Leonora Cohen (1873-1978), JP, OBE,
Militant Suffragette

Leonora Cohen (1873-1978)On Saturday 1 February 1913 an elegantly dressed woman followed a group of school boys into the Jewel House at the Tower of London. The beefeaters assumed she was a teacher until she suddenly pulled an iron bar from her coat and flung it over the boys’ heads, smashing a glass showcase. She was forced to the ground and arrested. Wrapped around the bar was a piece of paper declaring: “This is my protest against the Government’s treachery to the working women of Great Britain.” Her name was Leonora Cohen, a housewife from Leeds. She made headline news.

Leonora was born in 1873 in Hunslet. Her father, Canova Throp, a sculptor, died of TB when she was only 5 years old, and his widow Jane struggled to bring up their three children alone, working as a seamstress. Leonora herself had TB as a child, and was taught mostly at home.

At 14, Leonora was apprenticed to a city centre milliner and worked long hours without pay until she was upgraded as a probationer, paid 2s 6d a week. By 16, she had proved herself skilled and efficient and was promoted to head milliner. In her mid-twenties she moved on to be a millinery buyer in Bridlington, where in 1900 she married Henry Cohen, her long-term sweetheart from Leeds.

Neither family approved. The Jewish Cohens were dismayed that their son was marrying an outsider, and cut him off. Leonora’s mother felt that her daughter should not marry at all, but devote her life to improving the lot of her fellow women, ill-paid, exploited, and with no political voice.

Leonora and Henry set up house in Leeds. Sadly their first baby died but a son followed, and for the next nine years Leonora devoted herself to being a wife, mother, and homemaker. Henry prospered in his jewellery business and their life was happy and comfortable. But Leonora did not forget her earlier experience and her mother’s sense of injustice: she took an increasing interest in campaigns to improve women’s pay and conditions and in the women’s suffrage movement. Henry and her brothers encouraged and supported her political activities.

By 1911 Leonora was secretary of the Leeds branch of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. In November the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, broke his commitment to votes for women by announcing a manhood suffrage bill. This betrayal inspired Leonora to vow to fight on. Although terrified by the prospect of violence, she joined a deputation to Westminster, a huge demonstration which ended in window-smashing and stone-throwing. She and many others were arrested and imprisoned. She served seven days in Holloway, an experience which only hardened her resolve. Her family staunchly stood by her, though they lost all their friends.

Under the leadership of the Pankhursts suffragette guerrilla activities spiralled, and in Leeds Leonora addressed meetings and rallies, exposing herself to constant abuse and threats. In 1913 she steeled herself to join demonstrations in London, where she chose the Tower of London for her own dramatic protest. She was so nervous that she travelled round twice in the tube before entering the Tower with her hidden weapon.

Leonora was put on trial but acquitted on a technicality. Back in Leeds, she continued her militant activities alongside other fervent loyalists. Asquith’s visit to Leeds in November 1913 was a red rag. In spite of tightened security, two suffragettes tried to set fire to the Headingley football stand, and violent demonstrations took place around the Hippodrome where Asquith was to speak. Leonora was arrested for smashing windows and was sent to Armley Gaol. She declared a hunger and (even more dangerous) thirst strike.

Two days later she was near collapse when she was released on licence under the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. Desperate and angry, Henry wrote to the Home Secretary in protest, but was persuaded finally to take Leonora away to avoid further life-threatening imprisonment. They moved to Harrogate, where Leonora set up a vegetarian boarding house, once giving sanctuary to a suffragette fleeing from the police.

The outbreak of war in 1914 interrupted the suffragette campaigns and brought about a change of heart in government. In February 1918 women over 30 were given the vote, and 10 years later women over 21 finally attained full voting equality with men.

Leonora remained energetic and active during and after the war, and in the 1920s the family moved back to Leeds, to Clarendon Road (marked by a blue plaque). Awarded an OBE in 1928, she served as a Leeds magistrate for over 30 years. She never lost her ideals, devoting much of her time to the Trade Union movement, campaigning for better working conditions.

Her devoted Henry died in 1949, but Leonora, fighter as she was, lived on until she was 105.

Eveleigh Bradford
June 2012