Edith Rigby

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Edith Rigby was a suffragette associated with the Women's Social and Political Union. Although she has been widely held responsible for the burning of William Hesketh Lever's Roynton Cottage in June 1913, a recent study casts doubt on her actual involvement.[1][2] She was nevertheless a passionate activist in the cause of women's suffrage, as well as a keen advocate of workers' rights, education for all and protection of the environment.


Edith Rigby [née Rayner] (1872–1950) was born on 18 October 1872 at 1 Pole Street, Preston, Lancashire. She was the second of the seven children born to Alexander Clement Rayner (1841/2–1916), surgeon, and his wife, Mary, née Pilkington Sharples (known as Polly). Edith was educated at Preston high school from 1883 to 1885, and at Penrhos College in North Wales from 1885 to 1890. Anecdotally, (according to Elizabeth Ashworth in Champion Lancastrians), she was 'the first lady to ride a bicycle in Preston'. At the age of 21, on 7 September 1893, she married the 35 year old physician Charles Samuel Alfred Rigby (1858–1926). Shortly thereafter the couple took up residence at 28 Winckley Square, Preston.

On her marriage to Charles Rigby, Edith began to engage in philanthropic and reform activities. She came from a poor but middle-class family: her father's patients were mainly Preston's working classes, which gave her an early awareness of social and economic inequalities. She was critical of her neighbours' treatment of their servants; the Rigbys had servants themselves, but allowed them certain unconventional freedoms such as being able to eat in the dining-room and not having to wear uniforms. She joined the Independent Labour Party in 1905, and in 1906 formed a branch of the Women's Labour League in Preston and served on the league's national executive council. Having no children of their own, in December 1905 the couple adopted a two-year-old child, Arthur (known as Sandy). A few years later, she set up a night school for mill workers (who were mainly young women and girls). [3] [4] [5] [6]


Arrests and Imprisonments[edit]

In 1907 Edith Rigby formed the Preston branch of the Women's Social and Political Union, the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom, 1903–1917. Her suffragist activity included two London deputations in 1907 and 1908 in concert with Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst. On both occasions she was arrested and served two weeks and four weeks in prison respectively for obstruction. She was arrested in Preston in 1909 when she took part in a protest at a meeting addressed by Winston Churchill and again when, on her release, she followed Churchill to Waterloo in Liverpool, where she smashed a window at the local police station. For this she was sentenced to two weeks in prison where she went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. She was again arrested in London on 21 November 1911 when, together with a large group of women armed with bags of stones and hammers supplied to them at the WSPU shop, she set out to break windows at Government offices and business premises. Windows were smashed at The Home Office, Local Government Board, The Treasury, the Scottish Educational Office, Somerset House, National Liberal Federation, the Guards' Club, two hotels, the Daily Mail and Daily News, Swan and Edgar, J. Lyons & Co., and Dunn & Co., as well as at a chemist's, a tailor's, a bakery, and other small businesses. Some two hundred and twenty women and three men were arrested including Edith who served three weeks in Holloway prison.[7] [8] In 1913 she was briefly imprisoned in Manchester for throwing a black pudding at a Labour MP.[9] Other alleged offenses include the planting a small bomb in the Liverpool Cotton Exchange Building on 5 July 1913 for which, although it was later stated in court that ‘no great damage had been done by the explosion’, she was found guilty and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour.[10] She again went on hunger strike, but was soon released under the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913. Commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, this law allowed for the early release of prisoners considered to be severely weakened and in mortal danger from hunger striking: once their health had recovered, they were recalled to prison, where the whole process would begin again.[11] However, the incident that brought Edith fame and notoriety was without doubt her claim to have caused the destruction of one of Sir William Lever's homes; Roynton Cottage in Rivington on the edge of the West Pennine Moors.

The Burning of Roynton Cottage[edit]

By 1913, Roynton Cottage one of William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme’s several private residences, had become something of a misnomer. Set among 18 hectares of terraced gardens etched into the southern flank of the West Pennine Moors, it had developed from the relatively functional, though stylish, prefabricated ‘shooting box with tiled roof’ erected just after the turn of the century, into a large, many-bedroomed, two-storied country mansion. Replete with a servants’ hall, butler’s pantry and quarters for several live-in retainers including a housekeeper and a secretary, it was, according to various chroniclers, accoutred and appointed like a minor stately home. Surrounded by a stout metal fence, its approaches were guarded by three substantial lodges, each of which was occupied by a trusted employee and his family. [12]

