We recently paid tribute to Lilian Lenton: suffragette, political fugitive, holder of a French Red Cross medal for her service in the First World War.
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Lilian Lenton was born in Leicester in 1891, daughter of a carpenter-joiner. On leaving school she trained to be a dancer. However, after Lilian heard Mrs Pankhurst speak she was so inspired that ‘I made up my mind that night that as soon as I was twenty-one and my own boss… I would volunteer’.
In winter 1911-12 suffragettes saw their hopes for Votes for Women betrayed yet again by Asquith’s Liberal Government. Lilian’s twenty-first birthday fell in January 1912 and she wasted no time. The Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) planned a major window-smashing raid, and Lilian volunteered. Going under a pseudonym, she broke windows and was among the long list of women arrested.
Lilian was sentenced to two months, even though this was her first offence. If the aim was to deter such suffragettes, it failed miserably. From early 1913 Lilian took part in arson attacks, firing empty buildings. The political aims were ambitious – as she recalled later: ‘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.’
In prison, Lilian, like many other suffragettes, went on hunger strike – in protest against women bring denied the vote. Like others, she was forcibly fed in Holloway. But it went horribly wrong. The sloppy prison ‘food’ accidentally entered Lilian’s left lung. Violently ill, she was rushed out of prison. She became a cause celebre, with strongly-worded protest from the medical profession and opposition MPs. To avoid more such political embarrassment, the Government rushed through its ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act in April 1913: hunger-striking suffragette ‘mice’ could be released on temporary licence to recover their health, when the security forces could re-arrest them – if the ‘cats’ could find their ‘mouse’.
Lilian’s speciality was escapes. Disguised on at least two occasions as a boy, she was able to evade detectives tracking her movements. By the outbreak of war in 1914, she was still on the run, hiding away in the English countryside, a political fugitive.
During the war, Lilian served as a medical orderly in Serbia with the Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) units, formed by Dr Elsie Inglis, pioneer Edinburgh surgeon. Inglis had had little time for WSPU militants like Lilian Lenton; but as the fighting continued and the SWH needed additional staff, Lilian was recruited – and served so steadfastly she was awarded a French Red Cross medal.
Afterwards, Lilian worked for the newly-founded Save the Children Fund in Russia, and later for equal rights Women’s Freedom League. But it is for her time as a suffragette arsonist and political fugitive, along with her SWH war service out in Serbia, that women’s historians will most want to remember Lilian Lenton.
© In Lilian Lenton text Jill Liddington.