Ann “Annie” Kenney (13 September 1879 – 9 July 1953) was an English working-class suffragette and socialist feminist. She became a leading figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), co-founding its first branch in London with fellow suffragette Minnie Baldock.
Annie attracted the attention of the press and public in 1905 when she and Christabel Pankhurst were imprisoned for several days for assault and obstruction, after heckling Sir Edward Grey at a Liberal rally in Manchester on the issue of votes for women; they were the first two suffragettes to serve prison sentences. The incident is credited with inaugurating a new phase in the struggle for women’s suffrage in the UK, with the adoption of militant tactics.
Annie Kenney was born in Springhead, Saddleworth, in Oldham, to a working-class family. She was born to parents Horatio Nelson Kenney (1849–1912) and Anne Wood (1852–1905), the fifth in a family of twelve children. She was one of seven sisters, the others being Sarah (Nellie), Jessica (Jessie), Jane (Jennie), Alice, Caroline (Kitty) and Clara.[a]Clara died in 1891 at the age of five months. Annie’s parents encouraged reading, debating and socialism; three of her sisters became teachers and a brother became a businessman. Her brother Rowland Kenney became the first editor of the Daily Herald in 1912.
Annie started work in a cotton mill at the age of ten as a half-timer, which meant that she worked in the mornings and attended school in the afternoon. She began full-time employment at the age of thirteen, working 12-hour shifts from six in the morning. Employed as a weaver’s assistant, or “tenter”, part of her job was to fit the bobbins and attend to the strands of fleece when they broke; during one such operation, one of her fingers was ripped off by a spinning bobbin. She remained at the mill for fifteen years, involving herself in trade-union activities, furthering her education through self-study and – inspired by Robert Blatchford’s publication, The Clarion – promoting the study of literature among her work colleagues. She attended church regularly and sang in a local choir, the Oldham Clarion Vocal Union.
When Annie’s mother died in 1905, she and six of her siblings remained with her father at 71 Redgrave Street, Oldham.
Annie became actively involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) after the premature death of her mother Ann, at the age of fifty-three in January 1905, when she and her younger sisters heard Teresa Billington-Greig and Christabel Pankhurst speak at the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club in 1905. Annie described Billington’s message as “a sledgehammer of cold logic and reason” but that she liked Christabel, and was invited to meet her mother (Emmeline Pankhurst) a week later; the anticipation made Annie feel that she “lived on air; I simply could not eat … I instinctively felt a great change had come”. This resulted in weekly visits on her half-day off to be trained in public speaking and to collect leaflets on women’s suffrage, which Annie and her sister Jessie handed out to women working in the mills in Oldham.
During a Liberal rally at the Free Trade HallThe Free Trade Hall in Peter Street, Manchester, England, was a public hall constructed in 1853–1856 on St Peter's Fields, the site of the Peterloo Massacre, and is now a Radisson hotel. , Manchester, in October 1905, Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst interrupted a political meeting attended by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey to shout: “Will the Liberal government give votes to women?” After unfurling a banner declaring “Votes for Women” and shouting, they were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction; Pankhurst was taken into custody for a technical assault on a police officer after she spat at him to provoke an arrest (although she wrote later that it was a dry spit, more of a “pout”). Kenney was imprisoned for three days for her part in the protest. Annie and Christabel thus became the first two suffragettes to serve prison sentences.
Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in her autobiography that “this was the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England, or for that matter in any other country … we interrupted a great many meetings … and we were violently thrown out and insulted. Often we were painfully bruised and hurt.”
With Minnie Baldock, Annie formed the first London branch of the WPSU in Canning Town in 1906, holding meetings at Canning Town Public Hall. In June that year Annie, Adelaide Knight and Jane Sparborough[b]“Sparborough” is the name recorded in her official arrest records, but her name has also been given as “Sbarboro” and “Sbarbara”. were arrested when they tried to obtain an audience with H. H. Asquith, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Offered the choice of six weeks in prison or giving up campaigning for one year, Kenney chose prison, as did the others.
Annie rose through the hierarchy of the WSPU to become its deputy leader in 1912. The following year she and Flora Drummond arranged for WSPU representatives to speak with the leading politicians David Lloyd George and Sir Edward Grey. The meeting had been arranged with the proviso that these were working-class women representing their class. They explained the terrible pay and working conditions that they suffered and the hope that a vote would enable women to challenge the status quo in a democratic manner. Alice Hawkins from Leicester explained how her fellow male workers could choose a man to represent them while the women were left unrepresented.
Annie’s militancy resulted in her being subjected to force-feeding many times, but she remained determined to confront the authorities and highlight the injustice of the Cat and Mouse ActFormally known as The Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 was intended to deal with the public outcry resulting from the treatment of suffragettes who went on hunger strike while in prison. . A suffragette nickname for the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, it allowed prisoners who were ill (especially from hunger strike or force feeding, to be released on licence for a period, until well enough to be returned to prison to complete their sentence. On one occasion in January 1914 after she had just been released from prison and was very weak, it was reported in The Times that at a meeting chaired by Norah Dacre Fox, the WSPU general secretary at Knightsbridge Town Hall:
Miss Kenney was conveyed to the meeting in a horse ambulance; and she was borne into the meeting on a stretcher, which was raised to the platform and placed on two chairs. She raised her right hand and fluttered a handkerchief and, covered with blankets, lay motionless watching the audience. Later, her licence under the “Cat and Mouse” Act was offered for sale. Mrs Dacre Fox stated that an offer of £15 had already been received for it, and the next was one of £20, then £25 was bid, and at this price it was sold. Soon afterwards Miss Kenney was taken back to the ambulance. Detectives were present, but no attempt was made to rearrest Miss Kenney, whose licence had expired.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst called an end to suffragette militancy, urging the women to become actively involved in war work by taking on jobs that had traditionally been regarded as in the male preserve, as most of those men were now absent at the front. This was set in train through the pages of The Suffragette, relaunched on 16 April 1915 with the slogan that it was “a thousand times more the duty of the militant Suffragettes to fight the Kaiser for the sake of liberty than it was to fight anti-Suffrage Governments”. In late 1915 Kenney accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst, Flora Drummond, Norah Dacre Fox and Grace Roe to South Wales, the Midlands and Clydeside on a recruiting and lecture tour, encouraging trade unions to support war work.
Annie had a succession of close female friends within the suffragette movement. She would share a bed with Mary Blathwayt, Clara Codd and Adela Pankhurst. She and Christabel Pankhurst went on holiday to Saak together, but it is unclear if that relationship was ever physical. Mary Blathwayt noted in her diary Kenney’s several female sleeping partners when she stayed at the Blathwayt’s home, Eagle House, perhaps motivated by jealousy. Annie was indulged by the Blathwayts and was a frequent visitor to Eagle house; they paid for presents and watches, and paid the medical and dentistry bills for both her and her sisters.
Annie married James Taylor (1893–1977) and settled in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, after women over thirty won the vote in 1918. A son, Warwick Kenney Taylor, was born in 1921. She died of diabetes at the Lister Hospital in Hitchin on 9 July 1953 aged 73, and her funeral was conducted according to the rites of the Rosicrucians; her ashes were scattered by her family on Saddleworth Moor.
In 1999, Oldham Council erected a blue plaque in her honour at Lees Brook Mill in Lees, near Oldham, and where Kenney may have worked. On 14 December 2018 a statue, funded by public subscription, was unveiled close to the site of the former Oldham Town Hall.
Annie’s name and image, along another 58 women and men who supported women’s suffrage, are etched on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.
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