Elizabeth Knight

Elizabeth Knight was born at Northfleet, Kent, on 31 August 1869. She came from a strong Quaker family. Her father was a successful cement manufacturer, and her grandfather, John Knight (1792-1864), was the owner of the largest soap factory in London. Her father died in 1880 leaving her a sizeable fortune. (1)

Knight was educated at the Kensington High School for Girls and Newnham College. After leaving Cambridge University she entered the London School for Medicine for Women as a student at the same time as Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and qualified as a medical practitioner in 1904. (2)

In November 1907 former members of the Women's Social and Political Union formed the Women's Freedom League. Early members included Elizabeth Knight, Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Edith How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Emma Sproson, Margaret Nevinson, Henria Williams, Violet Tillard. Most of its members were socialists who wanted to work closely with the Labour Party who "regarded it as hypocritical for a movement for women's democracy to deny democracy to its own members." (3)

In 1908 Knight was imprisoned for the first time after calling at 10 Downing Street to ask Herbert H. Asquith why he "promised manhood suffrage in answer to a demand for votes for women". As a result of this experience she wrote Social and Sanitary Conditions of Prison Life (1908) in an attempt to bring attention to the way prisoners were being treated in British prisons. (4)

The Women's Freedom League grew rapidly, and soon had sixty branches throughout Britain with an overall membership of about 4,000 people. This was over twice the size of the Women's Social and Political Union. The WFL also established its own newspaper, The Vote. The first edition was published on 30th October 1909. Elizabeth Knight used her inheritance to fund the newspaper. (5)

Two of the WFL leaders, Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard, were both talented writers and were the main people responsible for producing the newspaper. It was used to inform the public of WFL campaigns such as the refusal to pay taxes and to fill in the 1911 Census forms. One of Britain's leading writers, Cicely Hamilton, became editor of the newspaper. (6)

In 1912 Elizabeth Knight became treasurer. "She developed new fundraising initiatives, notably the annual Green White and Gold fair, and from 1913, the President's Birthday Fund was launched to mark Charlotte Despard's birth when branches and individuals were asked to donate money. Another factor in the improved financial situation in the League was Elizabeth Knight's ample private income which was derived from her family's wealth. Often large 'anonymous' sums appeared on lists of donations published in the Vote and these were very probably from Elizabeth Knight herself." (7)

In January 1913 she was with Charlotte Despard, arrested while leading a march to Westminster, protesting against the Speaker's ruling that a "women's suffrage amendment to the proposed franchise bill was inadmissible". (8) At a special Conference of the Women's Freedom League, held in April 1913, Elizabeth Knight was first elected Honorary Treasurer. (9)

Elizabeth Knight was a member of the Women's Tax Resistance League. In June 1914 was sentenced to a month's imprisonment "for refusing to comply with the regulation of the Insurance Act in respect of her two servants." The reason she gave for her non-compliance was that "the Insurance Act was passed over the heads of women without their consent". (10)

Sybil Oldfield has argued that Elizabeth Knight "put her hard-won professional career at risk by her militant, though non-violent, commitment to the suffrage campaign". She was arrested several times over the next six years between and imprisoned in Holloway Prison at least three times. (11)

Photograph of the Women's Freedom League Committee. The women are identified on reverse: Mrs Mustard, Miss Clarke, Dr Knight, Miss Evans, Miss Underwood, Miss Gibson, Miss Hodge, Mrs Schofield Coats, Mrs Sproson, Miss Head and Mrs Wheaton (c. 1914)
Photograph of the Women's Freedom League Committee. The women are identified on
reverse: Mrs Mustard, Miss Clarke, Dr Elizabeth Knight, Gladys Evans, Miss Underwood, Miss Gibson,
Miss Hodge, Mrs Schofield Coats, Emma Sproson , Miss Head and Mrs Wheaton (c. 1914)

Elizabeth Knight, like most members of the Women's Freedom League, was a pacifist, and so when the First World War was declared in 1914 they refused to become involved in the British Army's recruitment campaign. The WFL also disagreed with the decision of the NUWSS and WSPU to call off the women's suffrage campaign while the war was on. Leaders of the WFL believed that the British government did not do enough to bring an end to the war and between 1914-1918 supported the campaign of the Women's Peace Crusade for a negotiated peace. The Vote attacked Christabel Pankhurst and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, for condemning the women's peace conference. (12)

