Annie Kenney was a leading activist for the right of women to vote in the U.K. She lived a challenging life in the duty of her cause, too, suffering many significant ordeals for her beliefs. After one such incident, however, Kenney wrote a letter to her sister. And now that the message has been discovered over a century after it was written, it provides a fascinating and unique document of that time.
In 1868 the Free Trade Hall in the English city of Manchester was the site of the U.K.’s first open meeting to discuss the topic of women’s suffrage. Among the speakers at the event was scientist Lydia Becker, who was backed by barrister and women’s rights ally, Dr. Richard Pankhurst.
And Dr. Pankhurst would later have another link to the suffrage movement. You see, in 1879 he would marry a young woman by the name of Emmeline Goulden. Goulden in turn would take her husband’s name and so become known as Emmeline Pankhurst – one of the foremost and most famous proponents of women’s voting rights in the U.K.
Then, as the 19th century went on, several of the groups that had taken up the mantle of campaigning for women’s suffrage in the U.K. joined together under the banner of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). By the dawn of the 20th century, though, the NUWSS had had little success in actually bringing about any tangible results.
And it appears that Emmeline Pankhurst had become terminally frustrated by the lack of real progress when it came to achieving the movement’s aims. Conventional politics and rhetoric had achieved little in Pankhurst’s view, and so she decided that the time was now ripe for direct action.
So, on October 10, 1903, Pankhurst called a meeting at her house on Nelson Street in Manchester, during which a body called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was brought into being. The organization was set up from the start to be active, too. “Deeds, not words, was to be our permanent motto,” Pankhurst wrote in her 1914 autobiography.
And it wasn’t long after the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed that the suffragettes first hit the headlines. In 1905 two women disturbed a political meeting in Manchester and were both arrested. One of these women was Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter; the other was Annie Kenney.
Unlike the Pankhursts, Annie Kenney was from a working-class background. Born in Oldham, a town in Greater Manchester, in 1879, Kenney was the fourth daughter among the 12 children in her family. And she began her working life at the age of just ten, splitting her time between school and a part-time position in a cotton mill.
At the tender age of 13, Kenney was working full-time at the mill, putting in 12-hour shifts. It was a tough life, and one that Kenney endured for 15 years. Working conditions at the mill were dangerous, too; during one particularly distressing incident, one of Kenney’s fingers was ripped off by a spinning bobbin.
However, Kenney engaged in trade-union goings-on during her time in employment. She also continued to study on her own and encouraged her fellow workers to take up reading literature themselves. And Kenney ultimately became involved in the suffragette movement in 1905, after attending a meeting in Oldham where one of the speakers was Christabel Pankhurst. It was later that year that the two would be arrested.
Kenney and Pankhurst had interrupted the Liberal Party event by shouting “Will the Liberal government give votes to women?” and displaying a banner with the slogan “Votes for Women.” This very meeting, in fact, had been attended by a politician who was, at that time, little-known. His name was Winston Churchill.
The pair were later ejected from the building. Outside, Pankhurst was arrested for spitting at a police officer; Kenney, meanwhile, would eventually receive a three-day jail sentence for her own actions. Kenney’s incarceration was not to discourage her from future action, however. In fact, this was to be only the first of her 13 spells in prison.
Another stint behind bars came in 1906, as Kenney and others were apprehended for attempting to lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith. The group had actually gone to Asquith’s London home to demand to see him. The politician refused to meet with the women, though, and the suffragettes were ultimately arrested.
Kenney and her fellow campaigners were then given two options when they appeared in court over the offense. They could agree to take no part in suffragette campaigning for a period of 12 months, or they would be sentenced to six weeks of incarceration. Unanimously, they all opted to go to prison.
Kenney’s actions also saw her going on hunger strikes while imprisoned. This led to her being force-fed on several occasions, becoming another victim of what was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. This was an Act of Parliament allowing hunger-striking prisoners who supported women’s suffrage to be temporarily released to regain their health. Following this, they would be arrested once more and made to finish out the remainder of their sentences.
And as Kenney’s life and work have had a significant bearing upon the women’s rights movement, she has naturally been the subject of some study. It was not until September 2018, however, that the discovery of a never-before-seen letter written by Kenney was announced. This note had been retrieved by University of Oxford researcher Lyndsey Jenkins from a Canadian collection.
Kenney had penned the letter in 1905, during the day following her release from the three-day sentence she had served for disrupting the meeting attended by Churchill. It’s said that the item could be the earliest known letter written by a suffragette involved in direct action. The intended recipient, meanwhile, was Kenney’s sister Nell, who later emigrated to Canada.
“You may be surprised when I tell you I was released from Strangeways yesterday morning,” Kenney had said to her sister in the message. Strangeways was the Manchester prison where the suffragette had been locked up. She also wrote that she was aware that one of her other sisters was “awfully angry” about the arrest; still, she had the backing of others, having been met by 100 supporters as she left imprisonment.
“At this moment, [suffragettes] don’t know what’s going to happen, that they’re going to be successful,” Jenkins told the BBC, highlighting the risks that Kenney took in her actions. “[Kenney had] risked everything. This could be the worst mistake of her life. She doesn’t know there’s going to be a positive reaction.”
After writing the letter, Kenney continued her campaigning, becoming the de facto leader of the suffragettes from 1912 to 1914. Then, in 1918, property-owning women over 30 were given the vote in the U.K., with suffrage for all women aged 21 and over finally arriving in 1928.