Jessica ‘Jessie’ Kenney was born in Springhead, Oldham on 1 April 1887, the ninth child of Horatio Nelson Kenney and Ann Wood, and Annie Kenney's younger sister. She later wrote of her dislike of the mills which had 'swallowed up' her elder brothers and sisters and how she waited for them to return each evening through the red gate of their home.
Both parents worked in the nearby cotton mills. Ann, in particular, encouraged an atmosphere of learning and discussion in the household. Jessie remembered discussing hereditary v environment; free will and predetermination and reincarnation as well as the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
Jessie also worked in the mills, from the age of 13, and learned typing at night school.
Ann’s death in January 1905 devastated the family, and Jessie it as the point at which the family broke up. In 1906, aged 19, she followed Annie to London becoming secretary to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.
By 1908, Jessie was a paid organiser at WSPU’s Headquarters in Clements’ Inn and was arrested for the first time. she organised pageants and processions. In her office was a wardrobe containing disguises for suffragettes. In 1909, she ‘posted’ two delegates from Strand Post Office to the Prime Minister and later that year disguised herself as a telegraph boy to obtain access to H. H. Asquith at a public meeting in Manchester.
She was close friends with Vera Wentworth and Elsie Howey. On 5 September 1909, the three assaulted Prime Minister Asquith and the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone during a golf match and were imprisoned.
In 1910, Jessie worked on the organisation of the Hyde Park rally and became WSPU organiser in Walthamstow, but her activities took their toll on her heath and she travelled to Switzerland with Mrs Pethick-Lawrence to recuperate. In 1912, she moved to Paris to act as Secretary to the exiled Christabel Pankhurst, using the alias Constance Burrows. One of her tasks was to keep up production of the outlawed Suffragette newspaper and she travelled to Scotland on a weekly basis, using the alias Mary Fordyce to supervise its production.
During World War I, Jessie travelled to America on WSPU business. She returned to the UK in 1916 to organise the War Work Procession. In 1917, she accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst to Russia, on behalf of the British government. Their objective was to promote the mobilisation of Russian women in the war effort. She was with Christabel Pankhurst, at her flat in Knightsbridge, when the news came through that women had won the vote.
After World War I, Jessie moved to St Cloud near Paris where she worked for the American Red Cross. She returned to the UK and with her sisters’ financial help, Jessie went to the new North Wales Wireless College and in 1923 passed her First Class Certificate in Wireless Telegraphy. On her certificate, someone took a fountain pen and crossed out words such as ‘he’ and replaced them with ‘she’.
However, Jessie was unable to secure employment so became a ship’s steward in the 1930s for the Furness and Orient lines. Aboard ship, she read voraciously, and began to write articles on diverse topics, from reading choices on board ship to unsolved Lancashire murders. She also wrote accounts of her suffrage work, including her 1917 visit to Russia. Although these remained unpublished, manuscripts exist in the UEA archive.
After World War II, she became secretary and welfare assistant to Battersea County Secondary School until her retirement in Essex. She corresponded with former suffragettes and in the sixties was invited to a dinner hosted by MP Margaret Thatcher in honour of Theresa Garnett. In a 1968 interview in the Observer, she and other surviving suffragettes said 'Young women take it all for granted now - and so they should’. Jessie died at an old people’s home in Essex in 1985.
'I must not be just palmed off as Christabel's Secretary.' Jessie Kenney writing in 1950.