Lilian Lenton

Lilian Lenton

Lilian Ida Lenton, the eldest daughter of a carpenter-joiner, was born in Leicester in January 1891. After leaving school she trained to be a dancer and took the name "Ida Inkley".

A supporter of women's suffrage she heard Emmeline Pankhurst speak and later recalled that she "made up my mind that night that as soon as I was twenty-one and my own boss... I would volunteer".

Soon after joining the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) she took part on 4th March, 1912, window-breaking demonstration. This time the target was government offices in Whitehall. The severely disabled, May Billinghurst, agreed to hide some of the stones underneath the rug covering her knees. According to Votes for Women: "From in front, behind, from every side it came - a hammering, crashing, splintering sound unheard in the annals of shopping... At the windows excited crowds collected, shouting, gesticulating. At the centre of each crowd stood a woman, pale, calm and silent."

Lilian Lenton was one of the 200 suffragettes were arrested and jailed for taking part in the demonstration. She was found guilty and was sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison. After leaving prison she joined the campaign to destroy the contents of pillar-boxes. By December, 1912, the government claimed that over 5,000 letters had been damaged by the WSPU. The main figure in this campaign was May Billinghurst. Lenton recalled: "She (May Billinghurst) would set out in her chair with many little packages from which, when they were turned upside down, there flowed a dark brown sticky fluid, concealed under the rug which covered her legs. She went undeviatingly from one pillar box to another, sometimes alone, sometimes with another suffragette to do the actual job, dropping a package into each one."

In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organizing a secret arson campaign. According to Sylvia Pankhurst: "Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin. Sometimes they failed, sometimes succeeded in setting fire to an untenanted building - all the better if it were the residence of a notability - or a church, or other place of historic interest." Occasionally they were caught and convicted, usually they escaped. Attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes.

Lilian Lenton was one of the woung women involved in this arson campaign. Along with Olive Wharry she embarked on a series of terrorist acts. She was arrested on 19th February 1913, soon after setting fire to the tea pavilion in Kew Gardens. In court it was reported: "The constables gave chase, and just before they caught them each of the women who had separated was seen to throw away a portmanteau. At the station the women gave the names of Lilian Lenton and Olive Wharry. In one of the bags which the women threw away were found a hammer, a saw, a bundle to tow, strongly redolent of paraffin and some paper smelling strongly of tar. The other bag was empty, but it had evidently contained inflammables."

While in custody, Lenton went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. She was quickly released from prison when she became seriously ill after food entered her lungs. After she recovered she managed to evade recapture until arrested in June 1913 in Doncaster and charged with setting fire to to a railway station at Blaby, Leicestershire. She was held in custody at Armley Prison in Leeds. She immediately went on hunger-strike and was released after a few days under the Cat & Mouse Act. The following month she escaped to France in a private yacht.

According to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999): "Lilian Lenton has stated that her aim was to burn two buildings a week, in order to create such a condition in the country that it would prove impossible to govern without the consent of the governed." Lenton was soon back in England setting fire to buildings but in October 1913 she was arrested at Paddington Station. Once again she went on hunger-strike and was forcibly fed, but once again she was released when she became seriously ill.

Lenton was released on licence on 15th October. She escaped from the nursing home and was arrested on 22nd December 1913 and charged with setting fire to a house in Cheltenham. After another hunger-and-thirst strike, she was released on 25th December to the care of Mrs Impey in King's Norton. Once again she escaped and evaded the police until early May 1914 when she was arrested in Birkenhead. She was only in prison for a few days before she was released under the Cat & Mouse Act.

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."

Annie Kenney reported that orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."

In 1914 Eveline Haverfield, a member of the WSPU, founded the Women's Emergency Corps, an organisation which helped organize women to become doctors, nurses and motorcycle messengers. Later she was appointed as Commandant in Chief of the Women's Reserve Ambulance Corps, Haverfield was instructed to organize the sending of the Scottish Women's Hospital Units to Serbia. In August, 1916, Lilian Lenton went with Haverfield, Dr. Else Inglis, Elsie Bowerman, and Vera Holme to the Balkan Front.

Haverfield was appointed head of the transport column and in August 1916 she was dispatched to Russia. Her biographer, Elizabeth Crawford, has commented: "Haverfield sailed for Russia, in charge of the unit's transport column, which comprised seventy-five women noted for their smart uniforms and shorn locks. She herself is invariably described as being small, neat, and aristocratic, able to command devotion from her troops, although some of her peers, not so enamoured, were scathing of her ability."

On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act the first opportunity for women to vote was in the General Election in December, 1918. Several of the women involved in the suffrage campaign stood for Parliament. Only one, Constance Markiewicz, standing for Sinn Fein, was elected. Lenton later recalled: "Personally, I didn't vote for a long time, because I hadn't either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30."

In 1924 Lenton was employed as a travelling organizer and speaker for the Women's Freedom League. During this period she often stayed with Alice Schofield in Middlesbrough. After 1925 she was financial secretary of the National Union of Women Teachers.

Lilian Lenton died in 1972.

Charlotte March and Lilian Lenton: Militant Suffragettes(1955)Lilian Lenton explains the Cat and Mouse Act (1960)
Charlotte March and Lilian Lenton: Militant Suffragettes(1955)
Lilian Lenton explains the Cat and Mouse Act (1960)

Primary Sources

(1) The Morning Post (8th March, 1913)

At the Central Criminal Court, yesterday, before Mr. Justice Bankes and a jury, Olive Wharry, alias Joyce Lock, twenty-seven, student, was placed on her trial charged with having set fire to the tea Pavillion at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She pleaded not guilty. Mr. Bodkin and Mr. Travers Humphreys prosecuted; Mr. Langdon, K.C., and Mr. E. D. Muir appeared for the defence.

