In search of Miss Lenton

(1. Suffragette, chained to railings.)

What a feast of images and words today! As you know, I’m a writer with a background in archival research and women’s history, and today I’ve persuaded fellow writer, and friend of KDD, Michelle Payne, to share some of her own historical research about the British women’s suffrage movement. I’m frequently inspired by the lives and work of these pioneering women – you might remember that I designed a square for Elsie Inglis (founder of the Scottish women’s hospitals) and created my Let Glasgow Flourish Blanket in celebration of the work of local feminist artist and educator, Ann Macbeth. Michelle is (of course) a fellow knitter, and I first learned more about her fascinating work through our Ravelry group – a space where interesting ideas are frequently exchanged! At the moment Michelle is working on a book about the colourful life of militant suffragette and lifelong activist, Lilian Lenton. I’m always intrigued by how writers home in on, and hone down, the focus of their research, and today I’ve persuaded Michelle to tell us a bit more about how she came to be fascinated by the indefatigable and determined Miss Lenton.

(2. Kew arson aftermath. The wreckage of the tea pavilion after Lilian Lenton and Olive Wharry’s arson attack in February 1913.)

In 2007 I was an editor in the publishing department of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, working on my first big project, a scholarly account of Kew Gardens’ 250-year history. The book contained a multitude of painstakingly researched historical details, but one, mentioned fleetingly, particularly captured my attention. In February 1913 suffragettes attacked Kew. Twice. On the first occasion an orchid house was smashed and its rare and valuable flowers destroyed. On the second, its tea pavilion was burnt to the ground.

(3. View of Prison to citizenship pageant in the Women’s Coronation Procession, London June 17th, 1911.)

These incidents filled me with questions. The impression of suffragettes I’d gained at school was of well-to-do ladies signing petitions and participating in processions through London dressed in white, holding aloft intricately designed banners. I dimly recalled that suffragettes chained themselves to the railings at Downing Street, and knew some were imprisoned and went on hunger strike – yet even this I somehow imagined to be a passive, suffering form of protest, rather than active rebellion. I had no idea by 1913 the battle for the parliamentary franchise had become so embittered that a small core of activists had resorted to protest through arson and bombs.

(4. Aerial view of the ‘Prison to Citizenship’ pageant in the Women’s Coronation Procession in London.)

Aside from my misconceptions about the movement, and how broad a spectrum of beliefs and views it encompassed, I found the attacks on Kew Gardens personally perplexing. That the beautiful gardens I cherished and walked through almost daily, camera in hand, had been chosen as a site of violent political protest was something difficult to comprehend. Why would suffragettes attack somewhere as benign and tranquil as Kew?

(5. Photographs of militant suffragettes circulated by the Criminal Record Office to police forces and public institutions such as art galleries and museums. Lilian Lenton is number 12. Her photo was taken covertly using a telescopic lens, as she exercised in a prison yard.)

Around this time I read Ali Smith’s novel, Girl Meets Boy. Its opening pages feature a highly imaginative and mythologised retelling of a suffragette’s story, recounted by a grandfather to his two young granddaughters. Ali Smith’s ‘Burning Lily’ is a captivating young woman devoted to the cause. She broke windows, set fire to empty buildings and over and over again slipped through the authorities’ fingers through a series of ingenious escapes. Reading Girl Meets Boy I didn’t question whether the tale of Burning Lily was pure imagination or based on historical fact, I was too busy revelling in the impish, masquerading suffragette who, dressed up as an errand boy and eating an apple, strolled straight past the noses of police-detectives. Historical veracity seemed far from the point. But the book’s acknowledgements explained that the Burning Lily story was adapted from Jill Liddington’s Rebel Girls, a history of some of the youngest votes for women campaigners, so I bought a copy and skipped to the relevant chapters. There I learnt that Smith’s account is largely based on historical record – more importantly, I discovered that Lilian Lenton was the suffragette who reduced Kew’s tea pavilion to ashes.

(6. Linen, lace edged tablecloth created by Winifred Roberts. Emmeline Pankhurst’s signature is embroidered in the the centre, with the signatures of other suffragettes, including Lilian, embroidered in white around the edges.)

