Leicester suffragette lost to the history books

Meet the Leicester Pimpernel, Lilian Lenton. Born in 1891.

A surveillance photo of Lilian Lenton
A surveillance photo of Lilian Lenton. Credit: National Portrait Gallery

This fire starting suffragette may not be a household name, but she was one of the most notorious women to fight for the right to vote. Lenton initially trained as a dancer in Leicester, before joining the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1912 and later moved to London in 1913 to join the wider suffragette movement.

When she began her arson attacks in London, it was to show the government that it was “impossible to govern without the consent of the governed,” according to the Dangerous Women project. To drive the message home, Lenton scorched her name in the history books after burning several buildings to the ground. Her picture is immortalised in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It’s the same picture, now over 100 years old, that was taken covertly by police when she was on the run.

In an interview, Lenton said that those in power could not ignore her actions: “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.” She even pledged to burn down two buildings a week.

After smashing a window at Whitehall in 1912 and serving two months in prison, Lenton – who occasionally went under the alias Ida Inkley – set her sights on something bigger.

In February 1913, Lenton and a fellow suffragette scaled an “unclimbable fence,” as described by the police, and set fire to the Tea House at Kew Gardens. She was promptly arrested and sent to Holloway prison, where the 21-year-old was subjected to force-feeding.

Force-feeding was common practice during the time in response to hunger strikes from the suffragettes. Lenton was reportedly tied to a chair, restrained by six people and force-fed. However, on one occasion the rubber tube, which was inserted through her nose, made its way into her windpipe, resulting in the food being poured directly into her lung – causing septic pneumonia.

Lenton became critically ill. She was subsequently released from prison and sent in a taxi to her friend’s house. Her treatment caused shock waves throughout Britain, and surgeon Sir Victor Horsley even condemned the action. Lenton’s treatment allegedly triggered the Cat and Mouse Act in April 1913, a bill approved by parliament that would allow suffragettes on hunger strike to be temporarily released from prison to recover. They would then be rearrested, but Lenton could not be captured so easily.

After being released from prison to recover from her mistreatment, Lenton disappeared.

She later reappeared and was arrested again in 1913. After another week-long hunger strike, Lenton was released on house arrest, where she promptly disguised herself as a young boy eating an apple while reading a comic and escaped.

Though her daring escapes sound straight from a thriller, they were very much real life. Lenton pretended to be a young boy on multiple occasions, an elderly lady and even a children’s nurse. At one point, she escaped to France on a private yacht, but the flames soon called and Lenton returned to London, where she continued her blazing torrent.

Between Lenton’s daring escapes and penchant for destruction, she earned herself the title of the “Leicester Pimpernel.”

In 1913, her accomplices Harry Johnson and Augusta Winship were arrested and accused of burglary with intent to burn down a house. During the trial, Lenton carried out her most theatrical reappearance. When a certain May Dennis was called to the stands as a defence witness, she whipped off her disguise and revealed herself to be Lenton, she who committed the offence, not Harry or Augusta. She was arrested, but refused a plea, as Lenton reportedly stated that she did not recognise the court.

In May 1914, the London Evening News, described how Lenton “led the police [on] a merry dance up and down the country for several weeks while she changed her disguises.” Ever a performer, Lenton was committed to the role of whoever she was impersonating, going as far as to hobble while dressed as an elderly woman.

With the dawn of the first world war in 1914, Lenton put down her matches and picked up a hospital gown. She served in Serbia with the Scottish Women’s Hospital unit and was even awarded the French Red Cross for her vital work. Four years later, when the war was finally over and peace declared, Lenton joined the new Save the Children Fund in Russia and the Women’s Freedom League. She went on to become the financial secretary for the National Union of Women Teachers and worked for the British Embassy in Stockholm.

Despite her relentless protesting, the Representation of the People Act of 1918 was passed. The law granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who owned property. The same law gave the vote to all men over the age of 21. Lenton was denied the vote. She reportedly said: “I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.”

After decades of campaigning, Lenton still could not overlook the lack of equality in Britain and beyond. She organised the Rothesay summer campaign, a Glasgow-based movement in 1930 that targeted people on holiday with a message of equality. Lenton protested alongside Margaret McCann, who was 18 at the time. In an interview, McCann recalled how Lenton was subjected to vicious heckling from the crowd during her campaign speech, with people shouting “a woman’s place is in the home.”

Despite her 5’2" frame, Lenton would reportedly “pull herself up to her full height, gather her coat around her and say, “there are two million surplus women. How can these women have homes if the only home a woman is supposed to have is her husband’s and there are two million men short?” You cannot argue with her logic, and according to McCann, neither could the men in Glasgow, “these wee men didn’t have a chance. When Lenton challenged them, they would shuffle around sheepishly and often slink away.”

Lilian Lenton may not be a household name like Leicester’s Alice Hawkins, but her contribution to the women’s equality movement is undoubtable.

The Alice Hawkins statue in Green Dragon Square.
The Alice Hawkins statue in Green Dragon Square. Photograph: Kiran Parmar

Lenton, who lived by the suffragette motto “deeds not words” proved that even in her darkest moments, she was a fighter. There was one moment in court where Lenton interrupted the court clerk, who replied, “Miss Lenton, don’t you think you have made enough protest for the time being?” The Leicester Pimpernel simply replied: “I have made nothing like sufficient protest.”

In the words of Lenton herself, “I was extremely annoyed at the difference between a boy and a girl, and when I grew up and saw the opportunities that boys had, and those that girls and women had, of course that just increased the feeling. Why should God be male?”

From her early years as a devious fire starter, to her later involvement in the war, to her continued campaigning for women’s rights: the Leicester Pimpernel dedicated her entire life to women’s right to vote.

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