William Edward Knight (born 1844) overcame the dreadful disappointment of being rejected for missionary service in West Africa to serve on Newark Borough Council for 37 years – and was Mayor for most of The Great War from 1915-19.
Reared in Cartergate, he started his working life as a junior clerk in a solicitor’s office under his father, James, who was the managing clerk. But aged 20, he was accepted as a candidate for the Methodist ministry at the local Synod quarterly meeting and eagerly looked forward to “spreading the word”, only for the London Committee to reject him. “It was the darkest day of my life,” he would recall. “I went into my little room, fell to my knees and burst into tears. It looked as though all the hope had gone from my life; the object of my life had been taken from me.”
Yet his faith never wavered: he went on to spend 70 years as a local preacher, and insisted throughout his record five years as Mayor that all Civic services take place at the Barnbygate Methodist Church rather than in the Church of England’s Parish Church.
Moving away from his father’s influence, he married miller’s daughter Hannah Wilson Parnham in 1880 and started his own business as a coal and coke merchant, switching in the 1890s to dealing in agricultural goods – a business that was to serve the surrounding farming community long after his death at the age of 90. And he quickly determined that if he could not serve God in Africa, he would voluntarily do as much as possible for his home town. He was elected Mayor for the first time in 1889.
By the time The Great War broke out on 4 August 1914, he was already an Alderman (one of the senior members) on Newark Borough Council; and was one of a committee of nine established to oversee the stock of foodstuffs and the protection of the poor. Townspeople were urged “not to make larger purchases than their needs justify, but to husband their resources and be very careful of their cash.” Grocers and bakers were sternly warned against profiteering.
Aged 70, Alderman Knight was “father” of the Council (the longest-serving member) when he again became Mayor on 9 November 1915. He remained in office for the duration of the War, handing £5 cheques from his personal account to every Newark man who received a gallantry medal from him. He established his priorities immediately after the traditional Mayor-making ceremony on 14 November: instead of treating the VIPs to refreshments in the Town Hall, as was tradition, he donated £10 to the Parish Church Reparation Fund, £10 to the Newark Company of the Volunteer Training Corps, £10 to the Mayoress’s Working Party; £5 to the local YMCA, £5 to Newark Hospital, £5 to the Lombard Street Red Cross Hospital that was caring for an ever-increasing number of wounded soldiers and sailors, £5 to the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry Comforts Fund and £5 to the 8th Sherwood Foresters Fund. He hoped the money might “relieve some of the suffering and discomforts of the War.”
He and his wife took time out from civic and wartime duties on 28 December to celebrate the marriage of their second son, Ernest (born 1875) to Miss Grace Hilda Astill at West Bridgford Wesleyan Church. Ernest, a director of the family firm and secretary to the managers of the Wesleyan Day Schools, had three siblings: Arthur (born 1871), Edith Emma (born 1873) and Annie (born 1877).
On Sunday, 2 January 1916 Mayor Knight took to the pulpit of Barnbygate Wesleyan Church to announce the Mayoress’s Working Party had to meet a War Office request for 480 pairs of mittens and 100 mufflers, 30 bed jackets, 50 pairs of bed socks, 20 dressing gowns, 50 draw sheets, 50 pairs of slippers and 24 pairs of operation stockings by the end of January for wounded soldiers freezing in makeshift casualty stations. And Newark Hospital on London Road was about to be filled by military patients. But its annual report revealed that ‘the satisfactory amount’ of £530 19s 6d had been subscribed during the year; there had been 55 military patients, 340 in-patients, 476 out-patients, 368 casualties and 302 dental cases.
Invasion fears resurfaced on 31 January. After a meeting in London, Mayor Knight set off from King’s Cross at 5.30pm. Owing to the biggest air raid so far, the train is held up at several places with the result that he did not arrive at Northgate until 5.30am. History relates that nine Zeppelins raided England tasked with causing death and destruction in Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool but actually attacked several West Midlands towns as well as Loughborough.
On 22 February Mayor Knight discovered that one of his nephews, Private James Walter Hammond, had been killed at Ypres – a tragedy witnessed by another nephew, James’s brother Frederick.
Mayor Knight commented that our country never needed Divine help more than at the present time when the St George’s Day Parade took the Civic party from the Town Hall to the Barnbygate Wesleyan Church.
