Oxford historian discovers new letter sent by suffragette

The letter was written in 1905 by Annie Kenney, the first suffragette to be imprisoned in the campaign for the vote

Annie Kenney (left) alongside fellow WSPU member Christabel Pankhurst (right)

An Oxford historian has discovered a previously unknown letter sent by Annie Kenney, the first suffragette to be jailed in the campaign for the vote.

The letter, written in 1905, describes Kenney’s experience of being held in, and released from, a Manchester prison, alongside some details of the reaction to her imprisonment.

Dr Lyndsey Jenkins, a history lecturer at Oxford, found the letter during her research work into the Kenney family. The letter was uncovered in an archive in Canada, where Annie Kenney’s sister emigrated.

Jenkins told the BBC: “We don’t have anything like this before.”

Kenney was a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), alongside other prominent feminists such as Christabel Pankhurst and Flora Drummond. It has been claimed that this letter is the earliest known correspondence from a women involved in militant protests.

Kenney spent three days in jail, after heckling at a Liberal rally attended by Winston Churchill in Manchester, shouting: “Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?”.

Reflecting on the significance of Kenney’s time in prison, Jenkins said: “This is the first account by a woman about what it’s like to go to prison for the vote. At this moment, they don’t know what’s going to happen, that they’re going to be successful.”

Writing in the letter, Kenney recalls that “there were over 100 people waiting” outside Strangeways prison when she was released, and another 2000 had attended a protest meeting in Manchester.

According to Jenkins however, this response to Kenney’s imprisonment was never inevitable.

Jenkins said: “She’s risked everything. This could be the worst mistake of her life. She doesn’t know there’s going to be a positive reaction.

“Going to prison was an incredibly difficult step for these women. It’s a really shocking thing to do, a very radical move. They don’t know it’s going to pay off.”

Helen Pankhurst, the author and women’s rights activist who is also the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, 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.”

The University have reacted to the discovery of the letter by posting the news on their Twitter and Instagram feeds.

The letter has been loaned by the British Colombia Archives, and will be put on display at a gallery in Kenney’s hometown of Oldham from 29th September.