Mr. Bodkin said that, apart from any technicalities the indictment charged the prisoner with setting fire to a building which was the property of his Majesty. The whole of the Tea Pavillion in Kew Gardens and its contents were destroyed and upon the two women who held the refreshment contract from the Crown a very heavy pecuniary loss had fallen. The contents of the building, which were the property of these two women, were worth £900, but they were only insured for £500. On February 19 the Pavillion was shut up as usual. At 3.15 next morning one of the night attendants noticed a bright light inside the pavillion and running towards the building he saw two people running away from it. He blew his whistle and did his best to extinguish the fire, which immediately broke out, but his efforts were unavailing. At this time two constables happened to be in the Kew-road, and after their attention had been attracted to the refection of the fire in the sky, they saw two women running away from the direction of the pavillion. The constables gave chase, and just before they caught them each of the women who had separated was seen to throw away a portmanteau. At the station the women gave the names of Lilian Lenton - who was too ill to appear before the Magistrate on remand - and Joyce Lock, the accused, who later gave her correct name of Olive Wharry. In one of the bags which the women threw away were found a hammer, a saw, a bundle to tow, strongly redolent of paraffin and some paper smelling strongly of tar. The other bag was empty, but it had evidently contained inflammables. On the way to the station one of the prisoners was seen to drop a little electric lamp. To the policemen prisoner said: "I wonder that the men on duty at the Gardens were doing that they did not see it done." In reply to the charge she said: "Yes: that1s right." The tow prisoners were handed over to the matron, who saw that their hands were covered with filth and grease. In these circumstances counsel submitted that the prisoner's guilt would be abundantly proved.

Sir D. Prain, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, gave evidence to the effect that the Gardens were only opened at certain hours.

Replying to Mr. Langdon, witness said the Gardens were bounded by what was technically termed an unclimable fence.

Mrs. Katherine Mary Strange, of Duke's-avenue, Chiswick, one of the two lesses of the tea pavillion at Kew Gardens, put her loss at between £900 and £1,000 as a result of the fire.

The matron of Richmond Police Station said she found the rope produced upon the accused whose hands were black and greasy. The bags thrown away by the prisoner and her companion were produced and their contents examined by the jury.

The case for the prosecution having concluded, Mr. Langdon, who did not call evidence, addressed the jury for the defence. He contended that a small woman thickly clad in a long coat, like the prisoner was, could not have climbed the "unclimbable fence," and that the two figures seen in the garden were not those of the prisoner and her companion. Dealing with the portmanteaux and their contents, Mr. Langdon suggested that they were intended for a raid on the neighbouring golf links. The women were discovered in the Deer Park, close to the links and he would not deny that they were there probably for the purpose of committing an offence of some kind or other. They might have their own moral justification for what they were going to do, but their presence in the Park with the intent to commit some offence was very different from being found guilty of the serious outrage at the pavillion.

Mr. Justice Bankes, in summing up, said that "not very long ago it would have been unthinkable that a well-educated, well-brought-up young woman could have committed a crime like this. Not long ago one would have heard appeals to juries to acquit her on the ground that it was unthinkable she could have committed such a crime. But, unfortunately - and this was all he wanted to say about it - women as a class had forfeited any presumption in their favour of that kind. Unfortunately, they knew that well-educated, well-brought-up women had committed these crimes, and as a consequences it was impossible to approach these cases from the standpoint that they would have approached them from only a few years ago. It was open to the accused to give some explanation, but she had not done so, and the suggestion of her counsel was that she was out on a marauding expedition after golf greens. But did they want tow to attack golf greens? Did they want a hammer or a saw or a rope? One would have thought a trowel would have been more appropriate.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Mr. Bodkin said there were two previous convictions against prisoner for smashing windows. The second occasion was in March, 1912, when she broke windows worth £195, and was sentenced to six month` imprisonment..

Mr. Muir said prisoner was the daughter of a country doctor.

Prisoner then proceeded to read a long statement in which she denied the jurisdiction of the Court, contended that women should be on the jury, and generally outlined the case for woman's suffrage. Ministers must be warned by the fires in Regent's Park and at Kew "lest a worse thing befall them." She was sorry that the two ladies had sustained loss, as she had no grudge against them. At the time she believed that the pavillion was the property of the Crown, but she wished the two ladies to understand that she was at war, and that in war even non-batants had to suffer. She would not submit to punishment, but would adopt the hunger strike.

The Judge: I have listened to what you have had to say, and my duty is to pass sentence upon you. It is no desire of mine to lecture you, but I am provoked by what you said to day this, and this only; The statement you have made seems to me to indicate that you have lost all sense of the consequence of what you are doing. You do not seen to realise the lose and injury and anxiety that such acts as yours cause to all classes - not only to the rich but to the poor and struggling; not only to men but to women. You talk about man-made law as if that was the only law that ought to govern people's actions. You must have heard of another law which says: "Ye shall do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you." That is the law you are breaking. I do not punish you for that. I punish you for the law which is made in consequence of it, and my sentence upon you is that you pay the costs of these proceedings.

Prisoner: I shall refuse to do so. You can do anything you like. I will never pay the costs.

The Judge: My order is that you pay the costs of these proceedings, that you be imprisoned in the second division for eighteen months.

Prisoner: But I shall not stay in prison.

The Judge: An, in addition, to find two sureties in £100 each that you be of good behaviour and keep the peace for two years from to-day.

Prisoner: Never.

The Judge: Of course, that will cover any time you are in prison. The consequence of your not finding sureties will be when you come out of prison you will be further imprisoned for a period not exceeding 12 months.

Prisoner: But I won't be bound over.

The Judge: I don't ask you to be bound over. I call on you to find sureties.

Prisoner was then removed.