The life of a photograph and an extraordinary woman

Anne Knight, photograph by Victor Franck, c.1855 (LSF MS BOX W2)

Anne Knight, photograph by Victor Franck, c.1855 (LSF MS BOX W2)

The Library’s Visual Resources Development Officer, Melissa Atkinson, talks about one enduring image in our collection.

I am fascinated with historical material culture and how it translates into modern society. When a researcher in the Library is interested in any of the visual resources such as a poster, piece of crockery or a photograph, I am keen to see how they reinterpret the material for today’s audiences.

When the United Nations contacted me about a photograph of an elderly woman staring defiantly into the camera, clutching a placard on her knee which states:

By tortured millions
By the Divine Redeemer
Enfranchise Humanity
Bid the Outraged World

I wondered about the extraordinary journey this photograph, and the woman in it, had taken.

Anne Knight

Anne Knight (1786-1862) was born in Chelmsford to a Quaker family. From all accounts she was a formidable advocate of abolition of the slave trade without compensation for the slave owners. She also supported free trade and universal suffrage and campaigned fervently for women’s rights. Her sympathies were also with the European republican movements. By 1830 she was deeply involved in the attempt by Quakers to end slavery and spent much of her time arranging public meetings, distributing leaflets and organising petitions. As a member of the Chelmsford Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, she formed the first organisation for women’s suffrage in Britain, the Sheffield Female Reform Association.

Although the British Slavery Abolition Act came into power in 1834, this did not eradicate the problem globally, and British abolitionists still wanted to exert influence, especially over the situation in the United States. Anne Knight’s 1855 protest demanding the abolition of the slave trade, depicted in the photograph, still resonates with the world today.

New audiences

To mark International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the United Nations in New York had an exhibition entitled ‘Powerful women against slavery” in the UN General Assembly entrance this spring which included this photograph. UN Information Centres globally will have the option to use this ready-made exhibition which includes an online study guide via the website –

The 2015 theme is Women and Slavery which celebrates the mental and physical strength of women and the unimaginable abuses they had to endure.

This image of Anne Knight is from her personal archive (LSF MS BOX W2). The photograph was taken at Saint des Vosges circa 1855 by Victor Franck. The original photograph, known as a carte-de-visite (visiting card), measures 64mm × 100mm (2.5 inches x 4 inches). This format of the carte-de-visite was very popular as they were affordable and easily mass produced. Victorian obsession with collecting made these cards into a novelty and they were traded between friends and large Victorian families. Popular figures of the time such as royalty became collectibles which led to the publication and collection of photographs of prominent persons.

The Library of the Society of Friends holds Anne Knight’s personal papers including diaries, correspondence and notes (references MS Box W2, MS Box G2/3, and MS Vol S 486).
One of our readers was inspired by her journey for his architectural creation for the Burgess Stream project in central Chelmsford. You can read about the historical research behind his architectural design work here:

This blogpost is about the life of a photograph and the woman within it. Anne Knight with her incredible influence and universal admiration for human dignity. If Anne Knight was around today she may have mixed emotions about the current state of women’s rights and modern slavery. Knight would have to admit that there has been improvement and progression to raise the world’s attention for universal suffrage but only so far. I think Anne Knight would look you straight in the eye and say we cannot forget the past but there is still a long way to go to improve the future.

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6 Responses to The life of a photograph and an extraordinary woman

  1. John H Hall says:

    In February 2009, Jennifer Milligan allowed me to reproduce this photograph on my website of Quaker Meeting Houses because a former Chelmsford Meeting House is now known as the Anne Knight Centre. The page has been seen by 1333 people since then.
    John Hall
    Anne Knight 1786-1862

  2. Lovely post – she is certainly a woman to be proud of…

  3. Pingback: Statue of the week, London edition: the slave-owner and the abolitionist | The Lincoln Project

  4. Pingback: Women’s History Month | Quaker Strongrooms

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