He needed the help of colleagues on Tuesday 16 May: he vacated the chair for the first case at the Newark Borough Tribunal session, where men appealed against orders to enlist in the fighting forces. He asked for his firm, W E Knight Ltd, to keep sheep dipper and shearer Albert Shrive, 26, until 31 August, explaining they had already had three of their six experts in this sphere join-up. They were allowed to keep him until 1 August.
There was a hint of peaceful normality on 29 June – Thursday afternoons were ripe for social occasions because all shops closed for the day at lunchtime – when a massive sale of work and garden party was held in the grounds of Evydene, the Knights’ residence, and raised £58 10s 9d (£58.53) for the Newark Busy Bee Society of which Mrs Knight was president and her daughter Edith secretary.
Wednesdays – Market Days, when the town became most crowded – became flag days with Mayoress Knight at the head of the largely upper-class ladies raising money for many Wartime causes; and on 13 July £43 14s 5d (£43.72½) was raised for the fund for wounded War horses.
As winter set in and moods darkened, 100 wives or widows of Newark soldiers and sailors were entertained to tea in Newark Salvation Army Hall on 25 October and exhorted by Mayoress Knight and a lady officer from the Salvation Army to be careful where they found companionship, and “if in severe trouble and anxiety not to fly to drink but to seek help and guidance from Almighty God”. It was announced that during the past year, the Mayoress’s Working Party had sent to troops 3,874 pairs of mittens, 979 mufflers, 670 pairs of socks, 161 handkerchiefs, 125 pairs of slippers, 104 bed jackets, 78 shirts, 64 splints (various), 59 dressing gowns, 50 draw sheets, 40 pairs of operation stockings, 20 pairs of pyjamas, 35 helmets, 12 bed tables, 2 invalid chairs, 62 hospital bags, 50 pairs of bed socks and 20 ‘helpless-case’ jackets.
Arthur L Smith, one of the clerk’s in Mayor Knight’s business, learnt on 28 October that he had been mentioned in despatches while lying in a hospital bed in Wharncliffe, Sheffield, recovering from bullet wounds to his abdomen and right side plus bomb wounds to the left knee and thigh, all sustained during “a most successful raid” on enemy trenches on 22 September. Arthur, a Drummer in the 8th Sherwoods, informed his parents at home in Castlegate he had received the following message from the Major-General commanding the North Midland Division: “Your commanding officer and brigade commander have informed me that you have distinguished yourself by conspicuous bravery in the field. I have read their report with much pleasure.”
On Saturday, 23 December the Newark Herald reported: With their usual thoroughness and kindness, Mayor Knight and the Mayoress have again distributed gifts to the inmates of the bede houses, St Leonard’s Hospital and to the various alms houses in the town as well as a considerable number of poor people over 70 years of age in order that all may obtain a few extra comforts at this season of the year.
And Mayor Knight penned a seasonal message to ‘my fellow townsmen who are serving the King’: “I write on behalf of the Borough and also myself to thank you most heartily for your self-denying conduct in voluntarily giving yourselves to serve in the Army and Navy for King and Country, to save us as a nation from the cruel fate of Belgium, Serbia and Rumania. I do not wonder that you should have so willingly responded to your country’s call when you heard of the barbarities of Germany in destroying the lives and property of innocent people by Zeppelin raids, the torpedoing of the Lusitania and other vessels, the murder of Nurse Cavell and Captain Fryatt. While on your own and our behalf we pray for a speedy, righteous peace, none of us would feel safe from a recurrence of these awful atrocities unless the military power of Germany was destroyed. I am sure you all will continue to do your duty faithfully. Be assured we at home will also do ours by providing you with all necessary equipment to carry on the War to a successful issue, and also by sending you such articles as we can to relieve the hardships of your arduous life. You may rest assured the dear ones you have left behind are by the Committee being well seen to so that not any of them shall want. Our prayers are for your protection and health so that you may continue your noble work. Be strong and continue to maintain the reputation of good old Newark. We hope the day is not far distant when we shall all join in the shouts of victory and rejoice in the blessings of peace. You may all be sure of a hearty welcome home. Wishing you all a much happier New Year than the last has been…”
A public meeting was held in the Town Hall on 28 February to urge more people to take part in the National Scheme for Labour. Mayor Knight announced between 1,200 and 1,400 Newark men had gone to fight. The principal speaker, Sir Richard Cooper, MP for Walsall, exhorted everyone to help the War effort by rationing their food intake, giving financial support to the War Loan scheme, and straining brain and muscle to do the work that was in the past carried out by the men who had joined the Forces.