However, although Roynton Cottage was luxurious – even palatial – compared to the homes occupied by most of the inhabitants of the small industrial towns it overlooked, when measured against Sir William’s other houses, it was relatively frugal. Clearly not designed to resist the cold, wet, Lancashire winter conditions, when the wind fairly whistles across the aptly named Winter Hill, it was constructed largely of North American Pinus rigida. Commonly called pitch pine, this wood has rather poor structural qualities; and although its high resin content affords a measure of resistance to rot, it also renders it particularly flammable. It is therefore not surprising that, as the evidence relating to the events of the early hours of Tuesday 8 July 1913 clearly shows, once alight, the destruction of Roynton Cottage was both rapid and total: at the time of the fire, it contained a large number of paintings and other objets d'art valued at £20,000.[13][14][15][16] [17] [18]

Contemporaneous Reports[edit]

According to a lengthy report published later on the same day in the Bolton Evening News (BEN), the fire began at about midnight. By one o’clock the flames were visible from various locations in the valley below the moor and small groups of people, realizing that Lever’s house was burning, began to make their way there to see what could be done. Strangely, although at least two people were reported to have contacted the fire brigades of the nearest two towns, Horwich and Chorley, neither service seems to have made any effort to attend. Thus, by 2.30 am, although a small band of stalwarts had managed to salvage a few items of value, all the wooden parts of the structure had gone and Roynton Cottage had effectively ceased to exist. In line with prevailing perceptions, for the local press there was no doubt that the fire was the result of an attack by suffragist arsonists: an unsurprising assumption, in view of the number of similar incidents ascribed to the militant faction of the WSPU that had already taken place during 1913. (see, for example, 'The Daily Express’ Reporting of Suffragette Crime 1913') [19] Moreover, at least in the opinion of the local newspaper reporters, ‘evidence’ discovered near to the scene of the fire positively established their involvement.[14]

The most tangible of these was a small cardboard box, later described as ‘a brown portmanteau or suit case with brass fittings’, which was reported to have been found tied to some metal railings about 100 metres from the Cottage grounds ‘on the Bolton side’. Addressed to Reginald McKenna (the then Home Secretary) ‘via Horwich’, it contained a pair of lady’s grey suede gloves and a piece of paper. The gloves were described as being ‘of rather a large size’, and one of them, although which one was not made clear, was ‘gashed across the hand part’ and stained with blood. Two short messages were typed on the piece of paper, both addressed to the king, exhorting him to urge his government to agree to the enfranchisement of women.[14]

At another, unspecified, location someone found a box of matches, a metal spanner, and a paraffin-soaked copy of ‘The Suffragette’ newspaper with a short statement, apparently linking Lever to an article on ‘White Slavery’, written in pencil on its front cover. There were also unconfirmed reports of the discovery of tracks left by ‘motor car wheels … found near the spot the perpetrator or perpetrators of the deed entered the [Cottage] grounds’ and of a car travelling along Rivington Lane ‘a very few minutes after the discovery of the fire’. Other anecdotal reports included rumours of a woman asking directions to Roynton Cottage at ‘about midnight’; an unconfirmed sighting of a motor vehicle at around the same time, and uncorroborated accounts of ‘women in the park making inquiries as to the Bungalow on Monday’. A report in The Times, that another written message was found which implied that Roynton Cottage had been destroyed as retribution for Lever’s disloyalty to the Liberal party, was never substantiated.[20]

Edith Rigby’s Confession[edit]

On Thursday 10 July 1913, Edith Rigby appeared before the Stipendiary Magistrate at Liverpool Police Court in connection an explosion at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange Building. Astonishingly claiming that it was she who had set fire to ‘one of Sir William Lever’s superfluous houses’, she stated that it had been done in order to create ‘a beacon lighted for the King and country to see’. Responding to the magistrate’s suggestion that her statement had ‘no bearing’ on the current litigation, she replied: ‘It has this bearing: I lighted the fire alone that night. I walked there and did it alone.’ [21][22][23]

However, the proceedings leading up to Mrs. Rigby’s statement, well covered in the press, cast serious doubts on the reliability of her vague version of events. For example, when she appeared before the Head Constable at Liverpool on Wednesday 9 July 1913 - more than 24 hours after Roynton Cottage was destroyed – she made no mention of it. In fact, although the fire was a far more high-profile affair, she only claimed responsibility for the detonation of a small explosive device in a café beneath the Liverpool Cotton Exchange late in the evening of Saturday 5 July. Even after her dramatic courtroom declaration of Thursday 10 July 1913, she chose not to repeat her confession to the police at Bolton or Preston, and nor did she refer to it during her trial at the Liverpool City Sessions on 30 July 1913 when she was convicted of feloniously placing a bomb in the Liverpool Cotton Exchange Building with intent to cause damage.[21][22][23][13]

