Turbulent Londoners: Jessie Kenney, 1887-1985

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Jessie Kenney, younger sister of Annie Kenney, the best-known working class member of the Women’s Social and Political Union.


Jessie Kenney

Jessie Kenney (Source: Unbound).

Most people who are familiar with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) know about Annie Kenney, the charismatic working class organiser from Oldham in Greater Manchester. What fewer people know is that Annie’s sisters were also involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Annie’s younger sister, Jessie, was also a full-time organiser for the WSPU, although she had a different skill set to Annie.

Jessie Kenney was born in Oldham in 1887, the ninth of 12 children. When she was 13, she left school to start working in a cotton mill, although she continued her education through evening classes. In 1905, she went with her sister Annie to the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club to listen to Teresa Billington-Grieg and Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s suffrage. After that, both sisters joined the WSPU. Annie, eight years older than Jessie, was a charismatic and engaging speaker. Jessie’s skills were more organisational, and in 1906 she began working for the WSPU full time as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence‘s secretary.

Jessie used her organisational skills to great effect, arranging deputations to visit politicians and interrupt meetings. On the 23rd of February 1909 Jessie took advantage of a loophole that allowed ‘human letters’ to be sent through the Royal Mail to send Daisy Soloman and Elspeth McClellan to the Prime Minister from the Strand Post Office. In October 1910, she organised the WSPU’s campaign during the Walthamstow by-election. In 1912, she did the same in South Hackney.

Jessie did not just organise WSPU actions, she also took part in them. She was imprisoned for a month after being arrested at a protest in Parliament Square on the 30th of June 1908. On the 10th of December 1909 she disguised herself as a telegraph boy in order to try and access the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith at a public meeting in Manchester. On the 5th of September 1910, along with Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth, she accosted Asquith and Herbert Gladstone whilst they were play golf.

Jessie Kenney's office

Jessie Kenney’s office in the WSPU headquarters in Clement’s Inn, London. The picture was taken by an H. Seargeant in July 1911 (Source: Museum of London).

In 1913 Jessie was taken ill and sent to Switzerland to recover. She didn’t destroy her papers before she left, and evidence that the authorities found in her flat was used to convict the WSPU’s chemist, Edwy Clayton, to 21 months in prison for his role in the group’s arson campaign. In 1914, Jessie went to stay with Christabel Pankhurst, who was living in hiding in Paris. Between July and August, she travelled to Glasgow once a week to make sure the WSPU’s newspaper, The Suffragette, was published successfully.

When Britain joined the First World War in August 1914, Jessie threw herself into the war effort with the rest of the WSPU. In 1915, she travelled to America to organise the early stages of the Pankhurst’s Serbian Mission. The following year, she helped to organise the WSPU’s War Work Procession in London, encouraging women to join the war effort. In 1917, Jessie travelled to Russia with Emmeline Pankhurst to meet with the Provisional Government and try and persuade them to keep Russia in the war.

After the war, Jessie worked for the American Red Cross in Paris. She decided she wanted to be a Radio Officer on a ship, and trained at the North Wales Wireless College. She got a first class certificate in Radio Telegraphy, but was unable to get a job in such a male-dominated industry. Instead she worked as a steward on cruise liners before settling in Battersea and working as an administrative secretary in a school. She died 1985.

Jessie Kenney may not be as famous as her sister, but there is no doubt that she worked just as hard to win women the right to vote. Her skills kept her out of the spotlight, but she made an invaluable contribution to the WSPU and deserves just as much recognition as any other woman who campaigned for the right to vote.

References and Further Reading

ArchivesHub. “Papers of Jessie Kenney.” No date, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/046b1a57-c944-3de8-bc81-00176e398001

Simkin, John. “Jessie Kenney.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/WkenneyJ.htm

Wikipedia, “Jessie Kenney.” Last modified 15 August 2018, accessed 9 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Kenney

Mill Girls and Militants at Preston’s Flag Market and the Harris Museum

The centenary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK has inspired a huge variety of creative outputs, including books, exhibitions, and even a few of my own blog posts (see everything I’ve written about Vote 100 here). On 27th of October, I went to see a performance piece that creatively engaged with the suffrage centenary in an entirely different way. Mill Girls and Militants is inspired by Lancashire’s suffrage stories, and created by Ludus, a Lancaster-based dance development charity.

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Mill Girls and Militants on the Preston Flag Market on Saturday 27th October 2018 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance took place in Preston’s Harris Museum, and on the Flag Market outside. A combination of music and dance, the performance was the culmination of a summer of activities and research designed to connect women in Preston, Lancaster, and Burnley with local suffrage history. It was performed by the Ludus Youth Dance Company and local community groups, and was recorded with special Virtual Reality cameras, which means the performance will be available as a VR experience, increasing the number of people who can experience it and creating a teaching resource.

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A defiant group of suffragettes on the second floor of the Harris Museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance began on the Flag Market, with a wonderful rendition of ‘Nana was a Suffragette,’ a song written by Jules Gibb. Dancers then took on the role of the women of Lancashire, working their shift in the mill as word of a pro-suffrage meeting spreads. Beyond that, the ‘narrative’ became less easy to follow (for me, anyway!). The audience followed the women into the Harris Museum, where groups performed on three different floors. We were all then evicted from the museum, replicating women’s experiences of being banned from museums and art galleries after suffragettes damaged exhibits. One of the most famous examples is the slashing of The Rokeby Venus, a painting by Diego Delazquez, in the National Portrait Gallery by Mary Richardson in 1914. We were led back to the Flag Market, where the ‘protest’ continued. Each of the earlier sections had been performed by smaller groups, but this one involved the whole cast, communicating a real sense of collective power. The choir sung again, and the performance culminated with the whole cast flipping their aprons around the reveal the flags and colours of various pro-suffrage organisations.

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The flags of different suffrage organisations were revealed as part of the performance’s finale (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t often ‘get’ modern dance performances, I struggle to connect with the story they are telling, or the emotion they are trying to convey. And I will admit that there were parts of Mill Girls and Militants that I didn’t understand. However, I enjoyed the performance, which was definitely the most creative way that I have seen the suffrage centenary engaged with over the last 12 months, and I can see its potential for engaging the general public. Lots of people who were in town for other reasons stopped to see what was going on, and who knows, perhaps a few of them went home and did a bit of research on Edith Rigby or Selina Cooper, or any of Lancashire’s suffrage campaigners. I also liked the way that Mill Girls and Militants used the space of Preston’s city centre; the Flag Market is a large open space which has probably witnesses hundreds of protests over the years, and the more enclosed spaces of the Harris Museum created a completely different atmosphere.

Thanks to the VR experience that is being produced of the performance, Mill Girls and Militants is not yet over. It will be interesting to see how this next stage of the project develops, and whether it is as effective in virtual reality as it was in real life.