Jessie Kenney

Jessie Kenney

Jessie Kenney, the daughter of Nelson Horatio Kenney and Anne Wood, was born at Lees, near Oldham, in 1887. Jessie was one of eleven children. When Jessie reached the age of 13 she began work in a local cotton mill. However, she continued to study at evening classes, which included taking typing lessons.

In 1905 Jessie and her older sister, Annie Kenney, went to a meeting of the Oldham Trades Council organised by the Independent Labour Party, that was addressed by Christabel Pankhurst and Teresa Billington-Greig. Jessie and Annie were so impressed by these speeches that they decided to join the recently formed Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU was often accused of being an organisation that existed to serve the middle and upper classes. When the WSPU decided to open a branch in the East End of London, she was asked to leave the mill and become a full-time worker for the organisation. Annie joined Sylvia Pankhurst in London and they gradually began to persuade working-class women to join the WSPU.

In 1906 Jessie was invited to become the private secretary to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. According to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999): "By the time she was 21 she was the Women's Social and Political Union's youngest organizer, working from Clement's Inn, arranging meetings, publicity stunts, interruptions of cabinet ministers' meetings and, as time passed, acts of militancy." She had different skills from her sister. Sylvia Pankhurst pointed out that Jessie was "eager in manner as her sister Annie, with more system and less pathos, and without any gift of platform speech."

On 30th June 1908 Jessie was arrested during a demonstration in Parliament Square and was sentenced to a month's imprisonment. This experience damaged her health and in 1910 she was taken on holiday to Switzerland by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. She also went to stay with Mary Blathwayt at her home at Eagle House near Batheaston.

On 5th September she was involved with Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth in assaulting Herbert Asquith and Herbert Gladstone while they were playing golf. Asquith was also attacked as he left Lympne Church that Sunday. Mary Blathwayt wrote in her diary that Howey and Wentworth were the WSPU's "two hooligans".

In October 1910 she was WSPU organiser at the Walthamstow by-election. She did the same job at the South Hackney by-election. According to Mary Blathwayt Jessie Kenny developed a "lung condition" and was sent abroad to recuperate in 1913. The following year she went to live with Christabel Pankhurst in Paris. However, between May and August she travelled every week to Glasgow, under the name, Mary Fordyce, in order to see The Suffragette through the press in the cellar where it was printed.

Vera Wentworth and Jessie Kenney attackingHerbert Asquith in September 1909
Vera Wentworth and Jessie Kenney attacking
Herbert Asquith in September 1909

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."

Annie Kenney reported that orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

Jessie Kenney loyally supported this policy during the First World War. In July 1916 she helped to organize the War-Work Procession. The following year she accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst to Russia where they held meetings with Alexander Kerensky and other leading figures in his Provisional Government in an attempt to keep the country in the war.

It seems that Kenney became disillusioned by the way David Lloyd George and his government treated women after the war. She wrote in her diary: We gained nothing by our patriotism. No money, no lasting position. By Armistice we were tired out, no homes, no jobs, no money, no cause. Forgotten."

After the war Jessie Kenney worked for the American Red Cross in Paris. She became the first woman to qualify as a ship's Radio Officer (1st Class certificate in wireless operating) but, being a woman, was not allowed to practise. Instead, she worked as a steward on cruise liners. In between her trips she lived with Annie Kenney at her home in Letchworth.

Kenney became a member of the Rosicrucian Order and after the Second World War she was active in the London chapter of the organization. She also became administrative secretary in a comprehensive school in Battersea.

Jessie Kenney died in 1985.