Clearly, if the police had given more than slight credence to Mrs. Rigby’s confession, she would surely have been arrested or at least questioned, but no records exist that she or anyone else was ever interviewed or charged by any police force in association with the burning of Roynton Cottage. Perhaps the authorities were beginning to suspect that some of the so-called ‘suffragist outrages’ may well have been accidents, falsely claimed as acts of vandalism by members of the Women's Social and Political Union. Moreover, although much of the contingent evidence seems to have ostensibly been fairly persuasive, on closer examination it is clear that it was at best circumstantial as well as, for the most part, unreliable and compromised. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of Edith's innocence (at least as far as the fire is concerned) is the record of her appearance on Wednesday 9 July before the Head Constable at Liverpool in connection with the Cotton Exchange incident.[24]

Some Unanswered Questions[edit]

According to the local press, one of the first people to get to the scene of the fire in the early hours of 8 July 1913 was ‘Mr. Adamson, the residential engineer of the Liverpool Water Works’ who arrived at Roynton Cottage at ‘about 2.15 am’ to find that ‘… the whole residential part was evidently doomed, for very soon afterwards it was one huge mass of flames.’

His first task was to rouse the sleeping inmates of the three entrance lodges, Mr. E. J. Rigg, principle entrance; Mr. T. Brainfield, Belmont Lodge; and Mr. Gill, Bolton Lodge.[15]

Given that all three lodges were situated well within thirty metres of Roynton Cottage, it seems most remarkable that none of the residents saw smelled or heard anything unusual until the fire was well-advanced. This is particularly mystifying when it is clear that several other people saw the fire much earlier and from far greater distances. For example, at approximately ‘one o’clock the fire was seen by James Worthington’ from near Dryfield Lane which is well over a mile away. Even further away at the Toll Bar Inn on Chorley New Road, Horwich, James Price saw the fire from his bedroom window at ‘about 1.30’. At around the same time, Alderman James Lawrence ‘observed the fire from his residence [Anderton Hall] … situated … across the park [a good mile and a half] from Roynton Cottage.’ Others, including a group of ‘men employed at the Loco Works’ whose homes were at least two miles away in Horwich, ‘rushed to the place on observing flames’, arriving at the fire in time to render ‘valuable assistance’.

The group of impromptu helpers, which eventually included police officers and fire personnel, ‘stayed on until about six o’clock, and then left to resume their daily duty.’ Later in the morning ‘Superintendent Wilson went over the ground … along with Inspector Farquharson and Sergeant Walton.’[14][15]

Perhaps, forensic science had not developed sufficiently to warrant more than this cursory inspection, or it may well have seemed to the police that there was not enough evidence to support foul play. However, if the police seem to have been rather casual in their assessment of the situation, it is clear that Sir William’s commercial interests were soon in professional hands.

Mr. Simpson, of Bolton, architects for Sir William Lever, and Mr. H. Stanley Atherton, surveyor of Bolton, were early on the scene, and under their supervision the ruins were made safe.... They also secured that there was no interference until the insurance agents viewed the scene, and agents of the various offices concerned put in an appearance during the afternoon. It is estimated that the damages amount to about £20,000, but that is a sum subject to investigation as the value of the contents needs ascertaining.[14][15]

Lever lost no time in replacing Roynton Cottage, and within a few weeks the ruins had been cleared and work started on the construction of a somewhat larger and less combustible structure. By 1914, as Europe began the madness that precipitated its degeneration to decades of hardship and anxiety, Roynton Cottage mark II was completed.[12]

An Unsolved Mystery[edit]

Although there are no records of Edith Rigby expanding on her ‘confession’ concerning the fire at Roynton Cottage, it is clear that most contemporary British and foreign newspapers agreed that Edith or the suffragist movement or both were responsible for the burning of Roynton Cottage; a conviction subsequently echoed by journalists, authors, antiquarians and quasi-historians. Published in 1962 – 49 years after the event - Phoebe Hesketh offers a detailed account of Edith Rigby’s ‘confession’ in her biography of her aunt.[6] However, as tempting as the existence of a convenient, ready-made solution may be, it is the historian’s task to investigate thoroughly whatever primary and secondary source information exists.

