Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries reveals all about what happened on this day 100 years ago at the Tower of London…
“Feb 1, 1913 Suffragette outrage in the Jewel House, one case broken. No damage in Armouries.” February certainly started with a bang for the Tower. Leonora Cohen’s action in entering the Jewel House – at this time housed in the Wakefield Tower – at 10:30am among a school group and dropping an iron bar into a side case containing the insignia of the Order of Merit of King Edward VII was a freelance act of militancy on behalf of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) at a time when the campaign for female suffrage was becoming increasingly violent. As Yeoman Warder Ellis later stated in Court, Leonora’s first words were “This is my protest against the Government”.
The label attached to Leonora’s bar preserved among her papers at Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds. Her message reads “Jewel House, Tower of London. My Protest to the Government for its refusal to Enfranchise Women, but continues to torture women prisoners – Deeds Not Words. Leonora Cohen”/ reverse “Votes for Women. 100 Years of Constitutional Petition, Resolutions, Meetings & Processions have Failed”. WSPU colours were purple, white and Green.
Mrs Cohen was an active member of the Leeds branch of the WSPU between 1909 and 1914. Born June 15, 1873, she was the eldest child of Jane and Canova Throp. Canova, an artist, died when Leonora was five, and the family moved from Hunslet to central Leeds where Jane supported her three children by working as a seamstress. Leonora suffered from TB as a child, and Jane found the time and energy to home school her, as well as work when she was younger. In due course Leonora became a milliner and a skilful one. At this time, there was a strong movement in Leeds campaigning for better working conditions for women, and this no doubt added to her education. Although she first met her future husband, Henry Cohen, a Polish immigrant jeweller, as a teenager they did not marry until 1900. They married for love, and in the eyes of society, Leonora had made a step up the social ladder.
Leonora’s WSPU activities came at a high price. She enjoyed the support of her mother, brothers, husband and son, but friends ostracised her and the family received hate mail. Initially she just attended meetings, but from 1911 began to engage in more militant acts. Her first trip to London in November 1911 to a meeting at Caxton Hall and deputation to Parliament ended as a violent clash with Police and window breaking (the preferred method of action at the time). A total of 220 Suffragettes were arrested – a record number for one night according to a disapproving Daily Telegraph– including Leonora. As a result she was detained in Holloway Prison for seven days, found guilty of malicious damage.
In selecting the Tower as a target, Leonora was making a considered and bold statement. It was a freelance act of militancy, but not a random one. She chose to act against government rather than private property. No doubt the authorities, already concerned at the escalating levels of violence, recalled the Fenian campaign of the 1880s, which had resulted in an explosion in the White Tower Banqueting Room (modern first floor west). In the immeadiate aftermath, the Tower was closed to the public, as were Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, Kew and Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Thereafter, security was heightened as it was at other public buildings including museums and galleries.
Leonora was arrested and taken to Leman Street Police station, appearing in Court within hours, charged with unlawful and malicious damage to public property. She was remanded on bail to appear at the London sessions on February 4, where she successfully defended herself and was acquitted by the jury – no mean feat. Returning to Leeds, her WSPU involvement reverted to attending meetings and speaking at them. However, having attracted official attention she found herself imprisoned once more for incitement, and with her health deteriorating, the Cohens moved from Leeds to Harrogate. There, Leonora’s guesthouse was a place of refuge for other activists evading the infamous “Cat and Mouse” act (officially Prisoner (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913) whereby hunger-strikers could be released from jail rather than force-fed, but were then re-arrested when deemed recovered. Leonora was photographed revisiting the Tower in the 1960s, and in 1976 she contributed to the oral history of the Suffragette and Suffragist movements recorded by Brian Harrison (now held by the Woman’s library). She died September 4, 1978.
Mr ffoulkes makes no other mention of the incident. The day book continues to be an interesting mix of the mundane and unusual. On February 7, he showed 25 students from the Royal College of Art round the Armouries, as well as the Countess Feo Gleichen (in fact HSH Countess Feodora Maud Georgina Gleichen – sculptor and medallist). More importantly for the ascendant Curator, on February 13 he was presented to HM the King at a Levee in St James’s Palace by the first Commissioner of Works. Viscount Dillon attended, and the event was duly recorded on camera.
Six days later, Mr Guy Laking, Keeper of the King’s Armoury, called. (Interestingly, the entry in the revised Day book [ I.188] compiled by ffoulkes from 1933 onwards following his retirement from the Imperial War Museum and prior to his autobiography’s publication, corrects “Sir” to Mr Guy Laking and titles him “The King’s Armourer”. ).
From militant protest to social climbing, all in all February 1913 was quite a month.
With huge thanks to Emma Trueman, and Nicola Pullen & Judith Ferris of Leeds Museums and Galleries. If you want to find out more about Leonora, Emma’s undergraduate dissertation is available in RA Tower Library, and Leonora’s papers are held by Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds who will, I am sure, be delighted to share them with you.
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