Adelaide Knight, leader of the first east London suffragettes

Photograph of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown
Photograph of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown

One of the most important figures in the east London women's suffrage movement at the turn of the century was Adelaide Knight. Eliza Adelaide Knight was born in 1871 and lived with her family on Kenilworth Road in Bethnal Green.

After a childhood injury she used crutches or a stick for the rest of her life, and endured repeated poor health.

She was described as highly intelligent, with a love of poetry, music and history.

Adelaide and Donald

In 1894 Adelaide married a sailor, Donald Adolphus Brown, the son of a Jamaican Royal Navy officer.

He shared Adelaide's political beliefs and supported her activism. They both joined the Independent Labour Party and he took Adelaide's surname and was widely known as Donald Knight.

As Adelaide found some tasks difficult and painful because of her injured hip, the couple shared domestic chores, including the weekly laundry.

Donald became well known in his own right in 1921 when he was awarded a medal after his quick thinking and bravery prevented an explosion at Woolwich Arsenal where he worked.

An early London suffragette

The first London branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was opened in Canning Town in 1906, and swiftly followed by branches in Poplar, Bow, Stepney and Limehouse.

Adelaide was secretary of the new WSPU branch in Canning Town in 1906. In a letter from the same year her friend Dora Montefiore refers to her as the “leader” of the working women in the WSPU.

In June 1906 she was arrested alongside Annie Kenney and another woman, Mrs Sparborough, when they tried to gain an audience with Herbert Asquith.

The women were sentenced to prison for six weeks unless they agreed to be 'bound over' for one year, that is, to behave themselves and give up their campaigning.

It was a difficult decision for Adelaide as she was in poor health, and the couple had two small children to care for, the youngest just 18 months old. In her biography their daughter Winifred Langton records an exchange between Adelaide and Donald:

"'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 prison. Adelaide said: "I refuse to barter my freedom to act according to my conscience, while my health permits me to fight on."

Although the prison conditions were terrible and her health suffered Adelaide maintained her resolve. She sang The Red Flag every morning and evening, and used her hair pins to scratch the lyrics on to the window sill.

After the WSPU

Despite her commitment to the cause, Adelaide resigned as branch secretary in March 1907 after becoming increasingly dismayed with the lack of democracy in the WSPU.

The following year she was elected to the West Ham Board of Guardians where she served until 1910. The family later moved to Greenwich.

Adelaide retained her socialist ideals and her friendship with Dora, in 1920 they both became founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Sources