Hunger Strikes and Votes for Women
(photograph top left c. Matt Roberts. Anne Sebba outside 2, Claremont Villas, Leeds, the house where Leonora Cohen lived)
On Saturday, February 1, 1913 an elegantly dressed young woman followed a group of school boys into the Jewel House at the Tower of London. Patrolling beefeaters assumed she was a teacher until she removed an iron bar from her coat and flung it over the boys’ heads smashing a glass showcase containing insignia of the Order of Merit. Beefeaters immediately forced the woman to the ground and arrested her. Wrapped around the bar was a piece of paper stating: “This is my protest against the Government’s treachery to the working women of Great Britain.” She was charged with causing unlawful and malicious damage to an amount exceeding five pound and was bailed for trial by jury. By the time Leonora Cohen, militant suffragette, had returned home to her husband and young son in Leeds her story had made headline news.
Leonora Cohen was, I have only recently discovered, a relative of mine and, in spite of the old adage about choosing friends but not relations, one I am very proud to claim. She died in 1978 aged 105, feisty to the end. I am devastated that I never shook the hand that lobbed so powerful a crowbar on behalf of women like me. I am even more devastated that so many of us now take voting for granted and forget that women like Leonora were prepared to risk their lives to win such a basic right.
Last month, almost a hundred years after Leonora’s courageous involvement in political activity began, a delegation of Leeds dignitaries hailed her as one of the country’s greatest campaigners for women’s rights as they unveiled a blue plaque in her honour at a house where she lived in the city for 13 years. “The passion and determination with which Leonora Cohen and her suffragette sisters pursued their campaign for votes for women was quite phenomenal,” said Michael Meadowcroft, former Liberal MP for Leeds West and campaigner for electoral reform. “They dared to confront an establishment that used painful and violent measures in an attempt to inhibit and break the cause.”
Leonora was born just outside Leeds in June, 1873 daughter of Canova Throp, a stone carver, who died aged 30 when she was just five. Her widowed mother, Jane, struggled to bring up Leonora and two younger brothers by working as a seamstress and Leonora helped her mother with some of the delicate garment finishing at home. It was an inauspicious start with Leonora often ill, able to attend school only briefly, mostly taught by her mother at home. Strongly influenced by her mother, Leonora always maintained that it was Jane Throp’s votelessness that radicalised her. In an interview later in life she explained: “Life was hard. My mother would say ‘Leonora, if only we women had a say in things’ but we hadn’t. A drunken lout of a man opposite had a vote simply because he was a male. I vowed I’d try to change things.”
Leonora was soon apprenticed as a milliner and was working as a millinery buyer at Bridlington, Yorkshire when she fell in love with a childhood friend six years her senior, Henry Cohen, a 32 year-old watchmaker and jeweller. Both families opposed the match. Henry’s father, Abraham, born in Warsaw, and his hard-working wife Rosetta, were among the earliest Jewish immigrants to Leeds. Although they quickly prospered, and with their nine children soon moved out of the Yiddish speaking enclave in the city, they were still pillars of the Jewish community. Abraham was Treasurer of the Board of Guardians and President of the Leeds Synagogue and they wanted their son to marry a Jewish wife. Jane Throp believed any marriage would be an impediment for her daughter, possibly condemning her to the same harsh life she had endured.
Nonetheless, the couple married in Bridlington Registry Office, with none of the parents present to witness the union. Eight months later a daughter, Rosetta, was born. She died within a year. But in 1902 Leonora gave birth to a son, Reginald, and for the next nine years appears to have been submerged in tranquil domestic bliss, baking bread and making marmalade, while Henry prospered in his business and became a member of the elite Leeds and County Liberal Club.
By 1909 Leonora had joined Leeds Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 which believed in direct action. At first she played a largely supportive role, selling suffragette newspapers and marmalade to raise funds. But in 1911, as WSPU Branch Secretary, she was so incensed by H.H. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister and arch anti-suffragist, breaking his commitment to women by announcing a Manhood Suffrage bill to give all adult males the right to vote, that she was almost overnight seized by a Votes for Women passion.
“Appalled by the Prime Minister’s betrayal she now determined she would never give up the fight with the Government for the vote – to the death if need be,” explains suffrage historian, Jill Liddington, whose inspiring book Rebel Girls * is largely responsible for bringing long overdue recognition to several forgotten young women campaigners in the North of England. She describes Leonora as “a fearless woman whose personal militancy soon amazed the newspaper reading public.”