As the War intensified, Mayoress Knight received a letter in March from Sir Edward Ward, Scotland House, New Scotland Yard, London, urging her Working Party to keep up their good work: “Our business is to win the War, and it is essential at this grave moment of national crisis that not only every Association, but every individual forming that Association, should work as he or she has never worked before so as to ensure a continual and adequate supply of all those comforts, both for men in the Field and for the sick and wounded in Military Hospitals at home and abroad, which means so much to the well-being of our Army, and the necessity for which will be even more urgent than hitherto in the near future.”
Mayor Knight took it upon himself on 3 July to visit widow Emma Talbot, 71, and her daughter Mary, the curator of Newark Museum, with dreadful news from revolutionary Russia. Emma’s older daughter Laura, aged 38, had drowned at Kluga on17 June and been buried in Moscow on 26 June. The news had arrived by telegram at the Town Hall from British Consul and the Mayor never dreamt of delegating such daunting duties.
There was worry for the Knight family on 1 September. The Mayoress underwent “a somewhat serious operation” in a Nottingham nursing home. The public was assured that it went entirely satisfactorily, but concerns lingered…
Perhaps feeling the pressure as never before, Mayor Knight was outspoken when Newark Borough Tribunal met in the Town Hall on Saturday evening, 6 October. He complained that it was hardly worth bothering because the Appeals Tribunal in Nottingham was “overturning any decision that does not please the Military Representative”.
He was back to his kindly self on 17 October. Acknowledging a shortage of flour and a glut of potatoes, Mayor Knight, as Chairman of Newark Food Control Committee, offered a recipe for potato bread: take 7lb flour, mix 1oz yeast with flour, add 1½lb boiled washed potatoes, thoroughly mix and work-up. The dough should be allowed to stand for 12 hours.
He began his fourth term as Mayor on 10 November by convening a meeting in the Market Place to ascertain whether the townspeople favoured voluntary or compulsory rationing. In the following month, he led efforts to encourage people to invest in War Bonds with such success that Newark contributed £175,941 through banks and solicitors’ offices.
His 1918 New Year message urged the townsfolk to keep faith: “Newark has responded most nobly to the nation’s call for soldiers and sailors. More than 1,500 have gone from our homes, alas, some never to return, and others maimed for life. Newark firms have been actively engaged on munitions of various kinds, and thus helped to provide for the needs of all branches of public service. She has contributed of her money to the War Loans and Bonds and War Savings Certificates. All these things must materially help to win the War for the freedom of the world from the military despotism of Germany.
“There remains one other thing for us to do more fully than we have done hitherto, viz., pray for God’s blessing on these, our efforts. The question has been asked: Will God really respond to our prayers? I firmly believe He will. From my own experience I can testify to the fact. God hears and answers prayer. ‘Have faith in God.’ Next Sunday is by Royal Proclamation a day when all the citizens of our great Empire are asked to humble themselves before Almighty God and reverently intercede with Him for victory over the enemies of righteousness. France is joining with us on that day. A special form of prayers has been prepared for this purpose. I now ask you, my fellow-townsmen, to attend one or other of the various Churches … to make our request known to God with the confident belief that He will hear and answer.”
Before proceeding with the ordinary business of the Newark Borough Police Court on 24 January, Mayor Knight expressed horror that members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps based at Kelham Hall had been “very grossly insulted by some women in the town who made remarks which were derogatory to the character of these girls”. He warned that any convicted of this charge would be most severely dealt with. It was a disgrace to make such allegations against girls serving their country so admirably and taking the place of men on the fighting line. The WAACs, founded in February 1917, comprised 57,000 volunteers by the War’s end.
Three days later, Mayoress Knight passed away after a long and patiently borne illness [“cancer” was never uttered in public]. Mayor Knight was back on duty within a week, chairing the Newark Tribunal; and his daughter Edith took on the Mayoress’s roles.
