Thursday, June 30, 2016

The suffragettes who burned down a tea house

I usually stick to more lighthearted subjects on this blog, so when I discovered something rather shocking on the Library of Congress website a few weeks ago, I decided at first that I wouldn't mention it here. But the images kept popping back into my head, and I thought good grief, we're all grown-ups here, and it's not like I'm posting images of dead bodies or anything, so here goes. I was looking up vintage images of tea gardens for another project when I came across this photo labeled "TEA HOUSE, KEW GARDEN, BURNED BY SUFFRAGETTES." While I've never been to Kew Gardens in London, I've certainly heard of the gardens, and I'd certainly never heard of this attack!

Here's another image of the scene. Are you as surprised as I was to learn that some early suffragettes in the UK were violent? From a little online research, I learned that one day in 1913, the orchid house at Kew was attacked, and then, 12 days later, the tea pavilion was burned down. Two women, Olive Wharry and Lillian Lenton, were caught fleeing the scene and were sentenced to 18 months in prison. According to a blog post on, "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."

I don't know why, but I am fascinated by this story. The website for History Today magazine in the UK had an article last year titled "The Weaker Sex? Violence and the Suffragette Movement." I am, of course, appalled at the tactics these women took, but then I read in the article about another militant suffragette whose “anger at the treatment of women on the stage, an industry where she was expected to trade sex in return for leading roles and allow patrons of the music halls to assault her in cabs and hotels without complaint, led her to become a bomber, an arsonist and a public campaigner for the suffragette movement.” The behaviors she opposed make me angry too, but burning down buildings wasn't any way to solve the problem. I'm going to have to do a bit of research to find out what the non-violent suffragettes in the UK were doing at the time. And I find it interesting that History Today said historians would balk at calling those women "terrorists" but instead would say they were engaged in "political extremism." Reminds me of a language debate that rages on today in this country.

Go here, by the way, if you would like to see an image of the tea house before the suffragettes burned it down. And please, do let me know if any of you were aware of this bit of history. Maybe I was asleep in history class that day?


  1. I never heard this before. Sounds like an interesting subject to explore further. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  2. I have never heard of this. Having walked through these gardens in May, then seeing the before picture, I have a very good picture of where it was in the garden. Amazing! Thanks for this interesting tidbit of information.

  3. This is very interesting. Hopefully no one was injured in this incident. I look forward to more information should anyone have more. Thanks, Angela, for this educational post. Blessings, Nancy Carr

  4. I too have never heard of this. I wonder how much of history has been swept under the rug. Probably more than we think.


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