HomeExhibits: A guided tour

Exhibits: A guided tour


Annie and Jessie Kenney

On 13 October 1905, the ‘Votes for Women’ banner was raised for the first time. The woman unfurling the banner, Annie Kenney, was an unlikely candidate for a place in history. She was a working class girl, who at the age of ten went to work in an Oldham mill. Despite her difficult beginnings – she even had a finger ripped off by a spinning bobbin – both she and her sister Jessie became leaders in the suffragette movement.

These pages tell their story. You will be able to learn more about Annie and Jessie’s life from childhood, their initial forays into activism – with a nineteen year old Jessie following her sister to London and becoming the youngest WSPU organiser. The girls had little formal education, but they showed a commitment to learning, as indeed did their wider family. Annie and Jessie wrote books and made speeches, often in hostile environments, with audiences catcalling, throwing rotten vegetables and, on occasion, rushing the stage. In joining the WSPU and opposing successive governments' position against granting women the right to vote, they stepped on the forefront of British political life and broke through the gender and class barriers their society confined them in. 

You will discover how Jessie assaulted the Prime Minister on a golf course, and assumed a false name to supervise the clandestine production of the banned Suffragette newspaper in Scotland. How Annie’s flat in London became the centre of militant activity, with women planning arson attacks, and her efforts to evade arrest. They were both committed to militant struggle and travelled the UK and the world to convince others in the righteousness of their cause.

Why were these women ready to sacrifice their freedom, health, and lives for the cause of women's suffrage? They underwent multiple arrests, court trials, and prison stays (Annie was imprisoned 13 times),  they were forcibly-fed and humiliated, their movements were restricted and their freedoms curbed. They were left depleted, and needing recuperation, from an experience that marked their bodies and souls for the rest of their lives.

During this struggle, they met many loyal friends, resulting in strong lifelong links with many of their suffragette comrades. The Kenney Papers shed light on these valued and rewarding relationships behind the scenes of militant struggle, and showcase militancy as a form of fellowship. Life-long correspondents included Christabel Pankhurst, Lady Constance Lytton; the Pethick Lawrences; Grace Roe and many others.

Their involvement in the suffragette cause catapulted them, particularly Annie, into the public eye, who endured the harm as well as the benefits of such attention. After the outbreak of World War I, the suffragettes ended their campaign of violence and worked with the government to further the war effort, changing their status from political outsiders to government allies. Annie  and Jessie worked with Prime Minister Lloyd George in a campaign to get women working in munition factories on the Home Front, and he valued he contribution immensely. Both sisters travelled extensively, on government tours to encourage women in allied countries to join the war effort.  At this stage of their life, they were distinctly insiders, part of the establishment, comfortably mixing with politicians, reformers and the aristocracy.

However, after the War, exhaustion and ill health lead them to retreat from political life and, at times, it seems, back into obscurity.  Jessie worked hard to qualify as a ship’s wireless operator, but she was unable to secure employment on account of her gender, taking a role as a ship’s stewardess instead. Annie married and had a son, Warwick Kenney-Taylor, but her later years were plagued by ill health. Both women had to fight to preserve their legacy and negotiate their public image, horrified at being caricatured simply as working class suffragettes.

Both Annie and Jessie had a complex relationship with spirituality and religion throughout their lives. A long-term member of the Rosicrucian Order, Jessie converted to Catholicism on her death bed; Annie remained a faithful and valued member of the Order to the last, having started her life as an Anglican. Their correspondence and Annie's unpublished spiritual autobiography show us the complex affective and intellectual facets of their religious thinking.

The Kenney Papers Archive was gifted to the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 1994 by Annie Kenney’s son, Warwick Kenney-Taylor. Material from other Kenney family members was deposited in subsequent years. 

We hope you enjoy discovering the story of this extraordinary family through some of Annie and Jessie’s own letters and objects.