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Eliza Adelaide Knight

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 1/13/2023

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

In 1905, Britain’s Prime Minister Asquith didn’t understand all the fuss about women’s suffrage. He’d made politically expedient promises here and there, of course, but he had no intention of giving women the right to vote. As 1932 biography notes, "he considered politics to be peculiarly the male sphere, and it offended his sense of decorum and chivalry to think of them [women] as engaged in the rough and tumble of this masculine business."


Naturally, voting rights activists of the time disagreed with his perspective and Asquith became a target of their public protests. In the summer of 1906, Adelaide Knight, along with fellow working-class activists Annie Kenney and Jane Sbarborough, traveled to the House of Commons and demanded audience with Asquith. The women were promptly arrested for disturbing the peace and given a choice: Six weeks in jail, or they could go free...provided they suspend all suffrage and activism work for an entire year.



Eliza Adelaide Knight was born in 1871 in London’s East End. Her family lived on Kenilworth Road in Bethnal Green where the squalid conditions had been the subject of debate amongst politicians and would-be philanthropists for decades. “Most houses built since 1800 were twostoreyed with no foundations, small and damp, of the cheapest timber and half-burnt bricks with badly pitched roofs, 'erected by speculative builders of the most scampy class,'” according to A History of the County Middlesex, published by Victoria County History, London in 1998. “Unmade roads turned to mud or dust by builders' carts, lack of sewerage, and overcrowding, together with the unhealthy effects of the weaving industry, produced a stunted and sickly population.”


Adelaide’s childhood was troubled one, sparse of much comfort. She was born with deformed thumbs, and after two childhood accidents, she needed crutches or sticks to walk for the rest of her life. Her father, an alcoholic, died by suicide when Adelaide was still just a child. Despite youth and disabilities, Adelaide worked, as did the majority children of the era—and most certainly the children of the poor.


“With the increased demand for work during the Victorian era and industrial revolution came more and more demanding roles for children to fulfill,” an informative leaflet by the Tameside Metropolitan Bourough states. “Many were used as cheap labour. Working long hours, children were often treated badly. Children started work as young as four or five years old. A young child could not earn much, but even a few pence would be enough to buy food.”

At age 23, Adelaide met Donald Adolphus Brown, a young sailor with similarly tragic beginnings. Donald was born in 1873 to a Guyanese petty officer of the British Royal Navy. When Donald was just 10, his father, who suffered from epileptic fits, murdered his mother in a crime the papers would call the Sheerness Murder. The man was deemed “insane” rather than guilty and spent the rest of his life in Broadmoor Hospital, then known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Donald became a merchant seaman and met Adelaide in 1894.


When the couple married, Donald took Adelaide’s name, calling himself Donald Adolphus Knight. Together, they had multiple children, but only one—daughter Winifred—would survive to adulthood through the 1902 smallpox outbreak and other perils of the era. Adelaide and Donald’s mixed-race marriage was already unusual for the time and the area, but they were further distinguished by the way they shared household chores. Donald shocked neighbors by doing the laundry and caring for the children.


The family settled in Canning Town, an area not far from Bethnal Green and no cleaner (“The opening of a railway station…in 1847 stimulated early jerry-built development, mostly without proper drainage, leaving the population prone to outbreaks of disease,” says cultural website Hidden London)—but employment was steadier. This employment, however, could also be quite dangerous. As Hidden London goes on to highlight, “The fastest phase of growth came after the 1880s, in the heyday of the Royal Docks. The area’s greatest employer was the Thames Iron Works, Victorian shipbuilders to the world and the original home of West Ham football club. Thirty-eight spectators died at the ironworks when the slipway collapsed at the launch of the warship HMS Albion in 1898.” (Donald would distinguish himself in 1919 by dragging a case of exploding rockets out of a depot, preventing significant death and damage. He was awarded a Carnegie Hero Medal by King George V in 1921.) 


In 1905, Adelaide joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organization of the Pankhursts, and Alice Paul, and so many other notable suffragettes. She became secretary of the East London Branch and it was in this role that she, along with Annie Kenney and Jane Sbarborough, demanded the attention of Prime Minister Asquith.