During the war Elizabeth Knight opposed the 40D Regulation which involved the compulsory examination of women suspected of having transmitted venereal disease to a member of the armed forces. She believed that she had to continue the work of Josephine Butler who had campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Acts. These acts had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Butler objected in principal to laws that only applied to women. Under the terms of these acts, the police could arrest women they believed were prostitutes and could then insist that they had a medical examination. (13)

In 1923 she attended the conference of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Paris. (14) As well as being an activist for women's suffrage and the peace movement she continued to work as a doctor. She held appointments at the Evelina Hospital for Sick Children, the Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women and the Mount Vernon Hospital for Consumption. (15)

The sales of the The Vote newspaper went into decline after the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. Knight believed it was still important that those women advocating equal rights needed their own newspaper and she used her inheritance to keep it going. As the newspaper pointed out: "To have won equal voting rights for women and men is a great victory, but it will be an infinitely greater achievement when we have succeeded in abolishing for ever the 'woman's sphere', 'woman's work', and a 'woman's wage', and have decided that the whole wide world and all its opportunities is just as much the sphere of women, as of men." (16)

On 15th October 1933, Elizabeth Knight was knocked down by a car as she was crossing Dyke Road in Brighton. She told a police officer: "It was my fault. I crossed the road without looking." (17) At first she declined to go to hospital, "remarking that she was not much hurt, but he persuaded her to accompany him to hospital." (18)

After treatment she was taken to the home of Minnie Turner. On 28th October, pleurisy developed and death occurred on Sunday from heart failure as a result of the effects of the accident. (19)

It was reported in the The Hampstead News in January 1934: "Dr Elizabeth Knight, the women's suffrage pioneer, who lived at Gainsborough Gardens, Hampstead, and who died last October from injuries received when knocked down by a motar-car at Brighton, has left £248,467." She bequeathed £200,000 to her niece, Miss Mary Elizabeth Knight." (20)

Primary Sources

(1) The Scotsman (17th June 1914)

Refusing to comply with the Insurance Act. Dr. Elizabeth Knight, the honorary treasurer of the Women's Freedom League, was yesterday taken to Holloway Prison to serve a month's imprisonment to which she was sentenced on February 11 for refusing to comply with the regulation of the Insurance Act in respect of her two servants. The reasons given for Dr. Knight's non-compliance was that "the Insurance Act was passed over the heads of women without their consent". Several of her friends accompanied Dr Knight to Holloway.

(2) Claire Louise Eustace, The Evolution of Women's Political Identities in the Women's Freedom League (1993)

The financial situation of the League eventually steadied during 1912 and this improvement was due largely to the efforts of Dr Elizabeth Knight who replaced Constance Tite as League treasurer. Elizabeth Knight, who was a qualified doctor, and had trained with Louisa Garrett Anderson at the London School of Medicine, devoted much of her life after 1912 to the WFL.

In her position as treasurer, she developed new fundraising initiatives, notably the annual Green White and Gold fair, and from 1913, the President's Birthday Fund was launched to mark Charlotte Despard's birth when branches and individuals were asked to donate money. Another factor in the improved financial situation in the League was Elizabeth Knight's ample private income which was derived from her family's wealth. Often large "anonymous" sums appeared on lists of donations published in the Vote and these were very probably from Elizabeth Knight herself.

(3) The Vote (3rd November 1933)

It is with the deepest sorrow that we record the death at Brighton, on Sunday, October 29th , following an accident of Dr Elizabeth Knight the beloved Honorary Treasurer of the Women's Freedom League for the last twenty years.

Dr. Knight was educated at the Kensington High School for Girls and Newnham College, Cambridge. She entered the London School for Medicine for Women as a student about the same time as Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and qualified as a medical practitioner in 1904. In 1912 she took the D.P.H. at Cambridge.

