Missive from a militant
A previously unknown letter from local suffragette, Annie Kenney, is now on public display for the very first time.
Working-class political activist and factory worker Annie Kenney played a key role in the suffrage movement, and the letter, written to her sister Nell in October 1905, sheds new light on the first prison sentences served by the suffragettes.
The letter was written following Annie’s release from Strangeways Prison in Manchester, where she had been imprisoned with Christabel Pankhurst. She comments on the warm reception she received, with more than 2,000 people gathering in support, and exclaimed that ‘Manchester is alive’. She was grateful for the support from her family, although worried that another sister, Alice, was ‘awfully angry’ about the incident.
Annie wrote the letter at the Pankhurst family home, 62, Nelson Street, Manchester. She became one of the Pankhurst’s most loyal supporters.
The letter has lain unknown for more than a century in the British Columbia Archives at the Royal British Columbia Museum, in Victoria, Canada. Nell Kenney, the recipient, had moved to Canada, and her papers had been filed under her married name, Sarah Ellen Clarke, so it had escaped attention. It was recently located by Lyndsey Jenkins, a historian from the University of Oxford, who was researching the lives of the seven Kenney sisters.
The letter is an exciting contribution to this celebration for some women gaining the vote through the 1918 Representation of the People Act and an important reminder of the role that local women played in securing that right.
Suffrage historian Dr Lyndsey Jenkins said: “Annie Kenney was one of the leading suffragettes but, like other working-class women who played a central part in the fight for the vote, her story and significance is often underestimated and poorly understood.
“This letter provides new insight into Annie’s private thoughts and feelings at this turning point in the campaign for the vote as well as showing the warm reception she received from the local community and other activists.
“This is an exciting and revealing document which deepens our understanding of the battle for suffrage and the women who fought it.”
Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, author, and a leading campaigner for women’s rights, said: “One hundred years on from the first women winning the vote we are still learning more about the remarkable women who led the campaign for us all to have that right.
“As this important and very personal letter from one sister to another shows, the campaign for suffrage involved high risks and huge personal costs – especially in these early stages when the cause was unpopular and the outcome uncertain.
“As we mark the centenary of their success, it is right that we remember their sacrifices and remind ourselves that women in the UK and around the world are still taking those risks to achieve true equality for all.”
Councillor Hannah Roberts, Elected Member Champion for Suffrage to Citizenship Programme, said: “I am delighted that this letter has come to light and it is great that we get to see it being exhibited in the birthplace of Annie Kenney herself.
“We are very lucky to have it on loan from Canada. It will make a lovely addition to the suffrage artefacts already held by Gallery Oldham and I hope people will go along to see this significant piece of Oldham’s suffrage history.”
“We are so pleased to be able to share this poignant letter with Gallery Oldham and their visitors,” said Professor Jack Lohman CBE, chief executive of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, “And to add something so personal to the important story of the suffrage movement. The BC Archives holds thousands of stories that connect us around the world, and Annie Kenney’s letter is an outstanding example of our shared histories.”
The letter is temporarily on display in our Oldham Stories exhibition. From the 29 September it will be become part of the Gallery’s new ‘Peace and Plenty? Oldham and the First World War’ exhibition.