Spartacus Blog

100 Greatest Britons Candidate: Anne Knight

John Simkin

Anne Knight is one of the most important figures in the history women's movement but her name rarely appears in history books. The third of the eight children of wholesale grocer, William Knight (1786–1862), was born in Chelmsford on 2nd November 1781. Anne's mother was Priscilla Allen Knight (1753–1829), the daughter of William Allen, a well-known radical and Nonconformist. The Knight family were members of the Society of Friends and were pacifists and social reformers. (1)

Little is known of her early life but in the 1820s became active in the struggle against slavery. Knight was on the radical wing of the Anti-Slavery Society and favoured immediate rather than gradual abolition of the slave-trade and this brought her into conflict with people like William Wilberforce, who favoured a more conservative approach to the problem. (2)

Anne Knight and Anti-Slavery

In April, 1825, Anne Knight joined Lucy Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and other women to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later the group changed its name to the Female Society for Birmingham). (7) The group "promoted the sugar boycott, targeting shops as well as shoppers, visiting thousands of homes and distributing pamphlets, calling meetings and drawing petitions." (3)

William Wilberforce gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies. His biographer, William Hague, claims that Wilberforce was unable to adjust to the idea of women becoming involved in politics "occurring as this did nearly a century before women would be given the vote in Britain". (4)

The society which was, from its foundation, independent of both the national Anti-Slavery Society and of the local men's anti-slavery society. As Clare Midgley has pointed out: "It acted as the hub of a developing national network of female anti-slavery societies, rather than as a local auxiliary. It also had important international connections, and publicity on its activities in Benjamin Lundy's abolitionist periodical The Genius of Universal Emancipation influenced the formation of the first female anti-slavery societies in America". (5)

Anne Knight was inspired by the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves for form a similar organisation in Chelmsford. Other groups were established in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Anne Rawson, Mary Roberts), Leicester (Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts), Glasgow (Jane Smeal), Norwich (Amelia Opie, Anna Gurney), London (Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Mary Foster) and Darlington (Elizabeth Pease). By 1831 there were seventy-three of these women's organisations campaigning against slavery. (6)

In early 1833 Anne Knight joined forces with the London Female Anti-Slavery Society to organise a national women's petition against slavery. When it was presented to Parliament it was signed by 298,785 women. It was the largest single anti-slavery petition in the movement's history. (7)

The Slavery Abolition Act was passed on 28th August 1833. This act gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. The British government paid £20 million in compensation to the slave owners. The amount that the plantation owners received depended on the number of slaves that they had. For example, Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, received £12,700 for the 665 slaves he owned. (8)

In 1834 Anne Knight toured France where she gave lectures on the immorality of slavery. Knight argued for the immediate abolition of slavery without compensation in the rest of Europe. Later, her contribution to the anti-slavery campaign was recognised when a village for Jamaican freed slaves was named Knightsville. She was also active in the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. (9)

World Anti-Slavery Convention

Anne Knight attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention held at Exeter Hall in London, in June 1840 but as a woman was refused permission to speak. She did meet two American delegates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Stanton later recalled: "We resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women." (10) Mott described Knight as "a singular-looking woman - very pleasant and polite". (11)

She became aware that the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, had started a group portrait of those involved in the fight against slavery. She wrote a letter to Lucy Townsend complaining about the lack of women in the painting. "I am very anxious that the historical picture now in the hand of Haydon should not be performed without the chief lady of the history being there in justice to history and posterity the person who established (women's anti-slavery groups). You have as much right to be there as Thomas Clarkson himself, nay perhaps more, his achievement was in the slave trade; thine was slavery itself the pervading movement." (12)

When the painting was completed it did not include Lucy Townsend or most of the leading female campaigners against slavery. Clare Midgley, the author of Women Against Slavery (1995) points out that as well as Anne Knight and Lucretia Mott, it does feature Elizabeth Pease, Mary Anne Rawson, Amelia Opie and Annabella Byron: "Haydon's group portrait is exceptional in that it does record the existence of women campaigners. Most other memorials did not. There are no public monuments to women activists to complement those to William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and other male leaders of the movement... In the written memoirs of these men, women tend to appear as helpful and inspirational wives, mothers and daughters rather than as activists in their own right." (13)

Wedgwood Slave Emancipation Medallion, black on yellow jasper (1787)
A section of Benjamin Robert Haydon's painting of the World Anti-Slavery Convention
showing from left to right, bottom row: Annabella Byron, Amelia Opie,
Mary Ann Rawson
, top row, Anne Knight, Mrs John Beaumont and Elizabeth Pease.

