Arson Campaign

In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organizing a secret arson campaign. 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.

One of the first arsonists was Mary Richardson. She later recalled the first time she set fire to a building: "I took the things from her and went on to the mansion. The putty of one of the ground-floor windows was old and broke away easily, and I had soon knocked out a large pane of the glass. When I climbed inside into the blackness it was a horrible moment. The place was frighteningly strange and pitch dark, smelling of damp and decay... A ghastly fear took possession of me; and, when my face wiped against a cobweb, I was momentarily stiff with fright. But I knew how to lay a fire - I had built many a camp fire in my young days -a nd that part of the work was simple and quickly done. I poured the inflammable liquid over everything; then I made a long fuse of twisted cotton wool, soaking that too as I unwound it and slowly made my way back to the window at which I had entered."

At a meeting in France, Christabel Pankhurst told Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence about the proposed arson campaign. When Emmeline and Frederick objected, Christabel arranged for them to be expelled from the the organisation. Emmeline later recalled in her autobiography, My Part in a Changing World (1938): "My husband and I were not prepared to accept this decision as final. We felt that Christabel, who had lived for so many years with us in closest intimacy, could not be party to it. But when we met again to go further into the question… Christabel made it quite clear that she had no further use for us."

In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire. Slogans in favour of women's suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes. The women responsible were often caught and once in prison they went on hunger-strike. Determined to avoid these women becoming martyrs, the government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act. Suffragettes were now allowed to go on hunger strike but as soon as they became ill they were released. Once the women had recovered, the police re-arrested them and returned them to prison where they completed their sentences. This successful means of dealing with hunger strikes became known as the Cat and Mouse Act.

Kitty Marion was a leading figure in the WSPU arson campaign and she was responsible for setting fire to Levetleigh House in St Leonards in April 1913. Two months later she and 26 year old Clara Giveen were told that the Grand Stand at the Hurst Park racecourse "would make a most appropriate beacon". The women returned to a house in Kew. A police constable who had been detailed to watch the house, saw the two women return and during the course of the next morning they were arrested. Their trial began at Guildford on 3rd July. She was found guilty and sentenced to three years' penal servitude. She went on hunger strike and was released under the Cat & Mouse Act. She was taken to the WSPU nursing home, into the care of Dr. Flora Murray and Catherine Pine.

As soon as Kitty Marion recovered she went out and broke a window of the Home Office. She was arrested and taken back to Holloway Prison. After going on hunger strike for five days she was again released to a WSPU nursing home. According to her own account, she now set fire to various houses in Liverpool (August, 1913) and Manchester (November, 1913). These incidents resulted in a series of further terms of imprisonment during which force-feeding occurred. It has been calculated that Kitty Marion endured 232 force-feedings in prison while on hunger strike.

Although Elizabeth Robins and Octavia Wilberforce disapproved of Kitty Marion's arson campaign they used their 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield, as a hospital and helped her recover from her various spells in prison and the physical effects of going on hunger strike. On 31st May 1914, with the help of Mary Leigh, escaped to Paris.

Lilian Lenton was another member of the WSPU who played an important role in the arson campaign. Along with Olive Wharry she embarked on a series of terrorist acts. They were 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.

On 7th March 1913 Olive Wharry was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months. Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999): "She was released on 8th April after having been on hunger strike for 32 days, apparently without the prison authorities noticing. His usual weight was 7st 11lbs; when released she weighed 5st 9lbs."

After Lilian Lenton recovered she managed to evade recapture until arrested in June 1913 in Doncaster and charged with setting fire to an unoccupied house at Balby. 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.

Lilian 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.

Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, disagreed with this arson campaign. When Pethick-Lawrence objected, she was expelled from the organisation. Others like Elizabeth Robins, Jane Brailsford, Laura Ainsworth, Eveline Haverfield and Louisa Garrett Anderson showed their disapproval by ceasing to be active in the WSPU and Hertha Ayrton, Lilias Ashworth Hallett , Janie Allan and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson stopped providing much needed funds for the organization. Sylvia Pankhurst also made her final break with the WSPU and concentrated her efforts on helping the Labour Party build up its support in London.

