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Suffragettes at Kew

Miriam Hopkinson
8 November 2013

Miriam, the new Archives Graduate Trainee, discovers more about the suffragette attacks at Kew 100 years ago.

About me

Hi, I’m Miriam, the new Archives Graduate Trainee at Kew. Before starting here, I completed an undergraduate degree in History & Anthropology at Goldsmiths College. I also worked and volunteered at a few different archives alongside my studies in order to gain experience in the sector.

These included doing a university work placement at the London Metropolitan Archives, completing a cataloguing project at the British Red Cross archive, working on a digitisation project at the Women’s Library, and sorting materials at the Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive. I’m really enjoying my new role so far, and I love learning all about the history of Kew.

Miriam Hopkinson in the Library

Photo of me in the Archive Store

During my recent Kew induction tour I was intrigued to find out that in 1913 suffragettes attacked the orchid house at Kew, and then, twelve days later, burnt down the tea pavilion. I was keen to learn more about these events and so I delved into the archives to find some answers.

Damage to Orchid House 'slight'

On the 8 February 1913, a night stoker on his usual round of checks at 4am discovered that some panes of glass in the Orchid House had been smashed, and some of the plants destroyed. The perpetrators were never discovered, but ‘Votes for Women’ leaflets had been left at the scene. Interestingly, in a report of the damage, Kew's Director, Sir David Prain, confesses that:

“The damage done is trifling compared with what it might have been, but I trust that this fact may be carefully concealed from the public and especially from the newspapers lest its publications provoke another attempt.” ( RGBK Metropolitan Police Correspondence 1845-1920, ff.150-151)

As a result, newspapers reporting the attacks seem to overstate the extent of the damage:

Letter from the Metropolitan Police

RGBK Metropolitan Police Correspondence 1845-1920, ff.157-161

Some individuals also wrote to Kew's Director, having read of the attacks in the newspapers, and 'helpfully' provided suggestions on how to deal with the suffragettes. For example, Mr John C. Willis of Jardim Botanico, Rio de Janeiro, suggests bringing back the ducking stool!

Excerpt of a hand written letter

DC217 folio 150

While Mr W. Popplewell-Bloxam of Kensington asks, “Is there not a blood-sucking orchid which after attracting its victims renders them [insensible] by an exhalation + then fastens its tentacles on their blood vessels!!” 

Excerpt of a hand written letter

DC 159 folio 6

Suffragettes defiant over Tea Pavilion arson

Twelve days after the Orchid House attack, the Tea Pavilion at Kew was burnt down.

Burnt ruins of Kew's Tea Pavillion

This time, two women were caught fleeing the scene. At trial, Olive Wharry and Lillian Lenton were found guilty of the arson and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Kew holds no records about the women themselves, or their reasons for targeting Kew, but hints to their motive can be found in the Old Bailey court proceedings, during which Wharry said that she believed the pavilion belonged to the government.

While in court, Wharry also stated that morally she was not guilty, and would not submit to punishment. Once behind bars, the pair immediately went on hunger strike and Wharry's prison scrapbook - held at the British Library - reveals that she went 32 days without eating before being released.

During my time at Kew I look forward to discovering many other stories about the history of the organisation. If you would like to find out more, why not visit the Library, Art and Archives Reading Room?

-Miriam-


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Comments

2 February 2014
Comment: 
Fabulous research, thank you! That said, the proper term is "suffragist," not "suffragette." The latter was a diminution of the term and those brave women.