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Annie Kenney's letter

A previously unknown letter from Annie Kenney, the working-class activist who became the first woman imprisoned for campaigning for the vote, is due to go on public display for the first time after being uncovered by Oxford historian Dr Lyndsey Jenkins during her research.

Revealing the personal impact of this iconic political protest, the letter sheds new light on the first act of militant suffrage and is an exciting contribution to this year’s centenary celebrations of the first women gaining the right to vote in Britain.

Written from the Pankhurst family home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, the letter was sent from Annie Kenney to her sister Nell in October 1905, informing her that ‘you may be surprised when I tell you I was released from Strangeways [prison] yesterday morning’. The letter offers an intimate insight into the complex and competing emotions that Annie experienced as she left prison. She expresses delight at the impact her unprecedented act had made in the local community and her gratitude at the support from most of her family, but also records how another sister Alice, was ‘awfully angry’ about the incident.

Annie had been sent to jail after she and Christabel Pankhurst had attended a political meeting demanding to know from minister Sir Edward Grey: ‘Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?’ The speaker refused to answer, and the women were thrown out of the hall before both being jailed after Christabel Pankhurst spat at a policeman. The incident is now widely regarded as the first militant action, and the women became instantly famous around the world, attracting huge public sympathy. With the first use of the demand ‘votes for women’ on a placard, the two women created one of the most memorable political slogans of all time, kick-starting a revolution.

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst with a 'Votes for Women' signAnnie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst with a 'Votes for Women' sign

Image credit: Wikicommons

The letter has lain unknown for more than a century. Nell Kenney later moved to Canada, and the document was for many years catalogued with general correspondence in the British Columbia Archives in Victoria. It was listed only as part of a collection belonging to Sarah Ellen Clarke, Nell’s full and married name, and, as such, had until now escaped wider attention. It was recently located by Dr Jenkins, who was researching the lives of the seven Kenney sisters as part of her DPhil research in Oxford’s Faculty of History.

Annie Kenney went on to become one of the most prominent leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). After Christabel Pankhurst fled to Paris in 1912, Kenney led the organisation through its most difficult and dangerous years. She served several prison sentences, went on hunger strikes that devastated her health, and eventually spent a year on the run from the authorities as a ‘Mouse’ released under the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. She was not active in politics after the vote was won for some women in 1918, but remained loyal to the Pankhursts and the WSPU for the rest of her life.

Dr 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.’

Annie’s letter shows the close and loving relationship among the Kenney family, whose background was in the mills of Oldham in Greater Manchester, and several of whom went on to have important careers in political, professional and public life. The youngest sister, Jessie, was another leading suffragette who also gained notoriety for her acts of daring: dressing as a telegraph boy to attempt to heckle then Chancellor David Lloyd George and as part of a trio who attacked Prime Minister Herbert Asquith on his holiday.

Nell Kenney, who received the letter, organised a mass protest in Nottingham that narrowly escaped becoming a riot. Two other sisters, Jane and Caroline, also supported the suffragettes’ work, but dedicated their lives to becoming some of the first Montessori teachers in the world, studying with Dr Maria Montessori herself and joining forces with Alexander Graham Bell to pioneer Montessori education in the United States. Meanwhile, their brother Rowland was a leading socialist and the first editor of the Daily Herald, before becoming a pioneer of political propaganda in the First World War.

Author Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst 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.’

The letter is on display at Gallery Oldham from 29 September to 12 January as part of the Peace and Plenty? Oldham and the First World War exhibition. It is on loan from the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, Canada.

Oldham Councillor Hannah Roberts, Elected Member Champion for the Suffrage to Citizenship Programme, said: ‘I am delighted that this letter has come to light, and how 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.’

Professor Jack Lohman, Chief Executive of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, added: ‘We are so pleased to be able to share this poignant letter with Gallery Oldham and its visitors, and to add something so personal to the important story of the suffrage movement. The British Columbia Archives hold thousands of stories that connect us around the world, and Annie Kenney’s letter is an outstanding example of our shared histories.’

