On 17 June 1913, imprisoned suffragist Lillie Lenton (also known by the alias ‘May Dennis’) was released from Armley Gaol on licence under the terms of the so-called Cat and Mouse Act. This legislation had been introduced in the wake of a series of hunger strikes by suffragist prisoners. Lenton herself had been force-fed during a previous incarceration in Holloway Prison and had nearly choked to death when liquidised food poured into one of her lungs.
The Act put an end to force-feeding; instead, hunger-striking prisoners were released on licence and re-arrested several days later, leading to a ‘cat and mouse’ cycle of female prisoners going on hunger strike, being released and then sent back to prison. Lenton exploited this better than most.
Lillie Lenton was born in Leicester on 5 January 1891 and trained as a dancer after leaving school. She was inspired to join the women’s suffrage movement after hearing Emmeline Pankhurst and was jailed for the first time in 1912 for engaging in a window-smashing campaign under the first of many aliases, ‘Ida Inkley’. After her release, she escalated her campaign of direct action and pledged to set fire to two buildings per week. It was while serving a jail term for arson that she was force-fed in Holloway.
Her connection to Leeds arose from her arrest in Doncaster in June 1913 for another arson attack, following which she was remanded at Armley Gaol pending her trial. She laughingly assured officers that she would not remain in custody for long and what happened next could be the plot of a Hollywood film…
Although the exact circumstances are unclear, she was released on licence from Armley a few days later (17 June 1913). It appears that she may have begun another hunger strike and then immediately feigned ill health to trigger the Cat and Mouse Act.
Lenton was put under house arrest and police surveillance at the Chapel Allerton home of Frank Rutter, the Director of Leeds Art Gallery and a women’s suffrage sympathiser. A few hours later, a grocer’s van pulled up outside the house. The grocer’s boy (a woman in disguise) went inside with a delivery. Unseen by the nine police officers watching the house, Lenton swapped clothes and places with the ‘boy’ and was driven off in the van, reading a comic and eating an apple.
She was whisked away to the Chained Bull pub in Moortown and, from there, to Harrogate and finally to Scarborough where she boarded a private yacht to France. According to one report, police only learnt of her disappearance when they read about it in the local newspaper two days later!
She returned to London later in the year to resume her arson attacks, for which she was arrested and escaped twice more. During one of her escapes, she fled to the Lake District where she met and befriended DH Lawrence.
‘May Dennis’ found herself back in Leeds in 1914 where she was put on trial for the Doncaster fire of the previous year. During her trial at the Town Hall, Lenton attempted to filibuster proceedings with a lengthy speech in which she asked the jury to consider “the extraordinary state of affairs which permits women who break laws made entirely by men to be brought before a court consisting entirely of men.” After her conviction, she again went on hunger strike in Armley Gaol and, again, she was released.
The outbreak of the First World War gave Lenton a new cause on which to focus her considerable energy and bravery. She served as a nurse in Serbia and spent time working in Russia and Sweden after the end of the war, by which time some women had been granted the right to vote. In later life, she was the financial secretary of the National Union of Women Teachers and continued to support feminist causes.
She died on 28 October 1972, aged 81.