One Sunday in December 1913, at around five o’clock in the morning, a man cycling home after his shift at the gas works noticed smoke and flames coming from the direction of Alstone Lawn, an unoccupied house in extensive grounds on Gloucester Road, Cheltenham. He rode to the fire station to raise the alarm, and two engines and their crews quickly made their way to the house. Once inside the grounds, flames could be seen coming through the middle of the roof, but inside the building it was discovered that the damage was limited to a central staircase that ran from the ground floor to the attic.
The police entered the building after the flames had been extinguished. It was found that entry had been gained through a conservatory window. A trail of footprints of two people, apparently in stockinged feet, were visible from there to the hall and staircase. An empty two-gallon can had been left in the hall and there was a strong smell of paraffin, splashes of which could be seen on the walls of the hall and of adjoining rooms. Literature scattered around the house and grounds made it clear that this was the work of militant members of the movement for women’s suffrage.
Two women were arrested later that morning and appeared at Cheltenham Police Court on Monday, 21 December. The local newspapers reported on the hearing under the headline “SUFFRAGETTE OUTRAGE”. The pair had refused to give their names and addresses to the police, so they were identified in court as “Red” and “Black”, due to the colour of their coats. It was known that they had travelled to Cheltenham from Birmingham, by train. They appeared with their hair loose and with bare legs. It was explained that when their hair had been undone in order to search them, they had refused to have it put back up. Their shoes and stockings had been removed and they wouldn’t put them back on.
The Cheltenham Chronicle reporter took a great interest in the physical appearance of the two prisoners, stating that the hair of the shorter woman (“Black”) looked well-kept and “curled nicely at the ends”. The taller woman (“Red”) was better looking, but her hair was lank and “the free method of wearing it was not so becoming to her.” Both women, the reporter said, “bounced into court and seemed very happy with themselves”.
The police evidence given was that a constable on duty at about 4.30 on Sunday morning had seen two women walking about a quarter mile from Alstone Lawn. He did not speak to them, but gave a description of the pair when he reported back to the station. At 9.20 that same morning, a police sergeant on duty in Tewkesbury Road saw two women who matched the description given by the constable. Both smelled strongly of paraffin and their shoes and stockings appeared to be saturated. They were arrested and taken first to the Tewkesbury Road station, then moved to Cheltenham police station.
When asked by the Bench chairman if they had anything to say, the taller woman said they did not approve of this court, as there was no woman there to try them. They were remanded for a week while efforts were made to identify them. Gloucester Prison had stopped taking female prisoners in 1904, so they were sent to Worcester, travelling by taxi to Gloucester railway station, where they boarded a train to Worcester, accompanied by police in plain clothes. When they emerged from Cheltenham police station to start their journey, both were still bare-footed. A number of press photographers were waiting and they tried to cover their faces. While “Red” and “Black” were in Worcester Prison, the Cheltenham police circulated descriptions of them. It was reported that despite the resistance of the prisoners, the police had managed to take their fingerprints.
On Saturday 27 December, the Gloucester Journal reported that the two suffragettes had been released under the terms of the “Cat and Mouse” Act, because they had refused to eat and had become weak and ill as a result. This Act had been brought in to try to deal with the problem of prisoners going on hunger strike and then being force-fed. When prisoners became ill, they would be released for enough time to recover, then re-arrested. In this case, the two women were released on condition that they returned to Worcester Prison in order to be brought back to Cheltenham Police Court on 29 December.
On 3 January 1914, the Gloucester Journal stated that the two prisoners had not returned to Worcester Prison and so the hearing at Cheltenham Police Court concerning the fire at Alstone Lawn would not take place. The women had disappeared from the house in Birmingham where they had been sent to recover their health. A warrant for their arrest was issued. By now, the woman named as “Red” had been identified as Lilian Lenton, who had become well-known as a serial arsonist in the cause of women’s suffrage.
Lilian Lenton was born in Leicester in 1891 and trained as a dancer. She became very active in the Women’s Suffrage movement, first breaking windows, then moving on to arson. She was a member of a group in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) known as the ‘Young Hot Bloods’. The members of this group were all unmarried, young, and mostly women. They travelled in pairs around the country carrying heavy containers of paraffin, setting fire to unoccupied buildings.
Lenton’s first arrest had taken place in 1912 when she had been arrested for taking part in a suffragette campaign of breaking windows. She was arrested under the name “Ida Inkley” and sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison. Then in February 1913, she was back in Holloway on remand, having been arrested on a charge of setting fire to the tea house at Kew Gardens. This time, she went on hunger strike and was force-fed in such a brutal manner that food got into her lungs and caused a serious respiratory illness. She was released under the Cat and Mouse Act and once she had recovered, escaped before she could be sent back to prison.
In June 1913, she was arrested again after an attempt was made to set fire to a house in Doncaster. On this occasion, unfortunately, the house turned out not to be empty, as a housekeeper was sleeping there and she interrupted the would-be arsonists. Lenton was only caught because she went to the courtroom where a young male journalist and a female WSPU member who had been charged with the crime were appearing. She gave evidence that she (under the name Mary Dennis), not the woman in the dock, had been the one in the house with the young man on the night in question. She was committed for trial at the Leeds Assizes and was sent on remand to Armley Gaol. A familiar sequence of events then took place: Hunger strike; release on licence; escape. This time, it was believed that she had got away disguised as a delivery boy, and had gone to France.
On 7 October 1913, Lilian Lenton was arrested at Paddington Station, where she had gone to collect a bicycle. She was arrested on the charge of arson at Kew Gardens and was sent to Holloway Prison on remand. She went on hunger strike and was released on licence once again, on condition that she surrendered to take her trial at the Old Bailey in November. She failed to make an appearance and a month later, the offence at Cheltenham took place.
After her failure to appear at Cheltenham Police Court in late December 1913, no more was heard of Lilian Lenton until the following year in early May, when she was arrested by Birkenhead police. Superintendent Hopkins of Gloucestershire Constabulary immediately applied to have her brought to Cheltenham, but he was aware that he might have to wait for some time, as there were the outstanding cases in London and Leeds to be dealt with too. Priority was given to the Doncaster case and Lenton was tried at Leeds Assizes on 8 May, where she was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. She was sent to Armley Gaol, where she refused to take food or water, became seriously ill and was sent to a boarding house to recover. She disappeared once again and had not been found by the time war broke out in August 1914.
On the outbreak of the Great War, the WSPU held secret talks with the Home Office which led to all law-breaking suffragettes being given an amnesty, in return for the organization ending their militant activities and helping the war effort. From then on, the WSPU campaigned for women to be taken on to do the jobs vacated by men who had joined the armed forces. Some of the members went on to serve abroad as nurses, ambulance drivers and orderlies. Lilian Lenton received the French Red Cross for her work as an orderly. She never appeared in Cheltenham Police Court to answer the charge of arson at Alstone Lawn.
You can find out more about the life and exploits of Lilian Lenton at suffrageresources.org.uk and spartacus-educational.com
You can read about the history of Alstone Lawn at https://historyofhestersway.co.uk
Newspapers (all accessed on http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk):
Cheltenham Chronicle, 27 Dec 1913
Gloucester Journal, 27 Dec 1913, 3 Jan 1914, 9 May 1914
Gloucestershire Echo, 27 Dec 1913, 31 Dec 1913, 21 May 1914
Daily Mirror, 21 and 28 Feb 1913, 8 and 16 Oct 1913
Yorkshire Post, 17 June and 15 July 1913, 9 and 22 Oct 1913, 13 Dec 1913, 5 and 18 May 1914
Copyright Jill Evans 2023