Annie’s letter

62 Nelson Street,
Oct 17.05

My Dear Nellie

You may be surprised when I tell you I was released from Strangeways yesterday morning. There were over one hundred people waiting. I had a lovely boquet (sic) of flowers sent me from the Oldham Socialists. Miss Pankhurst is still there untill (sic) Friday. Manchester is alive I can assure you Last night a protest meeting was held for me in Stevenson Square over 2000 people were there Lenard (sic) Hall came to speak on our behalf the only thing I am sorry about is those at home and Kitty and Jennie and You, I cannot tell you how pleased I was to receive your letter and to find you so kind about it, I thought you would have been so indignant with me I cannot tell you anything here as there is so much to tell. I am staying at Pankhurst (sic) for an indefinite time of course I am able to send money home every week. I sent it last week so that is alright. Alice is awfully angry about it but I don’t blame her, I’m living in hope to repay her for it all. She is working for me yet, they are removing to morrow. I can’t be there but Jessie is away from work for a day or so. I will come and spend a weekend with you as soon as possible. I expect being at Middlesbourgh (sic) for a week or so, and I will write you from there,

Ever Your Loving Sis


Read about the story on the BBC News website.

Dome of the Rock

How did the ancient Middle East transform from a majority-Christian world to the majority-Muslim world we know today, and what role did violence play in this process? These questions lie at the heart of Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World (Princeton University Press), a new book by associate professor of Islamic history Christian C. Sahner. In a guest post for Arts Blog, Professor Sahner, from Oxford's Faculty of Oriental Studies, explores his findings. 

Although Arab armies quickly established an Islamic empire during the seventh and eighth centuries, it took far longer for an Islamic society to emerge within its frontiers. Indeed, despite widespread images of “conversion by the sword” in popular culture, the process of Islamisation in the early period was slow, complex, and often non-violent. Forced conversion was fairly uncommon, and religious change was driven far more by factors such as intermarriage, economic self-interest, and political allegiance. Non-Muslims were generally entitled to continue practising their faiths, provided they abided by the laws of their rulers and paid special taxes. Muslim elites sometimes even discouraged conversion, for when non-Muslims embraced Islam, they no longer had to provide these taxes to the state, and thus the state’s fiscal base threatened to contract. Compounding this was a belief among some that Islam was a special dispensation only for the Arab people. Thus, when non-Arabs converted, they were sometimes treated as second-class citizens, despised as little better than Christians, Jews, or other “infidels”.

This combination of factors meant that the Middle East became predominantly Muslim far later than an older generation of scholars once assumed. Although we lack reliable demographic data from the pre-modern period with which we could make precise estimates (such as censuses or tax registers), historians surmise that Syria-Palestine crossed the threshold of a Muslim demographic majority in the 12th century, while Egypt may have passed this benchmark even later, possibly in the 14th. What we mean by the “Islamic world” thus takes on new meaning: Muslims were the undisputed rulers of the Middle East from the seventh century onward, but they presided over a mixed society in which they were often dramatically outnumbered by non-Muslims.

It is against this backdrop that the phenomenon of Christian martyrdom took place. We know about these martyrs thanks to a large but understudied corpus of hagiographical texts written in a variety of medieval languages, including Greek, Arabic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian. Set in places as varied as Córdoba, the Nile Delta, Jerusalem, and the South Caucasus, they tell the lives of Christians who ran afoul of the Muslim authorities, were executed, and were later revered as saints. The martyrs were participants in this broader culture of conversion, but as their deaths make clear, they were also dissenters from this culture, individuals who protested Islamisation and attempted to reverse the tide of religious change.

The first and largest group consisted of Christians who converted to Islam but reneged and returned to Christianity. Because apostasy came to be considered a capital offence under Islamic law, they faced execution if found guilty. The second group was made up of Muslim converts to Christianity who had no prior experience of their new religion. The third consisted of Christians who were executed for blasphemy; that is, publicly reviling the Prophet Muhammad, usually before a high-ranking Muslim official. The martyrs were small in number – not more than around 270 discrete individuals between Spain and Iraq – a testament to the relative absence of systematic persecution at the time.

