Visible Women

A letter from the first militant suffragette has been discovered – read it here

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Moya Crockett
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Annie Kenney was one of the first suffragettes to be imprisoned for her activities. Now, a letter she wrote to her sister after being released from prison has been unearthed by a historian.

Born to a poor family in Yorkshire in 1879, Annie Kenney went on to play a pivotal role in the British women’s suffrage movement. Along with Christabel Pankhurst, the cotton mill worker became one of the first suffragettes to be imprisoned for militant activities in 1905, after they interrupted a political meeting attended by Winston Churchill to demand votes for women. Utterly committed to the suffragette cause and seemingly fearless, Kenney would be jailed 13 times in total over the next decade, and in 1912 was made deputy leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Recently, Kenney’s story has been the focus of greater attention: Stylist profiled her in our Suffragette issue, the actor Maxine Peake has backed calls for a statue of the “forgotten suffragette” in her hometown of Oldham, and she was a prominent character in Sylvia, The Old Vic’s hip-hop musical about Sylvia Pankhurst. But her sizeable contributions to the suffrage movement went relatively overlooked for many decades after women got the vote in 1918, her story eclipsed by those of her more famous friends Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Now, a letter from Kenney written to her sister Nell after her release from prison in October 1905 is due to go on public display for the first time. The letter was written from the Pankhursts’ family home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester (now the Pankhurst Centre museum), and details the rapturous reception Kenney received from her fellow suffragettes following her release.

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Annie Kenney photographed chalking “Votes for Women” on the pavement during a by-election in Hexham, Northumberland, 1907

“You may be surprised when I tell you I was released from Strangeways yesterday morning. There were over one hundred people waiting,” Kenney wrote.

“I had a lovely boquet [sic] of flowers sent me from the Oldham Socialists … Manchester is alive I can assure you.”

Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst’s interruption of the Liberal Party rally at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1905 is widely seen as the first act of suffragette militancy. 

After unfurling a banner reading ‘Votes for Women’ and demanding to know whether Churchill and his fellow Liberal politician Sir Edward Grey supported women’s right to vote, Kenney and Pankhurst were arrested and imprisoned – Kenney for three days, Pankhurst for one week. 

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Kenney (right) with her close friend and rumoured lover Christabel Pankhurst 

Kenney’s letter to Nell reflects the fact that her sister was sympathetic to the suffragettes’ cause. (Nell Kenney would later organise a mass pro-suffrage protest in Nottingham that almost turned into a riot.) However, Kenney also notes that not all of their siblings were pleased with her activism, and her sister Alice was particularly unhappy with Kenney’s involvement in the WSPU.

“I cannot tell you how pleased I was to receive your letter and to find you so kind about it,” Kenney wrote, referring to her imprisonment. “I thought you would have been so indignant with me … Alice is awfully angry about it but I don’t blame her.”

Nell Kenney moved to Canada in later life, taking her sister’s letter with her, and the document was catalogued with general correspondence in the British Columbia Archives in Victoria for many years. It went undetected for over a century, until its recent rediscovery by Oxford historian Dr Lyndsey Jenkins.

Dr Jenkins described the letter as “an exciting and revealing document which deepens our understanding of the battle for suffrage and the women who fought it”.

“Annie Kenney was one of the leading suffragettes, but, like other working-class women who played a central part in the fight for the vote, her story and significance is often underestimated and poorly understood,” she said. 

The letter is on display at Gallery Oldham from 29 September to 12 January as part of the Peace and Plenty? Oldham and the First World War exhibition. 

Annie’s letter

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Kenney smiles as she is arrested during a protest in 1913 

62 Nelson Street,

Manchester

Oct 17.05

My Dear Nellie

You may be surprised when I tell you I was released from Strangeways yesterday morning. There were over one hundred people waiting. I had a lovely boquet [sic] of flowers sent me from the Oldham Socialists. Miss Pankhurst is still there untill [sic] Friday. Manchester is alive I can assure you

Last night a protest meeting was held for me in Stevenson Square over 2000 people were there Lenard Hall came to speak on our behalf the only thing I am sorry about is those at home and Kitty and Jennie and You, I cannot tell you how pleased I was to receive your letter and to find you so kind about it, I thought you would have been so indignant with me I cannot tell you anything here as there is so much to tell.

I am staying at Pankhurst [sic] for an indefinite time of course I am able to send money home every week. I sent it last week so that is alright. Alice is awfully angry about it but I don’t blame her, I’m living in hope to repay her for it all. She is working for me yet, they are removing to morrow. I can’t be there but Jessie is away from work for a day or so.

I will come and spend a weekend with you as soon as possible. I expect being at Middlesbourgh [sic] for a week or so, and I will write you from there

Ever Your Loving Sis

Nan.

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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