Marion Reid published A Plea for Women in 1843. Knight was grateful that she had stated the case for greater equality but thought that the author had unestimated the abilities of women. Knight wrote on her own copy of the book that it was "excellent with the exception of the great folly" where she said that women faced natural barriers. Knight complained that women did not have natural barriers "but those placed equally before men." (14)

The behaviour of the male leaders at the World Anti-Slavery Convention inspired Knight to start a campaign advocating equal rights for women. (15) This included having gummed labels printed with feminist quotations that she attached to the outside of her letters. In 1847 she wrote a letter to Matilda Ashurst Biggs on the subject of gender equality. Later that year the letter was published and it is considered to be the first ever leaflet on women's suffrage. (16)

Knight wrote: "I wish the talented philanthropists in England would come forward in this critical juncture of our nation's affairs and insist on the right of suffrage for all men and women unstained with crime... in order that all may have a voice in the affairs of their country... Never will the nations of the earth be well governed until both sexes, as well as all parties, are fully represented, and have an influence, a voice, and a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws." (17)

Women's Suffrage

Anne Knight also became active in the Chartist movement. However, she became concerned about the way women campaigners were treated by some of the male leaders in the organisation. She criticised them for claiming "that the class struggle took precedence over that for women's rights". (18) Knight wrote "can a man be free, if a woman be a slave." (19) In a letter published in the Brighton Herald in 1850 she demanded that the Chartists should campaign for what she described as "true universal suffrage". (20)

An anonymous leaflet was published in 1847. It has been persuasively argued that the author of the work was Anne Knight. In argued: "Never will the nations of the earth be well governed, until both sexes, as well as all parties, are fully represented and have an influence, a voice, and a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws". (21)

At a conference on world peace held in 1849, Anne Knight met two of Britain's reformers, Henry Brougham and Richard Cobden. She was disappointed by their lack of enthusiasm for women's rights. For the next few months she sent them several letters arguing the case for women's suffrage. In one letter to Cobden she argued that it was only when women had the vote that the electorate would be able to pressurize politicians into achieving world peace. (22)

Anne Knight and Anne Kent established the Sheffield Female Political Association. Their first meeting was held in Sheffield in February, 1851. Later that year it published an "Address to the Women of England". This was the first petition in England that demanded women's suffrage. It was presented to the House of Lords by George Howard, 7th Earl of Carlisle. (23) The following year she was "forbidden to vote for the man who inflicts the laws I am compelled to obey - the taxes I am compelled to pay". She added that "taxation without representation is tyranny". (24)

Anne Knight, who never married, spent the last few years of her life in Waldersbach, a small village south-west of Strasbourg, where she lived in the former home of pastor Jean-Frédéric Oberlin (1740-1826), the founder of the Christian Socialist movement in France and a man she greatly admired. Anne Knight died on 4th November, 1862. (25)

Wedgwood Slave Emancipation Medallion, black on yellow jasper (1787)



(1) Edward H. Milligan, Anne Knight : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery (1995) page 58

(3) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 208

(4) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 487

(5) Clare Midgley, Lucy Townsend : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 214

(7) Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery (1995) page 58

(8) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 240

(9) Edward H. Milligan, Anne Knight : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Crista Deluzio, Women's Rights: People and Perspectives (2009) page 58

(11) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 327

(12) Anne Knight, letter to Lucy Townsend (20th September, 1840)

(13) Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery (1995) page 2

(14) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 327

(15) Elizabeth J. Clapp, Women, Dissent and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (2015) page 67

(16) Dale Spender, Women of Ideas (1982) page 398

(17) Anne Knight, letter to Matilda Ashurst Biggs (April 1847)

(18) Edward H. Milligan, Anne Knight : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 327

(20) Anne Knight, letter published in the Brighton Herald (9th February, 1850)

(21) Edward H. Milligan, Anne Knight : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(22) Ray Strachey, The Cause (1928) page 43

(23) Anne Knight, letter to Richard Cobden (13th August 1850)

(24) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2000) page 327

(25) Edward H. Milligan, Anne Knight : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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