Colonel Linley Blathwayt and Emily Blathwayt also cut off funds to the WSPU. In June 1913 a house had been burned down close to Eagle House. Under pressure from her parents, Mary Blathwayt resigned from the WSPU. In her diary she wrote: "I have written to Grace Tollemache (secretary for Bath) and to the secretary of the Women's Social and Political Union to say that I want to give up being a member of the W.S.P.U. and not giving any reason. Her mother wrote in her diary: "I am glad to say Mary is writing to resign membership with the W.S.P.U. Now they have begun burning houses in the neighbourhood I feel more than ever ashamed to be connected with them."

Primary Sources

(1) Sylvia Pankhurst The Suffrage Movement (1931)

In December 1911 and March 1912, Emily Wilding Davison and Nurse Pitfield had committed spectacular arson on their own initiative, both doing their deeds openly and suffering arrest and punishment. In July 1912, secret arson began to be organised under the direction of Christabel 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.

(2) Mary Richardson, Laugh a Defiance (1953)

I took the things from her and went on to the mansion. The putty of one of the ground-floor windows was old and broke away easily, and I had soon knocked out a large pane of the glass. When I climbed inside into the blackness it was a horrible moment. The place was frighteningly strange and pitch dark, smelling of damp and decay. I had to feel my way along, step by step, encumbered, as I was, by the three heavy parcels I had slung round my neck. After much groping I reached the hallway and knew I was near my objective. This was a cupboard under the main staircase.

To get the cupboard door to open was no easy thing. The hinges were rusted and they creaked and groaned ominously. A ghastly fear took possession of me; and, when my face wiped against a cobweb, I was momentarily stiff with fright. But I knew how to lay a fire - I had built many a camp fire in my young days-and that part of the work was simple and quickly done. I poured the inflammable liquid over everything; then I made a long fuse of twisted cotton wool, soaking that too as I unwound it and slowly made my way back to the window at which I had entered.

I climbed outside before setting a light to the fuse. For a moment I stood and watched the tiny flame run a few feet; then I hurried off to find the gap in the thorn hedge. When I did find it and crawled through, Millicent had fled.

I bumped into Millicent as she was hurrying back to find me.

"I'm terribly sorry," she explained. "I just couldn't...."She stopped short and looked back behind us; I looked back, also. The red glow had grown into a huge red mushroom.

"We must get away quickly," I gasped. "We'd better separate. If we're alone it'll look less suspicious; and it'll be easier for one to get a lift in a market-gardener's cart going to Covent Garden. I'll go this way; you make your way back to the road."

Millicent clutched at my arm and burst into tears. "Oh no. No! No! Please let me come with you. I'd never find my way alone. Oh please, I feel so frightened."

"Very well," I said. "But it's a risk. And we'll have to hurry."

We went as fast as we could; but we were both groggy from fatigue and the mental strain of the whole, ugly business. After a while we heard the clanging of the bells on the fire-engines. We staggered on and made renewed efforts to get as far away as we could. For a long time we seemed to be walking along outside a high wall.

"It must be a gasworks," I said.

We kept on walking beside the wall. Millicent was unable to answer me or even to say yes or no. The fog was becoming denser; and we were still outside the wall. I began to feel we were condemned to walk beside it for ever in punishment for our sins. But at last we came to what seemed to be a residential quarter. There were some small houses in long rows. I sighed with relief as I turned the corner; then I cried, "Look!"


"That blue light," I said.

"Blue light?" said Millicent in a puzzled way. "What is it? What...."

But she was unable to finish her question before two tall figures loomed out of the fog and were upon us.

"Aren't you two out a bit late?" one of the policemen said.

"Yes. Yes - we missed the last bus back to town," I stammered.

A should say you did... said the man. "Just step across the road. We've been looking for you for the past hour."

We seemed to be the cause of some mild jubilation in the police station. Probably this was because we had been so speedily arrested, but it was the fog that had beaten us, and not the vigilance of the law.

(3) Christabel Pankhurst described the arson campaign in her book Unshackled.

