AS a child, my grandmother often spoke proudly of her aunt, Laura Geraldine Lennox, who had been a prominent suffragette in her native Cork and in London.
When my gran died, she left Laura’s scrapbook to us and also a brooch given to those who served time in Holloway women’s prison in London for the cause.
My interest was piqued. Who was she? As we celebrated a century of women gaining the vote in 2018, I decided to find out...
Laura Geraldine Lennox was born in Durrus, West Cork, on April 27, 1883. Her father Edward, a teacher in the local Methodist school, had married her mother Adelaide, after his first wife died.
They settled in Mount View Terrace in the St Luke’s area of Cork city. Laura had itchy feet though and from her scrapbooks I can see she worked as a cashier in Cork and applied for jobs in Athlone before moving to London.
There, this educated woman became involved with the fight for women’s rights, joining the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU).
Laura helped organise an Irish contingent of suffragists who attended a mass ‘Women’s Sunday’ event in Hyde Park on June 21, 1908. This must have been an incredible sight, with a sea of half a million women descending on the park, all wearing white, green and purple, the colours of the WSPU. They congregated under 700 banners and listened to 80 speakers.
A picture taken at this event shows prominent Irish suffragist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington under Banner 6 — and there, right beside her, is Laura, dressed in white with a captain’s banner.
Seemingly, the banner they were holding was in Irish on one side and English on the other, and they deliberately turned the Irish side out as they were in London.
By 1910, Laura was on the editorial staff of the newspaper Votes For Women, and in October, 1912, when Christabel Pankhurst set up the Suffragette Newspaper, she was appointed its sub editor.
Laura was working on the paper on the morning of April 30, 1913, when the WSPU offices were raided. She was arrested with four other women, charged with conspiracy to do wilful damage and remanded in custody.
During the raid, five floors of the building were emptied. Removal vans took away vast amounts of material, providing police with evidence of arson and bombing campaigns being co-ordinated through headquarters. Hammers were found with ‘WSPU’ inscribed on the handles, leaflets aimed at inciting violence were seized and police even found a satchel containing eight bottles of highly flammable benzene.
It didn’t help Laura’s case that on a list of shop windows to be broken, she had scribbled to “avoid Jaegers if possible” — she was obviously a fan of that well-known London fashion store!
She was released on bail, and her scrapbooks show she received telegrams and letters of support from Ireland, the UK, France, and also the Pankhursts. Her arrest made international headlines in the New York Times, Cork Examiner and Illustrated London News.
On May 27, she was jailed for six months and immediately went on hunger strike. She was released 25 days later under the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ — aimed at freeing suffragists on hunger strike, then re-arresting them once they had regained their strength. Sure enough, Laura was re-arrested eight days later, went on hunger strike again, and was released again just four days later, suffering badly with her health.
Back in Ireland, a petition of 200 Cork people, collected in 48 hours, was sent to the UK Home Secretary, protesting at Laura’s treatment.
For her show of defiance, Laura was awarded a suffragists’ hunger strike medal and Holloway Brooch by the WSPU.
When she went back to her London flat after being released a second time, she saw police outside and headed straight to the railway station, before boarding a boat back to Cork.
By autumn 1913, she had clearly recovered her fight as she stepped on toes in Cork by opening a branch of the WSPU in Cook Street, near the offices of the Munster Women’s Franchise League.
Laura lobbied local politicians, brought suffragettes Flora Drummond and Dorothy Evans to speak in City Hall, and by the summer of 1914 was organising weekly WSPU meetings.
When World War I broke out, her suffragist friend Henry Harben, who had bought the Majestic Hotel, turned it into a temporary hospital and Laura worked there as an administrator.
In 1920, her health was failing, her brother and father had just died and she was busy setting up her own Secretarial School. But she still found time to respond to a request by Etheldred Browning, a suffragette from Dublin, for help in setting up Women’s Pioneer Housing in London.
In 1928, a decade after women won the vote, the Suffragette Fellowship held a lecture to mark the achievement. Laura was the fourth person to speak, showing the high regard in which she was held.
She later summed up suffragists as women from all walks of life and social classes, who gathered in one great movement, with one tiny end in view. The vote was the key.
She was annoyed that modern women didn’t appreciate what the suffragettes had been through and were taking it all for granted. She was frustrated they weren’t putting themselves forward for election and making use of their votes.
I wonder what really has changed in the 86 years since she wrote: “To you, the newly enfranchised, we appeal. What use are you making of your freedom? Today, the whole world is faced with problems never known before. Woman’s position is still far from equal. Unemployment is rife; housing conditions are appalling. Morality is slack and there are wars and rumours of wars. These questions will never be properly tackled until women play their part on equal terms with men.”
Laura died in 1958, and I was delighted that she featured in an exhibition about suffragettes at Cork County Library and Bantry Library in 2018, entitled Making Their mark — Women’s Road To Franchise.
This article was the inspiration behind a three-part children’s drama centred on women’s suffrage in Ireland, which is to being broadcast on RTÉ Jnr digital radio this week.
'A Handful of Women' written and produced by Cork native, Ann Dalton, transports the listener back to Ireland in the early 1900s through the protagonist Great Gran Peg as she takes us inside her memory box and back to her childhood.
“Our feisty character, May Dorney was inspired by the article I read in the Holly Bough in 2018 based on one of our Cork suffragists, Laura Geraldine Lennox," said Ann.
A Handful of Women runs from Thursday, February 6 to Saturday, February 8 at 7.30pm on RTÉ Jnr Digital Radio.