We have many people to thank for the important role they played in establishing the right of women to vote in the United Kingdom. Three such people are sisters Annie, Jessie and Nellie Kenney, whose actions were invaluable to the fight for woman’s suffrage. Ancestry genealogist Simon Pearce explores their inspiring story and the records that have helped us learn more about their experiences.
Annie Kenney (1879-1953)
Born in Springhead, Saddleworth (now Greater Manchester) in 1879, Ann, or Annie as she was known, was one of 12 children born to Horatio Nelson Kenney and Ann Wood. Horatio and Ann married in Leesfield in 1873 and had eight daughters and four sons.
According to the 1891 census, the Kenney family were then living at 8 Walkers Court, Springhead. At that time, 11-year-old Annie and her sisters, Alice, Sarah Ellen (Nellie) and Mary were employed in the textile industry as cotton frame tenters; their eldest brother Rowland and their father were also employed in the cotton industry. Annie states in her autobiography, Memoirs of a Militant:
‘When I was ten years of age a change came into my life. My mother announced to me that I was to work in a factory. I was to join the army of half-timers; to work in the factory half the day and attend school the other.’
In 1892, like so many others of her age, Annie left school aged 13 to work full-time in the mill.
The year 1905 was pivotal for Annie. In early 1905 her mother Ann died; shortly after, Annie met Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and co-founder of the Woman’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and was introduced to the notion of women’s suffrage. Inspired by what they said, Annie held a meeting for Christabel among the female factory workers of Oldham and Lees to drum up support for the movement.
October 1905 brought Annie’s first arrest for obstruction during a meeting attended by Sir Edward Grey and Winston Churchill. Christabel and Annie pressed the speakers about women’s suffrage and unfurled a banner stating: ‘Votes for Women.’ She was imprisoned for three days, after which she moved into the Pankhursts’ home at Emmeline’s invitation to work full time for the campaign.
In 1906, on the Pankhursts’ suggestion, Annie moved to London to continue her work with the militant movement that concentrated on civil disruption to bring attention to their cause. Along with Minnie Baldock, Sylvia Pankhurst and several local women, Annie formed the Canning Town branch of the WSPU.
Annie was arrested 13 times in total and the England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906−1914 collection, available on Ancestry, provides a fascinating insight into six of the times Annie was arrested and tried during this period. The first arrest and trial date recorded in the collection is dated 4 July 1906. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith refused to receive a deputation from the WSPU to discuss women’s suffrage, Annie led a group of women to visit Asquith unannounced. She continuously rang Asquith’s doorbell, resulting in her arrest, along with two women who came to her aid. The Manchester Guardian reported the following day that Annie and two other women were charged with ‘disorderly behaviour’ and arrived at court in a motor car bearing the inscription ‘Votes for Women.’ Annie was then sentenced to six weeks in prison.
Annie’s actions received attention in the global press. An article published in The Lexington Herald on 2 September 1906, a month before her second arrest and trial (as noted in the England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906−1914 collection) has the headline: ‘The Joan of Arc of the Woman Suffrage Movement.’ The article contains a quote by British newspaper editor W.T. Stead, a close friend of Annie’s who she stated was ‘almost a father’ to her:
‘No one has yet appeared on the political platform so fearless, so resourceful, so resolute.’
In 1907 Annie moved to Bristol, becoming Bristol Organizer for the WSPU, and later took on the whole of the West of England. It was in Bristol that Annie was recorded in the 1911 census. As part of the campaign for women’s suffrage, many suffragettes protested by refusing to be counted in the 1911 census, for instance, by staying out on the census night to avoid being counted. Annie states in her memoirs that: ‘We all refused to fill in our census papers, as a protest against our not being recognized as citizens.’ True to her words, Annie’s census form contains the statement ‘Information Refused’ and the enumerator appears to have recorded Annie’s occupation as ‘Suffragette.’
In 1912, Annie became leader of the WSPU while Emmeline Pankhurst was in prison and Christabel was exiled in Paris. Three further arrests for 1913 are recorded in the England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906−1914 collection. Though details are not given, in her book Annie reveals the initial arrest and trial was for ‘inciting to riot.’ Though sentenced for three years, she was let out after a few days every time due to the suffragette policy of hunger strike when imprisoned and the government’s ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ whereby hunger-striking suffragettes were released when they became ill then were re-arrested once they recovered.
At the advent of the First World War, the WSPU halted militant activities and shortly after Britain declared war on Germany, in August 1914, Annie sailed to Boston, Massachusetts. Annie was travelling with Mary Batten-Pooll and was recorded on the passenger list as a ‘lecturer writer.’ On the second page of Annie’s entry in the passenger list is the following, standard question: ‘Ever in prison or almshouse, or institution for care and treatment of the insane, or supported by charity?’ Annie recorded ‘Yes’ in relation to her previous arrests. This was perhaps something that passengers looking for a new life in America or wishing to get past immigration without a hitch were not willing to disclose but is something Annie did not shy away from. Under ‘identifying marks’ the entry also reveals that Annie’s left middle finger was missing, an injury sustained while working in the textile factory from childhood, testifying to the sometimes brutal working conditions in these mills.
