Leicester: Lilian Lenton, Fire Starting Suffragette

A black and white photograph of a young woman with long, dark hair, her hand behind her head and wearing a jacket. The photograph is labelled with the number ‘12’.

When

1910s

Where

Leicester

As a child, Lilian Ida Lenton was annoyed by how differently boys and girls were treated. Aged 21, Lilian joined the suffragettes campaigning for women’s right to vote.

She became a militant suffragette, beginning with breaking windows, but quickly becoming one of the first to use arson. She became known to the police as a ‘tiny, wily elusive pimpernel’ due to her skill at evading capture.

No one could ignore arson, nor could they ignore young women who went about saying what I said, that whenever we saw an empty building we would burn it.

Lilian Lenton
A film about the life of Lilian Lenton from the Leicester Journey to Justice Exhibition, 2019.
Credit: Bradley Phipps

Frustrated at the lack of progress towards being granted the vote, the suffragettes used militant tactics. The most high-profile target of Lillian Lenton’s arson attacks was a popular tourist spot, the tea pavilion at Kew Gardens in London. Lilian and her accomplice were caught and arrested at the scene. 

A black and white photograph showing charred remnants of timbers from a burned building in a park, with tables and chairs on the lawn in front of it. The caption written on the photograph reads “Tea House, Kew Garden, burned by suffragettes.”
Tea House, Kew Gardens, destroyed by suffragettes, 1913.
Credit: Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/resource/ggbain.11714/

Lilian Lenton remained defiant during her time in prison. She damaged her prison cell and went on hunger strike which meant she was force-fed. Arrested suffragettes were often released for short periods to recover their health before being re-arrested. Lenton used these opportunities to escape the police using disguises including dressing as an elderly lady, a delivery boy, and a children’s nurse. In one escape, she fled to France on a private yacht.

The document is divided into columns and includes:  “Name: Lilian Lenton, setting fire to a building in Richmond. Has been in prison before but refuses to give any particulars … General conduct: bad, very defiant …Effect of forcible feeding: refuses medical examination … Remarks: located in special cell.”   Also written on the form: “… Has taken no food since reception. Smashed up everything in the cell she was first placed in. Removed to a special strong cell. Kept apart from all other prisoners + not allowed to communicate. All privileges suspended.”
Prison report on Lilian Lenton, 20 February, 1913 (HO 144/1255/234788) Credit: National Archives. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/outrage-at-kew/daily-report-lilian-lenton/

They pushed a tube up the nostril which went wriggling down into the stomach and then they poured the food in through a funnel on the end of the tube. But I was determined to stop them if I could.

Lilian Lenton describes being force-fed in Holloway Prison.

Lilian organised suffrage groups in Scotland, and later became Treasurer of the Suffragette Fellowship, formed to keep the suffragette spirit alive. She also worked for a feminist teachers’ organisation campaigning for equal pay and travelled to Russia to help alleviate starvation. Lilian was finally able to vote when women over the age of 21 were granted equal voting rights to men in 1928. 

NOTE: We are aware that Lilian Lenton’s activism included violent actions (though no one was hurt) that do not fit with Journey to Justice’s position of nonviolence. However, we decided to include this story because it raises important questions.

When, if ever, is violence justifiable in pursuit of justice and human rights? Can it count as self defence? Does damage to property count as violence? Does the end justify the means? Was Lilian Lenton a freedom fighter or a terrorist?

For anyone involved in campaigning that may involve elements of risk, or being at the receiving end of violence, these questions are important. They also matter when involved in solidarity action with movements whose objectives we support but who may use violent methods.  

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