As a collection of texts, the lives of the martyrs represent one of the richest bodies of evidence for understanding conversion in the early medieval Middle East. Yet these sources must be treated with great caution. Saints’ lives are a notoriously formulaic genre, filled with reports of miracles, literary motifs, and theological polemics which can make it difficult to know what “really happened”. Reading the sources alongside contemporary Islamic texts, the book argues that many biographies have a strong basis in reality. At the same time, they were shaped by the literary, social and spiritual priorities of their authors, who were determined to create models of resistance for their flocks, who were increasingly tempted by the faith and culture of the conquerors.

Christian Martyrs under Islam describes a lost world in which Muslims and Christians rubbed shoulders in the most intimate of settings, from workshops and markets to city blocks and even marital beds. Not surprisingly, these interactions gave rise to overlapping practices, including behaviours that blurred the line between the Islam and Christianity. To ensure that conversion and assimilation went exclusively in the direction of Islam, Muslim officials executed the most flagrant boundary-crossers, and Christians, in turn, revered some of these people as saints.

St Stephen's House, Oxford

A brand new exhibition launches this Sunday, 9 September (1-5pm) at SJE Arts in Oxford, the concert and arts venue based at St Stephen’s House, one of Oxford University’s Permanent Private Halls.

‘Wartime at an Oxfordshire Monastery’ tells the First World War story of the community of monks once based at the site that the college now occupies, focusing on specific individuals associated with the monastery during wartime. As well as including profiles of members of the monastery itself, the exhibition features a local woodcarver and organist and communities of local nuns, explaining the contributions they made to the First World War, both at home and abroad.

Made possible by a National Lottery heritage grant, the exhibition marks the centenary of the First World War. Around 100 local schoolchildren, volunteers, teachers and academics were involved in the project, which was led by academic and local social historian Dr Annie Skinner, with Dr Serenhedd James.

The former monastery has been described as containing some of Oxford’s most interesting ‘hidden heritage’. Now largely hidden from view behind the modern-day façade of the Cowley Road, the stunning G F Bodley-designed church and monastery was once a key focal point in this area of the city.

The exhibition is one of the ways St Stephen’s House hopes to encourage more people to come and enjoy the site, following the successful development of a concert and arts venue in the college church and cloister, SJE Arts.

When: Sunday 9 September, 1-5pm, SJE Arts

Where: SJE Arts, 109a Iffley Road, Oxford OX4 1EH

The exhibition is also available digitally.

Image credit: Shutterstock

People admire those who build homes for the poor or donate mosquito nets to those at risk of malaria — but they don’t necessarily want them as friends or romantic partners, finds a new study by researchers at Yale University and the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Department of Experimental Psychology.

Asked to choose between do-gooders and those who place family members and friends first, subjects said they would rather spend time with those who made people close to them a priority, researchers report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

‘When helping strangers conflicts with helping family and kin, people prefer those who show favouritism, even if that results in doing less good overall,’ said Yale’s Dr Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology and senior author of the study.

The researchers created scenarios designed to test a tough moral dilemma: is it better to help a family member or a larger number of strangers? For instance, they asked whether a grandmother who wins $500 in the lottery should give it to her grandson to fix his car, or to a charity dedicated to combating malaria. In another case, a young woman has to decide whether to spend the day with her lonely mother, or building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

Although participants in the study perceived both choices as equally moral, when it came to looking for a spouse or a friend, they preferred those who helped their grandson or spent the day with mum.

‘Friendship requires favouritism — the key thing about friendship is that you treat your friends in a way you don’t treat other people,’ said Oxford’s Dr Jim Everett, first author of the study. ‘Who would want a friend who wouldn’t help you when you needed it?’

In contrast, this preference was reduced when participants were asked about qualities they wanted in a boss and disappeared when asked about desired traits in a political leader — a social role that requires impartiality.

‘A political leader who represented the interests of themselves or their family over the country would be disastrous,’ said Dr Everett.

According to the researchers, these findings suggest a roadblock for ‘effective altruists’ who argue we should donate money to charity to help relieve poverty and disease in the developing world rather than to a local group that would help fewer people.