For the next two years, with her son away at boarding school and the unwavering support of a loving husband, Leonora devoted herself with a passionate single mindedness to one cause: votes for women. Once her suffrage allegiance was known she lost most of her friends, had unpleasant letters delivered through the family letter box and had to face her son’s persecution at school. But in 1911 she joined a WSPU deputation to London and, in the resulting fracas with police, threw a stone that smashed a window of a government building. She was sent to Holloway Prison for seven days for malicious damage. Prison was a transformative experience, maintains Liddington, which served to harden her resolve. For the next few months she took part in several other protests and meetings, always careful to attack only government or official property in retaliation for what she saw as yet another government betrayal.
In January, 1913 Asquith again shocked the suffrage campaigners by announcing that the Reform Bill would be dropped. A few days later Leonora took action again. It was her daring raid on the Tower of London and the courage and articulacy with which she subsequently conducted her own defence which brought her to national prominence.
The trial hinged on a crucial technical question: the precise cost of repairing the smashed showcase. Henry helped her find an expert witness from a firm supplying such cabinets to the jewellery trade who testified that the damage could be repaired for four pounds and ten shillings. This enabled the jurors to acquit her because it could not be proven that she had caused damage exceeding five pounds.
Undaunted by the experience, she continued to attend rallies and in May 1913 addressed an open air crowd with a stirring rallying call saying that the time had passed for constitutional work. “We women are outside the constitution. We are outlaws.” After this, Leeds police charged her with being a disturber of the peace. Henry paid a surety of fifty pounds for his wifewho agreed to be bound over.
Her undertaking not to take part in any militant action did not, however, last long. In November 1913, six months after Emily Wilding Davison was killed beneath the King’s horse at the Derby, Prime Minister Asquith came to Leeds to address a meeting at Coliseum Hall. Leonora, part of a nearby WSPU parade, was among those who threw stones at a local government building. This time she was arrested and charged with wilful damage but remanded in custody at Armley Prison. She went on immediate hunger and the much more serious and dramatic thirst strike. She had to be released after a matter of days on seven days licence under “The Cat and Mouse Act” – the measure which allowed hunger strikers to be temporarily released to recover their strength – as she was dangerously ill and weak.
Henry now took action. He wrote to the Home Office declaring that if they re- arrested Leonora he would not receive her back next time so that the authorities would be forced to accept responsibility for her death. Pragmatically, he also decided it was time for them to move away from Leeds. They de-camped to Harrogate and Leonora, a vegetarian, ran a Reform Food Boarding Establishment where she sheltered another suffragette on the run.
When war broke out in 1914, Leonora worked in a munitions factory in Leeds, joined the General and Municipal Workers Union and eventually organised worker petitions and a three day strike. After the war in 1918 women over thirty were granted the right to vote. In 1923 she became the first woman President of the Yorkshire Federation of Trades Councils and the following year was appointed a magistrate, one of the first women appointed to the bench. She was a JP for twenty five years and was awarded an OBE for services to public life in the mid twenties.
In the mid 1970s, as a new wave of feminism took hold, there was a resurgence of interest in the activities of the suffragettes. Leonora, aged 101, was much sought after for interviews and appeared on the cover of the Radio Times publicizing a BBC television series, Shoulder to Shoulder based on Sylvia Pankhurst’s book The Suffrage Movement. What remained in her memory most clearly was not the decades of respectability in Leeds but the two years of direct action when she risked her life for a cause.
Leonora married the brother of my great grandmother. This means she is not a blood relative. Yet I feel a particular closeness to her and was thrilled when a distant cousin wrote to me explaining the relationship. For the last five years I have been researching and writing the biography of a politically active woman I greatly admire but who labelled women such as Leonora “the shrieking sisterhood.” Jennie Churchill understood the Edwardian power-structure because she married into it. Later she changed her mind on the suffrage issue and was brave enough to admit it. But in 1911, when she went to the theatre with her son Winston, a politician hated and deliberately targeted by the suffragettes, and was noisily attacked she responded by telling the protesters they should be “forcibly fed with common sense.”
But there are more personal reasons, too. Attending the plaque unveiling were several people who remembered Leonora as a venerated and respectable Leeds citizen, but no direct descendants. I was as close as anyone else there. Leonora offered support to my grandparents, whom I remember well. She was a witness at their wedding in Bradford in 1910 and was alive to the enormous difficulties my non-Jewish, actress grandmother faced marrying into the same religious Jewish family that had wanted nothing to do with Leonora ten years earlier. Doubtless in gratitude for this, my own mother bore the name Rosetta in memory of Henry’s mother and infant daughter. So why was Leonora not part of my childhood? With my parents no longer alive I have no one to ask. But families are strange institutions to penetrate. And at last I am proud to honour not just Leonora but Henry, the most supportive of husbands.
- Rebel Girls by Jill Liddington Virago
- Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother John Murray £20.00 September 2007