It is clear that Ms. Hesketh’s narrative varies so much from contemporaneous newspaper reports that it can only be regarded as complete fiction. While her assertion that Mrs. Rigby enlisted the aid of two men – one a member of the ILP and the other her husband’s chauffeur – is reasonably plausible, the rest of her account puts the time of day that the fire was started well wide of the mark. She proposes that the three set out at ‘about midday’ on Monday 7 July 1913, driving the 30 kilometres from Winckley Square, Preston to ‘the old pub “The Black Lad”’ a colloquial name for The Black-a-Moors Head public house, just below Rivington Village. Leaving the chauffeur and the car at the pub, the other two carried ‘a large keg of paraffin’ through Rivington Village and up the steep hillside to a point ‘just short of the bungalow’. There, it is proposed, Mrs. Rigby crawled alone ‘through the thick bushes’ to the bungalow and, having walked ‘twice round the place to make sure it was empty’, she set the fire, lighted it, and managed to run back to the The Black-a-Moors Head ‘before the damage was apparent’. This round trip of more than three kilometres, one is invited to accept, was accomplished ‘within an hour’.

Even if the chauffeur had driven extremely slowly, they could not have arrived at ‘the Black Lad’ later than mid-afternoon and, even if the walk up to the Cottage and back had taken more than two hours, not one, then according to Ms. Hesketh’s version of events, the fire was started during the afternoon of 7 July and not, as the newspapers reported at the time, in the early hours of 8 July. Moreover, as well as the obvious problems concerning the time of day, there are one-or-two circumstantial aspects of this tale that also challenge belief. Whichever rout was taken, the walk from the pub to the Cottage would have necessitated passing fairly close to the occupied South Lodge, and during her circumambulation of the Cottage Mrs. Rigby would have been clearly visible to the residents of all three lodges. It is simply not possible, therefore, to accept that she could have poured the contents of her large keg of paraffin over parts of the already highly flammable wooden building and then, together with her accomplice, ran back to The Black Lad before anyone noticed that something was amiss: why were they not seen, why did no-one notice a smell of burning wood, or hear the distinctive sound that a blazing building makes? Did none of the three lodge residents own a dog? The answer, clearly, to these and several other pressing questions is that Ms. Hesketh’s tale is no more than a whimsical fiction that probably stems from a desire to maintain and enhance the mythical aura surrounding her ‘notorious’ aunt Edith.

That Roynton Cottage was destroyed by fire during the early hours of 8 July 1913 cannot be disputed, but if the popularly accepted explanations for its demise are refuted, the question remains: who, if anyone, was responsible?

Later life[edit]

The First World War[edit]

On 4 August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Following negotiations with the Women's Social and Political Union, the government announced that it was releasing all suffragist from prison prompting the WSPU to end their militant activities in order to help the war effort. Not all agreed and, on 21 March 1916, the Independent Women's Social and Political Union was formed. Charlotte Marsh became its honorary secretary and Edith Rigby was nominally the secretary of the Preston branch. This rebel group issued a newspaper, Independent Suffragette, until 1917.[6][25]

In 1915 Edith Rigby bought Marigold Cottage on Townley Lane, Penwortham, a village near Preston. The property included a small estate with orchards, beehives and pastures, which the Rigbys used to produce food for the war effort. With hair cut short air and wearing masculine attire, she grew fruit and vegetables and kept animals and bees.[6][25][26] After the war, she continued to work in areas such as wholefoods and to follow the works of Rudolph Steiner.

Retirement and Philosophy[edit]

In the 1920s Edith became a founding member and president of the Hutton and Howick Women's Institute.[5] When her husband Charles retired in 1926, the pair built a new home, Erdmuth, in the fields near Llanrhos, Caernarvonshire. Charles died before the house was completed and Edith spent the rest of her life in retreat there, with regular visits from friends and relatives.[25]

She continued to follow Steiner's work, forming an "Anthroposophical Circle" of her own, and visiting one of his schools in New York. In 1931 she published Man and Animal, an English translation from German of Mensch und Tier by Hermann Poppelbaum. She enjoyed a healthy lifestyle, bathing in the sea, fell walking and practicing meditating every morning. Eventually, she began to suffer from the effects of Parkinson's disease and in 1948 she died in Llandudno, Wales.[6]


