Lilian Lenton - Notoriety


In early 1913, with Olive Wharry, she began a series of arson attacks in London, and was arrested in February 1913 on suspicion of having set on fire the Tea House at Kew Gardens. In Holloway Prison she held a hunger strike for two days before being forcibly fed, which caused her to become seriously ill with pleurisy caused by food entering her lungs. It took two doctors and seven wardens to restrain her. She was quickly and quietly released. Her case created an outrage among the public, made worse by the fact that the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, denied that she had been force fed and that her illness was actually caused by her hunger strike. However, Home Office papers show that she was force fed on 23 February 1913. A letter to The Times in 1913, from Victor Horsley, a leading surgeon, claimed “...the Home Secretary’s attempted denial that Miss Lenton was nearly killed by the forcible feeding is worthless...she was tied into a chair and her head dragged backward across the back of the chair by her hair. The tube was forced through the nose twice . . . after the second introduction when the food was poured in, it caused violent choking.” To avoid more such political embarrassment, the Government rushed through its 'Cat and Mouse Act' in April 1913, which stated that hunger-striking suffragette 'mice' could be released on temporary licence to recover their health, when the security forces could re-arrest them.

In June 1913 Lenton was arrested in Doncaster and charged as 'May Dennis' with being on the premises of an unoccupied house which had been set on fire. She was released from Armley Prison in Leeds after several days; on this occasion there had been no attempt to force feed her. Her accomplice in the arson attack was a local journalist called Harry Johnson, who was sentenced to 12 months with hard labour in Wakefield Prison.

In July 1913 the police in Leeds were searching for Lenton when an elaborate plot was hatched to enable her to escape in a delivery van, while dressed as an errand boy reading a comic and eating an apple. Taxis took her to Harrogate, then Scarborough, from where she escaped to France in a private yacht. The Criminal Record Office issued a surveillance photograph of her (see above right) taken secretly in the exercise yard of Holloway Prison, in the accompanying details of which she is described as being 5 feet 2 inches tall with brown eyes and hair. Lenton later stated, "Whenever I was out of prison my object was to burn two buildings a week… The object was to create an absolutely impossible condition of affairs in the country, to prove it was impossible to govern without the consent of the governed". She was arrested in October 1913 while collecting a bicycle from the left luggage office at Paddington Station, and while on remand went on a hunger strike and a thirst strike, for which she was again forcibly fed. Her physical health again being seriously affected by this treatment, she was released on licence for 5 days into the care of a Mrs Diplock of London, but again absconded.

Lenton was rearrested on 22 December 1913, on a charge of setting fire to a house in Cheltenham. She was recognised from her police surveillance photograph, and imprisoned, when she commenced another hunger and thirst strike, being released at 11 a.m. into the care of Mrs Impey of Birmingham, from whose home she absconded yet again, remaining at large until early May 1914 when she was rearrested at Birkenhead. Held on remand and awaiting trial at the Leeds Assizes for the arson committed at Doncaster, she again went on hunger and thirst strike until she was released on 12 May 1914. Because of the frequency of her escapes Lenton became known as the "tiny, wily, elusive Pimpernel.

The Women's Social and Political Union suspended their militant campaign in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I in order to focus on the war effort. During this time women worked in jobs traditionally done by men, proving they could do them just as well and silencing one of the last arguments against women's suffrage. After the war the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed awarding the vote to women householders, or the wives of householders, aged 30 and over. Lenton was unimpressed by this concession, later relating in a BBC documentary, "Personally I didn't vote for a very long time because I hadn't either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30." (She turned 30 in 1921. Women were given equal voting rights to men including lowering the voting age to 21, by the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 when she was 37.)

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    Our books are false by being fragmentary: their sentences are bon mots, and not parts of natural discourse; childish expressions of surprise or pleasure in nature; or, worse, owing a brief notoriety to their petulance, or aversion from the order of nature,—being some curiosity or oddity, designedly not in harmony with nature, and purposely framed to excite surprise, as jugglers do by concealing their means.
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