It is, however, as a stalwart champion of the rights of women that we best remember Dr. Knight. She was brought into the Women's Freedom League in the very early days of the history by her friend, Dr. Octavia Lewin. In 1908 Dr. Knight served two weeks imprisonment for calling at 10, Downing Street, to ask the Prime Minister (Mr. Asquith) why he promised Manhood Suffrage in answer to the demand for votes for women. She took an active part in our Census Protest in 1911, was prosecuted on several occasions for refusing to pay taxes, as a protest against women's continued political disfranchisement, and was imprisoned on two occasions for these protest.

At a special Conference of the Women's Freedom League, held in April 1913, Dr. Knight was first elected Hon Treasurer of our League, and she has held that office ever since, being returned unopposed at each succeeding Annual Conference.

(4) British Medical Journal (11th November 1933)

With the death at the age of 64 of Dr Elizabeth Knight of Hampstead, shortly after a motor accident at Brighton, there passed one of the pioneers of the women's suffrage movement. Her medical education was obtained at the London School of Medicine for Women, and she graduated M.D. London in 1904. She subsequently held appointments at the Evelina Hospital, the Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women, and Mount Vernon Hospital. A militant suffragette in the early years of this country, she was prosecuted several times, and was once imprisoned. Since 1907 she had been a member of the British Medical Association.

(5) Sybil Oldfield, Women Humanitarians: A Biographical Dictionary of British Women Active between 1900 and 1950 (2006)

After her initial study of classics at Newnham college, Cambridge, she (Elizabeth Knight) took a long time to succeed in qualifying as a doctor at the London School of Medicine for women but then almost immediately put her hard-won professional career at risk by her militant, though non-violent, commitment to the suffrage campaign. As an activist in the Women's Freedom League, led by Charlotte Despard, she was arrested several times between 1908 and 1914, and imprisoned in holloway at least three times; despite her highly privileged, sheltered background, she felt that she had to protest against the disenfranchised non-citizenship of women, if necessary by withholding her taxes.

(6) Halifax Evening Courier (1st November 1933)

A verdict of death by misadventure was returned at an inquest at Brighton today on Dr Elizabeth Knight (64), the women's suffragette pioneer. It was stated that she stepped off the footpath in front of a motor car.

Constable Boffen said that she, at first, declined to go to hospital, remarking that she was not much hurt, but he persuaded her to accompany him to hospital.

Dr Knight repeatedly told him the driver of the car was in no way to blame and that the accident was entirely her own fault. The accident occurred on October 15. On October 28, pleurisy developed and death occurred on Sunday from heart failure as a result of the effects of the accident.

(7) The Hampstead News (11 January 1934)

Dr Elizabeth Knight, the women's suffrage pioneer, who lived at Gainsborough Gardens, Hampstead, and who died last October from injuries received when knocked down by a motar-car at Brighton, has left £248, 467. She bequeathed £200,000 to her niece, Miss Mary Elizabeth Knight, who lives with her mother at the Towers, Smeeth, Kent, and whose father, a barrister, died many years ago.

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References

(1) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 328

(2) The Vote (3rd November 1933)

(3) Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (2001) page 167

(4) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 328

(5) Maroula Joannou, Cicely Hamilton: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23rd September 2004)

(6) Martin Pugh, Women and the Women's Movement in Britain 1914-1959 (1992) page 47

(7) Claire Louise Eustace, The Evolution of Women's Political Identities in the Women's Freedom League (1993)

(8) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 328

(9) The Vote (3rd November 1933)

(10) The Scotsman (17th June 1914)

(11) Sybil Oldfield, Women Humanitarians: A Biographical Dictionary of British Women Active between 1900 and 1950 (2006) page 130

(12) Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (2020) page 442

(13) Sybil Oldfield, Women Humanitarians: A Biographical Dictionary of British Women Active between 1900 and 1950 (2006) page 131

(14) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 328

(15) British Medical Journal (11th November 1933)

(16) The Vote (6th July, 1928)

(17) The Belfast Telegraph (6th January 1934)

(18) Halifax Evening Courier (1st November 1933)

(19) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 328

(20) The Hampstead News (11th January 1934)