On 28 March 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities (would be enfranchised). MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act the first opportunity for women to vote was in the General Election in December, 1918: seventeen women candidates stood in the post-war election. Christabel Pankhurst represented the Women's Party in Smethwick and despite the fact that the Conservative Party candidate agreed to stand down, she lost a in straight fight with the representative of the Labour Party by 775 votes. Only one woman, Constance Markiewicz, standing for Sinn Féin, was elected. However, as a member of Sinn Féin, she refused to take her seat in the House of Commons.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Halton, Maurice J. "William Lever and Edith Rigby - An examination of the evidence relating to the burning of Roynton Cottage at Rivington, Lancashire on Tuesday 8th July 1913" A Paper [http://englishessaypartners.co.uk/data/documents/William-Lever-and-Edith-Rigby.pdf
  2. ^ Halton, Maurice J. "New light shed on 100 year-old mystery of one of Bolton's most notorious historical events" The Bolton News [Bolton] 13 July 2013:[accessed 28 Jan 2017: http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/news/10530886.New_light_shed_on_100_year_old_mystery_of_one_of_Bolton_s_most_notorious_historical_events/]
  3. ^ Crawford, Elizabeth (2001). The Women's Suffrage Movement: a reference guide, 1866–1928. Routledge. pp. 598–599. ISBN 0-415-23926-5. 
  4. ^ Banks, Olive (1985). The Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists, Vol. 1, 1800-1930. New York University Press. pp. Idem. ISBN 9780710801326. 
  5. ^ a b Oldfield, Sybil (1994). This Working-day World: women's lives and culture(s) in Britain, 1914–1945. Taylor & Francis. p. 29. ISBN 0-7484-0108-3. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Hesketh, Phoebe (1992). My Aunt Edith. Lancashire County Books. pp. 1–37. ISBN 1-871236-12-6. 
  7. ^ Rosen, Andrew (1974). Rise Up, Women!. Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 154. ISBN 0 7100 7934 6. 
  8. ^ Fulford, Roger (1957). Votes for Women. Readers Union. pp. passim. ISBN 9781406289527. 
  9. ^ "Preston Guild City". Famous Prestonians - Edith Rigby. Retrieved 28 January 2017. 
  10. ^ The Explosion At Liverpool Cotton Exchange Building, The Times, 31 July 1913, p. 8
  11. ^ Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1913/3&4G5c4, "1913 Cat and Mouse Act" : [Accessed 28 Jan 2017: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/case-study-the-right-to-vote/the-right-to-vote/winson-green-forcefeeding/cat-and-mouse-act/]
  12. ^ a b Smith, M.D. (1998). Leverhulme’s Rivington, Second Edition. Wyre Publishing. pp. passim. ISBN 9780952618737. 
  13. ^ a b Mrs Rigby committed to trial, The Times, 18 July 1913, page 14, column c.
  14. ^ a b c d e Suffragist Outrage at Rivington. Roynton Cottage Burned to the Ground. Miscreants Leave Impudent Messages’, Bolton Evening News, 8th July 1913, p. 3
  15. ^ a b c d Suffragette Folly at Rivington, Sir W. H. Lever’s Bungalow Destroyed, Art Treasures Ruined, Set on Fire While Caretakers Were Asleep, The Chronicle, 12th July 1913, p. 5
  16. ^ Halton, Maurice J. "New light shed on 100 year-old mystery of one of Bolton's most notorious historical events" The Bolton News [Bolton] 13 July 2013:[accessed 28 Jan 2017: http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/news/10530886]
  17. ^ "Manchester Evening News". Suffragist Maniacs: Bungalow Destroyed By Fire. Retrieved 29 January 2017. 
  18. ^ Jolly, W. P. (1976). Lord Leverhulme - A Biography. Constable & Co Ltd. p. 148. ISBN 0 09 461070 3. 
  19. ^ Clifford, Sadie, 'The Daily Express Reporting of Suffragette Crime 1913', Sheffield University, UK, Feb 2000 [Accessed 29 January 2017: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.71450!/file/clifford.pdf]
  20. ^ ‘Sir W. Lever's House Destroyed’, The Times, 9 July 1913, p. 8
  21. ^ a b ‘Suffragist's Confession of Outrages’, The Times, 11 July 1913, p. 11
  22. ^ a b The Fire at Sir. W. H. Lever’s Bungalow, The Morning Post, 11 July 1913
  23. ^ a b Rivington Bungalow Fire, Confession by a Doctor’s Wife, Bolton Evening News, 13 July 1913, p. 4
  24. ^ ‘The Explosion At Liverpool Exchange’, The Times, 31st July 1913, p. 8
  25. ^ a b c Brown, Heloise ‘Edith Rigby (1872–1950)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [accessed 28 Jan 2017: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/50080]
  26. ^ Simkin, John, ‘British History, Women's Suffrage,Independent WSPU’, first published September 1997 (updated August 2014), [accessed 28 Jan 2017: http://spartacus-educational.com/WindependentWS.htm]
  27. ^ Simkin, John, ‘British History, Women's Suffrage,Independent WSPU’, first published September 1997 (updated August 2014), [accessed 28 Jan 2017: http://spartacus-educational.com/W1918.htm]

External links[edit]