Many militants had been restive for some time, considering that it would be more dignified to anticipate the sorry outcome of the Government's now broken pledge than await it passively. As leaders, we had felt bound to restrain this eagerness, but now there was no reason for delay. The ingenuity and the pertinacity of the Suffragette guerillists were extraordinary. Never a soul was hurt, but the struggle continued.

Golf greens suffered on one occasion by the carving on the turf of 'Votes Before Sport' and 'No Votes, No Golf'! The editor of Golfing complained on the plea that "golfers are not usually very keen politicians." "Perhaps they will be now," said the Suffragettes.

The damage done to property was more spectacular than serious. Museums began to be closed, here and there, with preventive caution, to the vexation of American visitors. Mr. Lloyd George's house at Walton Heath paid the price of its owner's deed.

(4) Mary Richardson, Laugh a Defiance (1953)

Law and its application reflected public opinion. Values were stressed from the financial point of view and not the human. I felt I must make my protest from the financial point of view, therefore, as well as letting it be seen as a symbolic act. I had to draw the parallel between the public's indifference to Mrs. Pankhurst's slow destruction and the destruction of some financially valuable object.

A painting came to my mind. Yes, yes - the Venus Velasquez had painted, hanging in the National Gallery. It was highly prized for its worth in cash. If I could damage it, I reasoned, I could draw my parallel. The fact that I had disliked the painting would make it easier for me to do what was in my mind.

I made my plans carefully and sent a copy of them to Christabel, setting out my reasons for such an action. The days, while I waited for her reply, seemed endless. But at last the message came, "Carry out your plan."

But it was always easier to make a plan than to carry it out. As the day approached when I should have to act I grew nervous. It was as though the task I had set myself was bigger than I could accomplish. I hesitated, hedged with myself, tried to say that someone else would be better able to do such a job than I. It will be difficult for anyone who has not known service in a great cause to understand my suffering...

I left the house without saying goodbye to any of the others. My axe was fixed lip the left sleeve of my jacket and held in position by a chain of safety-pins, the last pin only needing a touch to release it.

I walked rapidly and made my way by the side streets through Soho to Leicester Square, and then round to the back of the Gallery and so on to its front entrance.

It was a "free" day and there were many people going in. I kept with the crowds at first. On the first landing of the staircase where the stairs separated on the left and on the right I stopped and, from where I stood, I could see the Venus hanging on the north wall of the room on the right-hand side. Before the painting, guarding it, sat two broad-shouldered detectives. They were on the red plush seat in the centre of the room with their backs to me and seemed to be staring straight in front of them.

I turned away and wandered into the room on the left. This and several others I passed through, studying some of the paintings until, half an hour afterward, I found myself at the doorway of the room where the Venus was. To control my feelings of agitation I took out the sketch book I had brought with me and tried to make a drawing. Still with the open pad in my hand I entered the room and chose to stand in the far corner of it to continue my sketch. I found I was staring at an almond-eyed madonna whose beauty it was far beyond my powers to reproduce. Her smile, however, impressed itself sufficiently upon my senses to bring me a certain calmness of mind.

The two detectives were still between me and the Venus. I decided at last to leave the room and to wait for a while longer.

I studied the landscapes and watched the people who were passing; and, as I watched them, I felt I would have given anything to have been one of them. I spent an hour like this, in utter misery. It was getting near to mid-day, I knew. Chiding myself for having wasted two precious hours I went back to the Venus room. It looked peculiarly empty. There was a ladder lying against one of the walls, left there by some workmen who had been repairing a skylight. I had to pass in front of the detectives, who were still sitting on the seat, to approach the Velasquez painting. When I was near enough to it I saw that thick and possibly unbreakable glass had been put over it, no doubt as a protection. As I turned I saw there was a Gallery attendant standing in the far doorway. There were now three I must avoid.

I began to sketch again-this time I was a little nearer my objective. As twelve o'clock struck, one of the detectives rose from the seat and walked out of the room. The second detective, realising, I suppose, that it was lunch-time and he could relax, sat back, crossed his legs, and opened a newspaper.

