning passion of a suffragette", which tells the story of one of these women. "Hatless, her long hair cascading over the shoulders of a casually buttoned jacket, Lilian Lenton could easily pass for a 21st-century woman. But the prolific arsonist almost died for her suffragette beliefs nearly a century ago." Unfortunately the photo is not available in the online version and the only one I can find on the web is a titchy little thing. If you can look at page 24 of Monday’s Times, you’ll see the striking photo of this woman — she looks like Julie Christie in her younger days; hard to imagine it was taken in 1914.

Lilian’s story is dramatic.  She was repeatedly jailed for her beliefs in her early 20s, and force-fed. She trained as a dancer, but was so incensed by the government’s refusal to give women the vote that she became an arsonist, with the ambition of burning down every empty building that she saw to force attention to the cause. She managed to burn down the refreshments pavilion at Kew Gardens before she was imprisoned. While on hunger strike, she was force fed through a tube in her nose, contracted septic pneumonia as a result of the liquid food going straight into her lungs. This occasioned various letters to the Times about her condition, which form the basis for yesterday’s story.

Eventually, after being incarcerated in a series of prisons, Lilian’s sympathisers devised her escape, and she went to live on mainland Europe. She worked in a women’s hospital in Serbia during the First World War, became a speaker for the Save the Children Fund, and died in 1972.

The Times notes that Jill Liddington has written a book, Rebel Girls, about Lenton and other suffragettes.

9 thoughts on “Story of a suffragette

  1. food through your nose? I’m not sure I would be able to stick that out. She must have had an absolutely iron will. It is so frustrating to see so many women (well, and men too) today not even bothering to exercise their right to vote when women like Lilian went through so much to get it for us.

  2. That’s an amazing story. And that she was still alive in 1972! I hope she got some honours in her lifetime. As Sian said, we tend to take our rights far too casually these days, giving little thought to the people who suffered to achieve them for us. I’m putting the Liddington book on my ‘must buy’ list.

  3. Thanks for this, Maxine. What an amazing story!
    Did Cathy give any explanation for her disapproval?

  4. No, no, not at all! I just haven’t had chance to ask her yet, what with my working hours and Cathy having quite a few sporting fixtures this week — I am aiming to ask her at the weekend, and will post. I think I know the reason but I want to check with her first that I’m correct.

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