Fighting for women’s rights from Canning Town
PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 December 2016
Charles Dickens described Canning Town as “the child of the Victoria Docks” with industries in the area drawing in huge numbers of men and women working in often dangerous and unhealthy conditions.
Unsurprisingly, the town became a hotbed of political activity with the first London branch of a Manchester based women’s suffrage group - the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) - opening there in the early 20th century.
Leading that first group was one remarkable, but little known woman - Adelaide Knight.
Born in 1871 in Bethnal Green and married in 1894 to Donald Brown, the son of a Jamaican Royal Navy Officer, Adelaide was the first secretary of the militant organisation set up in 1903 to campaign for women’s rights.
Sarah Jackson, co-author of East London Suffragettes and co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum, told the Recorder about Adelaide’s fascinating life. She began by explaining why the branch opened in Canning Town.
“The WSPU moved there because Canning Town was a working class area with the people there being politically active.
“Adelaide was probably already involved in women’s suffrage groups so it would have made sense for the WSPU to tap into those existing groups.”
As the first leader of the East End suffragettes, Adelaide campaigned tirelessly to bring women the vote even choosing to go to prison for six weeks in 1906 rather than vow to give up her work after she was arrested for protesting outside future prime minister Herbert Asquith’s house.
“It was a difficult decision because they had seven children including a baby who was 18-months-old and they lived in relative poverty, but Donald said to her she must not give up and must not fail in her political work.” Sarah said.
Whilst imprisoned, to keep her spirits up, Adelaide sang the socialist anthem The Red Flag every day and wrote to her husband saying she would never give up.
No single event led Adelaide to become so politically active, but Sarah supposes there may be a link between her activism and her parents: her father drank heavily and was sometimes violent and her mother was a member of the temperance movement.
After a couple of years and a stand off with fellow suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, Adelaide left her influential role at the organisation, complaining it was undemocratic. The east London activists broke away from the WSPU which moved to west London to recruit more middle and upper class women, deemed to be richer, more influential and so more helpful to the cause.
“It was typical Edwardian snobbery,” Sarah added.
As well as class prejudice, Adelaide also faced criticism for marrying a black man, although mixed marriages were not uncommon at the time. Her husband also took her name in solidarity with the cause.
On her legacy, Sarah said: “She was an enormously active and influential person. She was very outspoken. She cared about people as well as the cause. Her example challenges stereotypes. She was working class. She left school at 12 or 13, but she achieved so much.”
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