In 1905, Annie and Jessie were recruited to the cause of women’s suffrage after hearing Christabel Pankhurst addressing a meeting of the Oldham Trades Council. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, her mother, had founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Annie became a leading figure in the WSPU, moving to London to work with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East End. Annie’s exuberant personality made her a charismatic speaker and the archive contains texts of her speeches and records how she was used as an interlocutor with men and women in positions of power, for example future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.
In May 1906 Annie, dressed as a mill girl in clogs and shawl, led a group of women to the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, ringing the bell incessantly. She was arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment. This was the first of many arrests.
Annie’s autobiography recalls the strength of the commitment shown by the suffragettes. “It was an unwritten rule”, she wrote,”that there should be no concerts, no theatres, no smoking; work, and sleep to prepare us for more work, was the unwritten order of the day.”
The archive contains a number of Annie and Jessie's badges. One recalls the suffragettes' boycott of the 1911 census. Annie, then an organiser in Bristol, hired a caravan which she and several other suffragettes travelled in to avoid the census enumerator. She gave an interview explaining how they had taken a drive in the night air over the Clifton suspension bridge.
Annie had moved to Bristol in 1907 to work for the WSPU. It was here she met Mary Blathwayt and her family who owned Eagle House on the outskirts of Bath, where Annie’s Arboretum was planted.
Jessie followed her sister into the movement. She had keen logistical skills. Sylvia Pankhurst recalled she was as "eager in manner as her sister Annie, with more system and less pathos, and without any gift of platform speech”. Jessie arranged meetings and publicity stunts and, eventually militant acts.