The Hague

The last time Lien de Jong saw her parents was in the Hague, where she was collected at the door by a stranger and taken away to be hidden from the Nazis. She was raised by her foster family as one of their own, but a falling out after the war put an end to their relationship. What was her side of the story, wondered Oxford University's Professor Bart van Es, a grandson of the couple who looked after Lien.

Professor van Es, of St Catherine's College and Oxford's English Faculty, talks to Arts Blog about the journey that led to the publication of his new book, The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found.

How did you discover the story of Lien de Jong?

I had always known that my grandparents had been part of the Dutch wartime resistance and had sheltered Jewish children, but I had never looked into what actually happened. Then in November 2014 my eldest uncle died and I knew that if I did not pursue the matter now this history would be lost forever. Thanks to my mother’s maintaining of an old connection, I got to meet Lien, who was by that time over 80 and living in Amsterdam. As a young Jewish girl Lien had lived in hiding with my grandparents and after the war she had continued to live with them. However, a row in the 1980s had cut her off from the family, which meant that she and I had never met. Lien was cautious when we met in late December 2014, but, once trust was established, we struck up a powerful partnership. Lien agreed to work with me and shared a wealth of materials: letters, photographs, official documents, and also a poetry book that she kept up throughout the war. Through many tens of hours of recorded interviews, Lien shared a story that was immensely moving and far more complex than I could have imagined.

Can you describe the process of researching and writing the book?

Starting out from those interviews with Lien, this became an archival research project as well as a literary journey. In January 2015 I decided to visit the places of Lien’s childhood: her parents’ home in The Hague (now a physiotherapy gym), my grandparents' old address in Dordrecht (now in a deprived area inhabited mainly by recent immigrants), and a series of other hiding addresses across the Netherlands, including my mother’s home village, where Lien spent time. These places brought their own stories, which I then began to investigate. Among other things I spent a lot of time at the Dutch National Archives looking at the prosecution material on 230 Dutch police officers who were investigated after the war for their role in the Holocaust. What I ended up with was a huge amount of material: the intimate narrative of Lien’s life from childhood to old age combined with archival evidence on resistance networks, police collaboration, and the wider history of Jews in the Netherlands. The challenge was to put this into a single book.

How easy was it to combine academic research with such a personal story?

It was challenging to combine the two kinds of material I had to hand, and I had some sleepless nights over what I was doing. After various experiments I opted for a double narrative with one strand in the first person (describing my travels and the documentary evidence I encountered) and a second strand that was much more novelistic (written in the third person, voicing the childhood experiences of Lien). I’d never written in such an emotionally intense way before. It was exciting and all-consuming. At the same time it was important to remain academically objective: there could be no factual errors about what happened in the war and afterwards, both because of its historical importance and because there were real, still-living people involved.

Are there any moments from your conversations with Lien that particularly stand out?

The things that stand out for me are the documents that Lien has kept with her. For example, there is the letter that Lien’s mother wrote to my grandparents in August 1942, in which she gave up her child in the hope that Lien would survive the war even if the rest of the family could not. There is also the last letter that Lien ever wrote to her mother, which was not delivered because her parents were already in Auschwitz by the time it would have been sent via the secret post. Also very powerful are the wider stories of resistance activity that came to me in the course of my research. In one case a group of young Dutch women decided that the only way in which they could save Jewish babies would be to claim them as their own illegitimate children, fathered by German soldiers. This brought absolute safety to the babies, but also, of course, terrible shame to the women themselves.

In the book I try to answer some big questions, including:

  • Why was the Netherlands so compliant with the Nazis, so that 80% of the country’s Jews were killed, a far higher percentage than elsewhere in the West?
  • What was it that made some brave people (such as my grandparents) resist the Nazis?
  • What were the psychological consequences for survivors and rescuers?
  • And, most pressingly as far as The Cut Out Girl story is concerned, how could my grandmother (who rescued Lien and brought her up as her own daughter after the war) have ended up quarrelling with the person she saved from the Holocaust? How could she have sent her a letter, in July 1988, that cut Lien out of her life?

Answering those questions will, I hope, give a new perspective on what happened in World War II.

The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es is published by Fig Tree, 2 August, priced £16.99.