The nature of Annie’s visit to the United States was a lecture tour across the country, addressing ‘Suffragettes and helping them in their activities’, as she wrote in her memoirs. The Santa Cruz Evening News reported on 21 November 1914: ‘Hunger-Strike Heroine Comes to Visit Land Where the Women Vote’, complete with a photo of Annie and Mary Batten-Pooll, the latter described as a bodyguard of Mrs [Emmeline] Pankhurst . At this stage, women in the US were allowed to vote in some states at a state level but were not granted the right to vote at a federal level until 1920.
Annie arrived back in England on 12 December 1914 aboard the Lusitania, the ocean liner that was sunk by a German U-boat the following May with the loss of over 1,100 passengers and crew. In July 1916 Annie took another voyage, this time to Melbourne, Australia. Women in South Australia were granted the right to vote in 1894 while all other states allowed non-indigenous women to vote from 1902. Annie was sent to Australia to ask Prime Minister Billy Hughes, a friend of Annie and Christabel’s, to return to England as Christabel felt he should be sitting on the War Council. Mr Hughes remained in Australia however and Annie returned to England in November of that year.
On 6 February 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed giving women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification the right to vote. Following the General Election held in December 1918, in which Christabel ran, Annie decided to leave the movement after years of fighting and dedication to women’s suffrage. In her memoirs Annie writes:
‘It was not long after the election that I had a feeling of exhaustion creeping over me…I met Christabel. We had a long talk, and I was free…And so my Suffragette pilgrimage was ended…The whole truth is summed up in this sentence – I could work no longer. I was exhausted to death, my nervous system called for rest and recuperation…’
Annie married James Taylor in Lancashire in 1920 and their son Warwick was born the following year. The family subsequently settled in Hertfordshire and can be seen living in Letchworth in the 1939 England and Wales Register. Annie died in 1953, aged 73.
Annie was not the only Kenney sister involved in the women’s suffrage movement, however.
Jessie Kenney (1887-1985) and Sarah Ellen “Nellie” Kenney (1876-1953)
What is particularly striking about Annie’s entry in the England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906−1914 collection is that she appears next to her sisters Jessie and Nellie, who were arrested and tried in 1908 and 1907 respectively. Seeing all three sisters recorded one after the next emphasises the contribution this family made to the cause of women’s suffrage.
Jessie was Annie’s younger sister and was baptised in Leesfield in July 1887. Jessie also joined the WSPU and moved to London where she became an organiser in the movement. In Annie’s memoirs she states about her sister following her arrival in London:
‘I had faith in Jessie…I knew she had a fund of common sense, extraordinary sound judgement for her years, that she was brave, and that her loyalty would remain unshaken…My sister Jessie played a unique part in the Movement…’
Jessie’s court appearance is dated 1 July 1908 in the England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906−1914 collection. According to an article published in the Manchester Guardian the following day, there had been a ‘suffragist demonstration in Parliament Square and Whitehall’ and the women arrested, including Jessie, were charged with disorderly conduct: ‘Jessie Kenney was ordered to find a £20 surety or go to prison for a month.’ True to the movement, Jessie chose imprisonment.
As noted, the WSPU halted militant activity during WWI and turned its attention to the war effort. Jessie travelled to the United States in connection with Mrs Pankhurst’s relief work for Serbia, which had been hit by a hard winter and plague. Jessie was part of the advanced party. On 30 December 1915 Jessie arrived in New York, having sailed from Bordeaux, France aboard the Rochambeau. Although Germany had suspended unrestricted submarine warfare, the sinking of the Lusitania in May was a warning of what could happen when crossing the Atlantic. On the passenger list, Jessie’s next of kin or ‘nearest relative’ was recorded as her sister Annie Kenney, of Mecklenburgh Square, London.
An article published in the Evening Star, Washington, DC, on 17 February 1916 stated the following:
‘Miss Kenney explained that the object of the mission is to thank the American people for what they already have done for Serbia in curtailing epidemics and helping the sick and wounded, as well as giving assistance to thousands of refugees. Another object of the mission, said Miss Kenney, is to ask the American public to continue helping refugees…’
The elder sister of the three, Sarah Ellen, or Nellie as she was known, was also a member of the WSPU and was arrested and tried on 14 February 1907 for her leading role in a large-scale demonstration on the House of Commons.
Nellie emigrated to Canada in 1909 and married Frank Randall Clarke in Montreal. Some women in Canada were permitted to vote in federal elections from 1917 and the franchise was extended in 1919.
Caroline “Kitty” Kenney (1880-1952) and Jane “Jennie” Kenney (1884-1961)
Annie’s two younger sisters, Kitty and Jennie also caught our attention. They don’t feature in the England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906-1914 collection but they do have an important connection to the women’s suffrage movement in a supporting role. Both were trained teachers and studied the practices of Maria Montessori. Their Montessori school in West London was also used to shelter suffragettes who had been released from prison under the Cat and Mouse Act.
Kitty and Jennie emigrated to the United States in September 1916, also braving the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, aboard the Orduna. Their brother Reginald was recorded as their next of kin or nearest relative on their passenger list entries.
The sisters appear in the 1920−1940 United States censuses and taught in schools in New York and Pennsylvania. By 1940 the sisters had retired and settled in California, where they were described as Principals of a Private School.
Annie Kenney, Memoirs of a Militant (London, England: Edward Arnold & Co., 1924).