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.
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.
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