‘The mad women of Kew’


The suffragette movement was very active locally, but the destruction of orchids and the arson attack on the Tea Pavilion in Kew Gardens, in February 1913, made headline news.

In the early hours of 20 February 1913, two women crept into Kew Gardens and made their way to the popular Tea Pavilion. Shrouded by darkness they started a fire that soon enveloped the whole building. A Kew worker spotted the women and raised the alarm and two policemen, who had seen the flames, ran towards the Gardens and pursued the two women as they desperately tried to escape, throwing away incriminating evidence as they ran.

The first campaign to give women the vote started in the 1860s and led to the founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) by Millicent Fawcett in 1897. Their aim was to seek the vote by constitutional means but, as the years went on, many women felt there needed to be a more militant campaign. So, in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), moving away from traditional political pressure through lobbying, to direct action.

While violent protests had taken place before 1912, this escalated after the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, made it clear that he was against women having the vote.

The violence reached its peak in 1913, both nationally and locally. The burning of the Pavilion wasn’t the first act against Kew Gardens: only days earlier the Orchid Houses were attacked – with windows broken and many orchids destroyed – but the culprits were not caught, only leaving leaflets supporting the suffragettes, resulting in the newspaper headline ‘The Mad Women of Kew’. Acts of protest often occurred locally: potassium permanganate was put in post boxes in Kew, Richmond and Twickenham, the corrosive material destroying the mail; protest meetings were held at Marble Hill Park and a house was burned down in Hampton by Mary Richardson, who later went on to mutilate Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery.

There were active WSPU branches in Richmond and Hampton and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, living in a grace and favour home at Hampton Court Palace, became the president of the Hampton branch. She led the Tax Resistance League, refusing to pay taxes, saying it was ‘taxation without representation’. Her jewellery was regularly seized for non-payment of taxes and auctioned at Twickenham Town Hall, but friends bought the sequestered articles back for her.

The two women caught running away from Kew were Lillian Lenton and Joyce Locke (real name Olive Wharry) and they were taken immediately to Holloway Prison. They both went on hunger strike and the Daily Report on Suffragette Prisoners for Lillian reads: ‘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 prisons and not allowed to communicate. All privileges suspended.’

They were both force-fed but Lilian became so ill that she was discharged earlier than Olive who had managed to hide her hunger strike by giving her food away to others.

By 1914 the NUWSS considered the WSPU were undermining the suffragette cause by their direct action campaign. However, on 4 August 1914, war was declared and many women, regardless of whether they believed in direct action or not, played a leading part in the war effort. On 31 January 1918, women over 30 were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Change had begun.
John Moses

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