Adelaide Knight and husband Donald
Public Domain

After her arrest outside the House of Commons, she turned to her husband to discuss what to do with the choice she’d been given. Their daughter Winifred Langton recounts their conversation in a 2007 biography: "'What can I do Daddy? To draw back will encourage this intimidation. Can I count on your full support? It will be agonising to be away from you and our children, but with your help I can face this.' 'My dear Mama we have supported each other for many years we must not fail now that we are to be put to the test.'"


In the end, all three women chose six weeks at Holloway Prison rather than pause their suffrage work. Some sources quote Adelaide as declaring, “I refuse to barter my freedom to act according to my conscience, while my health permits me to fight on.”


Holloway Prison would play a significant role in the lives of England’s suffragettes. “Built in 1852, Holloway prison became a female-only site in 1903,” Historic England reports. “The building, an imposing castellated structure whose entrance was flanked by huge griffins holding keys in their claws, covered 10 acres of land in north London. Six wings radiated from a central tower, allowing for accommodation for 435 prisoners.” Its list of imprisoned suffragettes is long and storied.


According to Historic England, “Neither were the suffragettes all young, single and childless; grandmothers and young mothers and wives were among the inmates. Personal testimonies point to solidarity among the women, despite their different backgrounds. All the suffragettes were supposed to receive preferential treatment to ‘common criminals,’ but women were generally treated according to their social class.” For working-class Adelaide, this was bad—though not unexpected—news.


Her time in prison took a significant toll on her health, one that would impact the rest of her life. Yet, she rose each morning by singing The Red Flag, a socialist labor-organizing rallying song. 


After her release, Adelaide immediately returned to her activism, but she resigned from the WSPU in 1907. According to daughter Winifred, Adelaide was dismayed by the classism within WSPU’s ranks, including propositions that only women who owned property should be granted the vote, duplicating existing rules for voting that also disenfranchised working-class men and many men of color.


Sarah Jackson wrote for The Guardian in 2015, “Most of the big marches and demonstrations in London...were populated by women from the East End, many of whom routinely gave up their only free day in the week to walk to Westminster and back. Over the next few years, the London WSPU’s physical move west was mirrored by a move away from the interests of their first working-class support base, and many early members left.”


“Not all the women in the suffrage movement were fighting for [university] degrees,” 92-year-old suffragette Elizabeth Dean told the BBC in 1978. “We hadn’t a chance of getting a degree, we were working women, and each of us had our own private thoughts of what we wanted, what we thought was just, and what was worth fighting for.”


Adelaide and Donald joined the Adult Suffrage Society, an organization focused on universal suffrage, regardless of class, race, or property. She became the Canning Town branch secretary, even traveling to France to speak about workers’ and voting rights. Her poor health forced her to resign this position in 1909. 


Soon after, the Knight family relocated southeast to London’s Abbey Wood. Adelaide and her husband became involved in the local activist groups, including Women’s Cooperative Guild, the Independent Labour Party, and the Workers Educational Association. Her health, however, would never permit her to take on another leadership role.


Donald died in 1949 and Adelaide followed the year after. Winifred and her own daughter Fay Jacobson wrote about their impressive predecessors in a biography titled Courage: An Account of the Lives of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown. Winifred writes, “Their story might be of interest to others, as [my parents] played a significant role in a struggle which began before their time and continues into our own time. … [They] were campaigners for improved social support systems for the most vulnerable in society.”




Women’s Suffrage Resources: Adelaide Knight case study

East End Women’s Museum: Adelaide Knight, Leader of the First East London Suffragettes

Wikipedia: Adelaide KnightH.H. AsquithBethnal GreenThe Red Flag

Victoria Cross, The Men Behind the Medal: Donald A. Brown

Courage: An Account of the Lives of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown

Medium: Adelaide Knight, Survivor, Suffragette, and a Disabled Woman I would Love to Have Dinner with.

Woolwich Works: Making a Real Difference

British History Online: Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions from 1837 to 1875 Living in the Past: Victorian Children at Work

Historic England: Holloway Prison and the Fight for Freedom

Hidden London: Canning Town, Newham

Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, lord Oxford and Asquith by John A. Spender

The Guardian: The suffragettes weren’t just white, middle-class women throwing stones