2 February 2018

Fire and broken petals: How the suffragettes made their mark on Kew

Archives Graduate Trainee Saffron Mackay delves into Kew’s connection with the suffragettes.

By Saffron Mackay

Photo of Kew's tea pavilion after it was burnt by suffragettes

Landmark legislation

In February 1918, a landmark piece of legislation called the Representation of the People Act of 1918 was passed, enabling 8.5 million women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote. 2018 marks the centenary of this momentous event and during this year various exhibitions, events, tours and talks are taking place across the UK as part of Vote 100 campaign. 

Here in the Library, Art and Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, we are exploring our connection to the women’s suffrage movement through our Library, Art and Archives Reading Room display that tells the story of two events that occurred in the Gardens – damage to the Orchid Houses and the arson attack on the Tea Pavilion.

Fight for women’s right to vote and ‘Outrage at Kew’

The campaign for women’s right to vote began in the mid-19th century. While initially beginning as a peaceful movement consisting of petitions, non-violent demonstrations and lobbying of MPs, soon some campaigners pursued more militant methods, leading to the label of these individuals as ‘Suffragettes’ by the Daily Mail in 1906.

With the theme of orchids running throughout the Library, Art and Archives Reading Room exhibition, on display are manuscript materials relating to the alleged suffragette attack on the Orchid Houses which occurred on 8 February 1913. On display are items including a memorandum from Kew’s then Director, Sir David Prain, and a telegraph from the Office of Works warning of an imminent suffragette attack. Additionally, we explore the public reaction to the attack, showcasing letters addressed to Sir David Prain from our Directors’ Correspondence collection and newspaper cuttings about the incident vocalising the public outrage concerning the attack.

In the Display we also discuss the arson attack on the Tea Pavilion that took place a mere twelve days after the damages to the Orchid Houses. Unlike the incident at the Orchid Houses, where the perpetrators managed to escape, leaving behind an envelope bearing the words ‘Votes for Women,’ the culprits of the arson attack were caught at the scene of the crime- two Suffragettes called Olive Wharry and Lilian Lenton. The women were arrested and imprisoned, with both going on hunger strike.

Through the process of compiling the display I’ve been asked two very important questions; why Kew Gardens, and in light of our upcoming Orchid Festival, why the Orchid Houses?

Photo of Kew's tea pavilion after it was burnt by suffragettes
The Tea Pavilion after being burnt down by suffragette party members: firemen hose the remaining shell of the building © RBG Kew

Why Kew Gardens?

In response to the first question I think it would be more appropriate to ask why not Kew Gardens? To draw public awareness to their cause, the Suffragettes targeted high profile locations, with methods including arson attacks, damaging property and chaining themselves to the railings. Kew Gardens was, and still is a major visitor and tourist attraction – in 1912 the Gardens which were open at 10am from June to September had 3.8 million visitors, with this increasing to 4 million visitors in 1914, and so it is unsurprising that the Gardens became one of the locations that was targeted by the Suffragettes to attract attention to their campaign.

Through some of the letters in the Directors’ Correspondence collection and newspaper cuttings here in the Archives, it becomes clear that through the attack on the Orchid Houses the Suffragettes achieved widespread media coverage, with news of the damage to the Orchid Houses even reaching Puerto Rico.

In a letter addressed to Kew’s Director, Sir David Prain, Nathaniel Lord Britton, co-founder and Director of New York Botanical Garden, who was writing from Puerto Rico notes:

“I caught sight of the enclosed press notice of damage to your collections the other day and hope nothing important was destroyed. Queer way to get the vote!” (DC 200 f.195)

Letter from Lord Britton to Sir David Prain
Nathaniel Lord Britton, co-founder and Director of New York Botanical Garden, wrote to Sir David Prain, Kew's fourth Director, after the suffragette attack

Why the Orchid Houses?

In response to the second question it is difficult to say why the Orchid Houses in particular were targeted, especially due to fact that the culprits were never caught. 

Considering the archival material concerning the event, this may have been because the orchids were regarded as highly valuable plants. 

In a memorandum to government, Kew’s Director Sir David Prain notes that the attackers focused on destroying plants that for ‘special reasons connected with culture must be grown under bell jars.’ Prain goes on to write ‘the housebreakers assuming that these plants must be of particular value took off the bell-jars and placed them on the floor... without breaking them, and confined their attention to the plants under the jars which they wantonly destroyed.’ (RBGK Metropolitan Police, Misc. Papers Volume 1845-1920, f. 51)

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