The clerk to Newark Borough Council died on 24 February; and within 24 hours Mayor Knight made a special visit to the War Office in London to seek the early release of Major Hugh Tallents from the Army so that he could succeed his father. Major Tallents sent “a supportive telegram” expressing his wish to be released. The Mayor also promised the annual Newark War Potato Scheme was growing: there were 300 more allotments in town than when the War began.
Mayor Knight was urged to consider a memorial for his late wife the following month. The Mayoress’s Ladies’ Working Party contributed £47 2s 10d (just under £47.15). The Mayor opted to furnishing a room in a disused Nottingham factory that was being turned into workshops in which 400 to 600 disabled soldiers would be taught fresh occupations.
And on May Day Mayor Knight asked Newarkers to move their garden seats into the Market Place and other suitable locations in the town centre in order that severely wounded soldiers had somewhere to sit during their exercise walks from the General and VAD Hospitals.
With food shortages causing concern that children were not being fed properly, the Town Council decided to open a National Kitchen in a house and bakehouse owned by the St Leonard’s Trustees opposite the Post Office in Kirkgate – and Mayor Knight attempted to placate private entrepreneurs, such as G H Porter from the store at the corner of Bridge Street and the Market Place, by explaining that cooking in a central place would mean economies in coal, food and labour as well as being a great convenience at a time when women were out at work and finding it difficult to manage their homes and cook nutritious meals.
A large concourse of people took part in a United Service of Remembrance and Dedication in the Market Place on the gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon of 4 August, the fourth anniversary of the War. Pointing out the service was unique in the religious history of Newark, Mayor Knight hoped it meant that in the future there would be greater unity for “the great and common principles of extending the Kingdom of God and overthrowing the kingdom of Satan.”
On 9 November, he became the first man to be re-elected Mayor of Newark for the fourth year in succession and pointed out it was 35 years to the day since he first became a Councillor. But he preferred to look forward: “We all expect, hope and pray that the great day of peace is close at hand. There is Bulgaria gone, Turkey gone, Austria gone and Germany fast falling, for all of which blessings we owe our deepest thanks to Almighty God for helping our Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine, in conjunction with our great Allies, to accomplish such a magnificent success for the deliverance of the world from the brutal domination of Germany, and thus making the future peace and freedom of the world secure.”
He also called for “the erection of a worthy monument in the Market Place, or some other suitable place, on which the names of the dead can be inscribed and their deeds recorded…”
Yet when peace finally arrived on Monday, 11 November, he was cautious to accept that ‘the War to end all wars’ had really ended. The Market Place – scene of all major announcements – was charged with an electrical feeling and before 10am rumours were circulating that Germany had agreed to Allies’ conditions. At 11am a well-known bank manager visited the Town Hall to inform the Mayor that the news has been announced in London. But His Worship refrained from sanctioning any public notification by bell ringing or otherwise until 15 minutes or more later, when he received the news officially. He suspended the sitting of the Police Court and proceeded to the Town Hall balcony. A large number of people had congregated on the cobbles. At 11.20am they come forward in response to signals from the Mayor. He announced:
“I am very pleased to make known to you that the
Armistice was sign by Germany at
5 o’ clock this morning and the firing ceased at 11.”
On the call of the Mayor, the crowd fervently sang the National Anthem and cheers were heartily given for the King, our Soldiers, our Sailors and the Mayor. While His Worship was speaking, the bells of the Parish Church broke into a joyous peal and, in response, the buzzers and hooters were sounded at the factories. The Mayor led fellow Council members, Corporation officials and such a large public throng into the Parish Church that every pew, every space and every aisle was filled for a spontaneous Thanksgiving Service.
Even then, the battle was not entirely over. Miss Knight appealed for contributions of part-worn but clean suits, dresses, under-clothing, boots, hats, blankets and warm comforts for men, women and children of all classes in France who were stripped of every comfort by the retreating Germans. And her father formally opened the long-awaited National Restaurant in Kirkgate, promising working class families good hot meals at a low price.
Much more incredibly, on 24 February 1919 Mayor Knight stunned his fellow Council members discussing how to celebrate the end of the War. He offered Northgate House and its grounds to the town. In return, months later, he was granted the Freedom of the Borough. He continued to serve his religion, respectfully referred to as “Newark’s grand old man”, until his death in June 1934.
Written & Researched by Patty Temple, February 2016