A few years later my role at Kew had expanded and I was writing a book about Victorian traveller and artist, Marianne North. In my free time I was studying creative writing and scribbling fictionalised scenes inspired by the fascinating histories in Rebel Girls. I went on to take a Master’s degree, working on a novel featuring a suffragette character inspired by Lilian’s life story. I researched the suffragette movement at large, but for Lilian’s story relied mostly on Liddington’s work and my own imagination.

(7. Detail of Winifred Roberts’ linen tablecloth, showing Lilian’s embroidered signature.)

Eventually, after moving to self-employment, I began more serious research. I started with books and newspapers. Newspaper articles were plentiful, sometimes even featuring Lilian on the front page, but I quickly discovered the classic standard histories of the movement don’t mention her, or do so only in passing. She does not feature in Emmeline Pankhust’s My Own Story. Christabel Pankhurst’s Unshackled gives just one sentence, and that’s an aside. Sylvia Pankhust’s The Suffragette Movement offers a few lines more, mostly in a footnote.

(8. Cloth signed by many suffragettes, including Lilian, while imprisoned in Holloway for window breaking in March 1912. Signed by individuals, over-stitched in purple and green thread by one hand in narrow padded satin stitch.)

I’d heard that nothing brings history alive like archival research, so I turned to this. What I found humbled me. Because – there she was. There was Lilian’s voice, lively and irrepressible while speaking at length in audio interviews. There was her signature, on a linen she and others imprisoned in Holloway in 1912 signed, their signatures later carefully stitched over in purple and green thread. And there was the slant of her hand, in a letter written to a friend in 1968, a revealing account she describes as “a private effort” to describe force feeding, the one thing she despised talking about. Over 50 years later her trauma is perceptible – yet she uses the letter to argue against suffragettes being depicted as suffering martyrs.

(9. Detail of Holloway prisoners’ cloth, showing Lilian’s signature.)

Related pieces of suffrage history, such as the secret prison diaries of Olive Wharry (Lilian’s accomplice in the Kew arson) and Katie Gliddon (imprisoned alongside Lilian in Holloway’s Wing E in 1912), revealed the reality of suffragettes’ prison treatment at this late point of the campaign. In a different vein, reminiscences captured in the mid-1970s for an important oral history of the movement offered fascinating glimpses of Lilian from the varied perspectives of those who knew her at different points in her life.

(10. Katie Gliddon’s drawing of her Holloway cell.)

Lilian’s Home Office files included documents declassified as recently as 2014, and taught me that a document collection, read as one, can be more than the sum of its parts. Piles of internal minutes, prison and medical reports, and correspondences lay bare the authorities attempts to control the narrative surrounding Lilian’s botched force feeding and near death inside Holloway days after the Kew arson, causing ongoing scandal and embarrassment for the government. Notes and handwritten annotations reveal their awareness that Lilian’s humorous and successful escapes damaged the police by exposing them to public ridicule.

(11. Katie Gliddon’s prison diary, secretly kept in the margins of her copy of Shelley’s Poetical Works.)

There is much that isn’t known – and is, in fact, unknowable – when writing from life, but archival objects and materials can be enormously helpful guides. Researching in archives gave me deeper knowledge, and a stronger connection with Lilian, as well as prompting me to reconsider whether a freely fictitious approach was appropriate for my work-in-progress. Whatever the final form my portrayal of her and other less well-known suffragettes takes, I aim to do justice to their complex characters and lives.

(12. The Women’s March, Edinburgh to London, October to November 1912. Mary Lowndes’s banner for Edinburgh, originally designed for the NUWSS procession on 13 June 1908, is seen here.)

Image attributions
2. Library of Congress, Bain collection (out of copyright)
1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. LSE Library, Women’s Library collection (out of copyright)
5. Criminal Record Office bromide print mounted onto identification sheet, 1914 NPG x132847 © National Portrait Gallery, London (use permitted under cc license)

Thanks so much for sharing your work, Michelle! We’ve a lot to talk about – and I’m looking forward to future posts from you!