That presented me with my opportunity - which I was quick to seize. The newspaper held before the man's eyes would hide me for a moment. I dashed up to the painting. My first blow with the axe merely broke the protective glass. But, Of course, it did more than that, for the detective rose with his newspaper still in his hand and walked round the red plush seat, staring up at the skylight which was being repaired. The sound of the glass breaking also attracted the attention of the attendant at the door who, in his frantic efforts to reach me, slipped on the highly polished floor and fell face downward. And so I was given time to get in a further four blows with my axe before I was, in turn, attacked.

It must all have happened very quickly; but to this day I can remember distinctly every detail of what happened...

Two Baedeker guide books, truly aimed by German tourists, came cracking against the back of my neck. By this time, too, the detective, having decided that the breaking glass had no connection with the skylight, sprang on me and dragged the axe from my hand. As it out of the very walls angry people seemed to appear round me. I was dragged this way and that; but, as on other occasions, the fury of the crowd helped me. In the ensuing commotion we were all mixed together in a tight bunch. No one knew who should or should not be attacked. More than one innocent woman must have received a blow meant for me.

(5) Manchester Guardian (11th March, 1914)

At the National Gallery, yesterday morning, the famous Rokeby Venus, the Velasquez picture which eight years ago was bought for the nation by public subscription for £45,000, was seriously damaged by a militant suffragist connected with the Women's Social and Political Union. The immediate occasion of the outrage was the rearrest of Mrs Pankhurst at Glasgow on Monday.

Yesterday was a public day at the National Gallery. The woman, producing a meat chopper from her muff or cloak, smashed the glass of the picture, and rained blows upon the back of the Venus. A police officer was at the door of the room, and a gallery attendant also heard the smashing of the glass. They rushed towards the woman, but before they could seize her she had made seven cuts in the canvas.

(6) Margaret Haig Thomas, This Was My World (1933)

Various small acts of militancy had been performed by our local branch, but we had not done anything very spectacular or been particularly successful. I decided that we had better try burning letters. As it happened, burning letters was the one piece of militancy of which, when it was first adopted, I had disapproved. I could not bear to think of people expecting letters and not getting them. I had come round to it very reluctantly, partly on "the end justifies the means" principle; but chiefly on the ground that everyone knew we were doing it and therefore knew that they ran the risk of not getting their letters; and that it was up to the public to stop us if they really objected, by forcing the Government to give us the vote.

However, when it came to the point it was obvious that in the case of a local district, at some distance from head-quarters, burning the contents of pillar boxes had, tactically, much to recommend it. Acts which shall damage property without risking life and which shall not involve the certain risk of being caught are, as anyone who has tried them knows, very much more difficult to perform than they sound.

Setting fire to letters in pillar boxes was amongst the easiest of the things we could find to do. So one summer's day I went off to Clement's Inn to get the necessary ingredients. I was given, packed in rather a flimsy covered basket, twelve long glass tubes, six of which contained one kind of material and the other six another. So long as they were separate all was well, but if one smashed one tube of each material and mixed the contents together, they broke, so it was explained to me, after a minute or two into flames. I carried the basket home close beside me on the seat in a crowded third-class railway carriage, and the lady next door to me leant her elbow from time to time upon it. I reflected that if she knew as much as I did about the contents she would not do that.

Having got the stuff home, I buried it in the vegetable garden under the black-currant bushes, and a week or so later, dug it up and took it one day into the Newport Suffragette Shop to explain to the other members of committee what an easy business setting fire to pillar boxes would be for us all to practise in our spare moments.

(7) In her book My Part in a Changing World (1938) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence described why she left the WSPU.

Mrs. Pankhurst met us with the announcement that she and Christabel had determined upon a new kind of campaign. Henceforward she said there was to be a widespread attack upon public and private property… This project came as a shock to us both. We considered it sheer madness to throw away the immense publicity and propaganda value of our present police. They were wrong in supposing that a more revolutionary form of militancy, which attacks directed more and more on the property of individuals, would strengthen the movement and bring it to more speedy victory.

Emmeline Pankhurst agreed with Christabe. Excitement, drama and danger were the conditions in which her temperament found full scope. She had the qualities of a leader on the battlefield. The idea of a "civil war" which Mrs. Pankhurst outlined in Boulogne and declared a few months later was repellent to me.

(8) 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.