‘Wild Women’ at the Tower of London

The Crown Jewels were displayed in the Wakefield Tower from 1870 until 1967 ©Historic Royal Palaces
The Crown Jewels as they were displayed in the Wakefield Tower from 1870 until 1967 ©Historic Royal Palaces

Throughout its near 1,000 year history, the Tower of London has had many uses; it has served as a palace, an infamous prison, a secure home for the Crown Jewels and in the February of 1913, as a stage for protest.
Walking to the Tower from the underground station with an iron bar hidden beneath her coat, Leonora Cohen, gained access to the Crown Jewels which were, at the time, on display in the upper Wakefield Tower.  Approaching the intimidating device that housed the coronation regalia (illustrated above), and assumed to be a teacher visiting with a group of school children, she would have attracted little attention. But moments later, when she flung the bar into the case containing the insignia of the Order of Merit, she had the attention not only of the Yeoman Warders who placed her under arrest but of the whole city. Around the bar was a message that read:
“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”.

Leonora’s WSPU Dress ©Leeds Museums and Galleries

Leonora Cohen was a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This was the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst who campaigned for women’s suffrage and equality. Their motto was ‘Deeds not Words’ and used  ‘militant tactics’ to further the cause. They split from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) who believed in peaceful protest. Leonora Cohen’s home in Harrogate was used as a refuge for women who had been imprisoned for their campaigning.  Cohen’s bold attack on the Crown Jewels gained media prominence and was described (somewhat disparagingly) by the London Illustrated News as yet another example of tactics used by ‘wild women’. Fearing more attacks from the WSPU and against a background of the persistent threat from Irish Republicans, the Tower, Hampton Court and the palaces of Kensington, Kew and Holyrood were all temporarily closed to the public.

Leonora Cohen ©LeedsMuseums&Galleries
Leonora Cohen ©Leeds Museums and Galleries

Cohen was arrested by the police and charged with causing damage to property exceeding the value of £5, for which the penalty was imprisonment. She  represented herself when she was brought before the Thames Police Court, and was able to argue successfully, that the damage she had caused was not up to that value and she was released without charge. The commitment of the WSPU and NUWSS and the hard graft of women in factories and on farms meant that in 1918 some women were given the vote, in 1928 women were given voting rights on the same terms as men.

Leonora Cohen remained a committed feminist throughout her life, acting as a voice for British feminist movements in the 1960s and 70s and was able to witness the introduction of the equal pay act in 1970. She died, age 105 in 1978.  Her obituary in The Times newspaper fondly referred to her as the ‘Tower suffragette’.

A blue plaque commemorating the life of Leonora Cohen outside her home in Leeds. "Leonora Cohen" by P-khoo is licensed under CC BY 2.0
A blue plaque commemorating the life of Leonora Cohen outside her home in Leeds. “Leonora Cohen” by P-khoo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Sarah Okpokam, Tower of London Curatorial Intern

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