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An Elusive Suffragette

On the afternoon of 13 July 1913, the great and the good of Leeds society sat in the newly completed Great Hall at the City of Leeds Training College at Beckett Park.

An Elusive Suffragette

They listened to the address of The Right Hon. J. A. Pease MP, President of the Board of Education. During the college opening ceremony, detectives were on the lookout for any disruption from suffragettes. A derisive name fabricated by the Daily Mail but adopted as a badge of honour by women demanding the vote. The ceremony, with a government minister attending, was considered a potential target for suffragette activity.

As Mr Pease came to the end of his speech there was some commotion near the front, an undaunted lady rose to her feet to address the Minister. Newspapers of the day described her as “elderly”, “grey-haired” and “spectacled”. They gave differing reports of the encounter. The conservative Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, under the subheading ‘A Mild Interruption’, claimed that nothing of any importance was said, further declaring that whatever this lady had to say was a “foolish or irrelevant question.” No mention of the suffragettes was made. The more liberal Leeds Mercury described the harmless nature of the woman and that her intervention had something to do with votes for women. Meanwhile, The Suffragette, reported that the lady had asked the Minister, “Is there no work for women at the Board of Education? Does he not think that women…?”At this point, the woman’s words were drowned out by the clamour and derision of the surrounding crowd, and she was bundled out of the hall by detectives.

The mystery woman was likely admitted into the hall by art critic Frank Rutter. From 1912 until 1917 he was the curator of the City of Leeds Art Gallery, and as such was a Corporation official. The college opening was a tightly controlled civic event. Each ticket admitted two into the hall. Evidently, the venerable lady was granted entry, and as newspapers reported, this was facilitated by a high ranking Leeds Corporation official. Rutter was not mentioned by name but the finger of suspicion fell on him as he was known to be a supporter of the suffragette movement. A week later Rutter and his wife Thursa offered refuge in their home to Lillian Lenton. Lenton, a prominent militant suffragette, had been imprisoned in Armley Gaol and had endured a hunger strike and subsequent force-feeding. By the terms of the government’s ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, she was released on a licence to recover. Suspicion fell on the Rutters, fuelled by newspaper reports, that they were in some way involved in the subsequent escape of Lillian Lenton, despite surveillance of their home in Chapel Allerton by police. Frank Rutter was at odds with Leeds authority. His vision of curating a modern, twentieth-century art collection was dashed on the blinkered tastes of Leeds Aldermen and Councillors. He later wrote of them, “I was appalled by their grossness, their ignorance and general lack of manners.” The Councillors, for their part, viewed Rutter as a subversive and a man of questionable allegiances. No doubt mindful of his suffragette associations and the Leeds Training College Opening and the Lenton incidents.

The identity of the suffragette remains elusive. She obviously did not arouse suspicion at the high profile event and was freely admitted despite police presence. It is unlikely she was Rutter’s wife Thursa who was described as young at the time. In Leeds support for the idea of women’s suffrage dated back to the 1860s. There were activists throughout the period including Alice Cliff Scatcherd, Hannah Ford, Agnes Sunley and Isabella Ford among others. By 1913, the elderly and determined suffragette had four decades of ideas and opinions to draw on for her moment of confrontation with Mr Pease.

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Keith Rowntree

Keith Rowntree maintains the University's Archive and Special Collections which are currently held at the University’s Library, situated on our Headingley Campus. We collect, describe and preserve material for future generations while seeking to promote knowledge of, and access to this rich heritage for educational, professional and research purposes.

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