Ask the Expert Q&A 26 November – Leonora Cohen Suffragette Collection with Nicola Pullan
Nicola Pullan, Assistant Curator of Social History, Leeds Museums , will be answering your questions on the Leonora Cohen Suffragette Collection on Wednesday 26 November 2014 between 11am -12 noon BST.
The Leonora Cohen Suffragette Collection
At Leeds Museums we are very lucky to have a collection of material that was donated to us by Leonora Cohen. For anyone who isn’t aware of her, she was Leeds’ most famous suffragette. She was born 15th June 1873 and remarkably lived until 105, passing away on 4th September 1978.
Whilst she may not be that familiar a figure in the suffragette movement, she was involved in the WSPU, campaigned on workers’ rights and was involved in trade unions, and even opened a guesthouse in Harrogate where suffragettes who were released from prison under the cat and mouse act could stay once her own health started to suffer from her prison experiences.
Her most renowned act was to smash the glass in the case that held the crown jewels in the Tower of London. She was arrested and charged, and defended herself in court.
She was successful and escaped conviction as she found a tradesman to testify that the damage to the case would cost less to repair than the amount listed in the criminal damage charge against her.
She deposited a large collection of papers and other material with Abbey House Museum in the 1960’s as a way of helping to preserve the stories of women like herself.
The stories of women such as the Pankhursts, who were renowned for their role in the cause, had already been recorded. Yet working women like Cohen were just as important to the cause – they attended rallies, educated people around them, campaigned and were imprisoned for their beliefs.
My favourite item in the collection has to be her scrapbook – complete with the odd annotation in purple ink. Whilst it does not tell the whole story of her campaigning, it does give a great insight into ideas and causes that interested her.
There is even a photograph from a march to Woodhouse Moor in Leeds where thousands of people gathered in support of women’s suffrage.
We are currently starting to look more closely at the Cohen collection for two reasons. Firstly, with all eyes looking to World War 1, it is a source of contemporary material from the period.
Whilst there are not many items relating to the war or what Cohen was up to, there are a couple of speeches (one given in America by Christabel Pankhurst, another from the WSPU in Huddersfield) highlighting the different positions of women and WSPU supporters during the war period.
There are also a couple of excerpts in her scrapbook that suggest she was maintaining her awareness of current affairs, particularly relating to women – one relates to the death of nurse Edith Cavell, and another on women doctors.
However, most importantly, it will be 100 years since some women were first able to vote in 2018. Making sense of the collection now and understanding what material we have, will enable us to look at how best to commemorate such a milestone as the anniversary approaches.
We are also trying to increase awareness of this wonderful collection now, so that researchers outside the service have an opportunity to access it for their own research.
We have also recently begun offering a Leonora Cohen study day for anyone interested in women’s and particularly suffragette history – which gives all participants a chance to look through some of her collection themselves.
I’m looking forward to hearing what questions people may have about Leonora and our collection – and will try answer anything I can to the best of my ability.
You can see some of her physical items on display in Leeds City Museum, and can arrange research visits to see the collection via myself at Abbey House Museum.
Nicola Pullan, Assistant Curator of Social History, Leeds Museums
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