Today in gardening history: suffragette attack on Kew Gardens orchid houses, 1913.

So; 100 years since some women got the vote (yesterday). Funny how NOW lots of politicians and journalists are falling over themselves to invoke the name of the militant suffragists who fought for it in the years before the war. When they would have clamoured for them to be sectioned at the time. And pretty much think any of us who protest anything should be spied on, blacklisted and… if possible sectioned. Or deported. 


In 1912 the militant suffragette campaign to force the British government to give them the vote stepped up to arson. There were attacks on churches, the houses of leading anti-suffrage politicians; this moved on to railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses…

In February the orchid houses at the tea house were attacked, in what looked like a part of this campaign.

According to a newspaper report of the time:

“considerable damage was found on Saturday to have been done in the early hours of the morning to three of the orchid houses in Kew Gardens. Despite investigation there is so far nothing whatever to show to whom the outrage is to be attributed. The popular theory, of course, puts it down to suffragettes.

The damage done to the houses is small: between 30 and 40 panes of glass were broken; but the damage inflicted upon the valuable specimen orchids in the houses it is impossible to estimate.

Whoever the perpetrators may have been, it is thought that they probably concealed themselves overnight among the trees and bushes of the gardens before the gates were closed at 5.30, though it is possible the high wall round the gardens was scaled in the dark.

The grounds are patrolled by keepers throughout the night, and all state that they noticed nothing unusual upon their beats. The last inspection seems to have been made shortly after one o’clock on saturday morning, when everything was safe. At eight o’clock, however, when a fresh force of men went on duty, it was found that three orchid houses not far from the curator’s office had been broken into and flowers and plants strewn upon the floor.

Chief detective inspector McBryan, of the Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department, has the matter in hand.”
(the Guardian, 1913)

Chief Inspector McBryan wasn’t up to all that much, possibly, as the perpetrators were never found but the votes for women leaflets at the scene suggested the involvement of suffragettes.

Kew’s tea pavilion was burned down by suffragettes a fortnight later, in a much more serious attack. Olive Wharry and Lilian Lenton were imprisoned for that attack in March 1913. The court refused to recognise it as political, so Wharry hurled a legal book at the magistrates, sadly missing! Lenton, who contracted pleurisy after being force-fed, was released almost immediately, while Wharry was released after a 32-day hunger strike.

There is some more interesting info on the suffragette arson campaign here


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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