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Early Years in Barking


.Barking at the turn of the century (the building on the right can be seen in the next print as well)

1789 cannot have been an easy year for George and Elizabeth Knott. George was a gardener, struggling to cope with the unpredictable weather, and Elizabeth was pregnant,  with a lively four year-old Joseph in tow. Two other children had been born after Joseph, but both had died when very young, so the arrival of a healthy son in September was cause to be thankful. Should he be called George, after his father? Giving him the same name as the present mad King George III and his unpopular son, the future George IV, might be unwise; and one of the children who died when only a few weeks old had been named George, so the omens were not encouraging. Nevertheless a father’s wish to have a son named after him prevailed, and on 4th October 1789 three week old George Alexander Knott was christened, and fortunately, the family’s fortunes started to improve. Within a few years George and Elizabeth had had three more sons, and George began to earn more than just a subsistence wage.

George and Elizabeth had arrived in Barking a few years earlier, following in the footsteps of George’s brother William, who was there already (Note 1). William, like many others at the end of the 18th century, had struggled to find somewhere to settle and bring up his young family. Both the industrial revolution and the Enclosure Acts (Note 2) were causing many people to leave the countryside and move to the cities, and William may well have found it harder to make his living off the land as common ground was taken over by landlords seeking to improve the efficiency of their agriculture. He was also a gardener, whose skills could have been used on the larger farms being created but, for whatever reason, he had been pushed on from parish to parish (Note 3) by the overseers who had no wish to look after his growing family. By the end of the 1770s he had reached Barking, in the South-West corner of Essex and there, at last, he finally he had found the stability he sought.

Chapman and Andre’s map of 1777.The road to London, running East-West through Ilford, and the access to the Thames can be clearly seen.

Barking Quay in the early 19th century showing the thriving fishing industry


George had married ‘Tibs’ in 1782, shortly after William had arrived in Barking (Note 4), and witnessed both the problems that George had faced earlier and the opportunities the area provided. There can have been few doubts in his mind as to where he should settle with his new bride, and so he had joined his brother’s family, renting a house at the North end of the parish in Great Ilford. Barking and, particularly, Ilford were growing steadily, with nearly 4000 people already living there when George and Elizabeth arrived to join William (Note 5).

Since about 1750 the parish had been producing vegetables for the ever growing London market (Note 6) . The transport to the capital was good with the River Roding navigable for barges between Ilford and the Thames. The old Roman road from Colchester to London, used regularly by coaches to the city (Note 7), ran through Ilford, and large vegetable carts, drawn by four horses and fitted with wide wheels, could travel throughout the year as they didn’t dig up the surface too much in winter. Potatoes were the main crop but, along with the more common vegetables, the gardens in Barking were also producing plums, currants, asparagus and walnuts. All this was fertilised with London muck which arrived on large barges at Barking Town Quay, where it was unloaded at the wharf originally built to service the abbey, and taken on carts to the market gardens. In future years the stench would lead to health enquiries (Note 8) and demands for limits on when the transport of manure could take place, but at this time the London night-soil and slaughter house refuse were seen as essential parts of producing the food, and men moving it from the barges to the gardens were a regular sight during the day.


Proximity to London was undoubtedly an advantage, but successful gardening relies on something that cannot be influenced: the weather, which for years had been unpredictable and extreme. Prolonged periods of volcanic eruptions in Iceland were blamed, but all that concerned George was that a very dry 1780 was followed by an exceptionally dry start to 1781 when the sowing took place (Note 9). At the end of the 18th century life was hard for everyone other than the rich, but dry summers and cold winters made it particularly difficult at times, and the first few years of marriage were a struggle.


Two contemporary drawings of the Fairlop Oak




Joseph, the eldest son, was five years older than George, but George, Thomas, Robert, and later John, were close enough in age to enjoy playing together when their father didn’t need any help. The extremes of weather that worried their parents offered young boys plenty of opportunities for games and enjoyment. Streams criss-crossed the parish and the River Roding was a hive of activity as the fishing industry continued to flourish. The area round Barking was considered excellent for grazing, with London butchers paying high rent for fields for their cattle, and the market gardens were very successful as well; but, above all, Barking was renowned for its fishing and had become the largest fishing port in Essex (Note 10). Special Barking smacks of up to 50 tons, designed to allow the fish to be transported alive, worked in small fleets, so that the quay was busy with the noise of these boats, cutters, barges, and other vessels. George and his brothers would have known that a fisherman’s life was hard, but would have enjoyed watching the activity on the water, despite the smell. 

Should they have walked past the quay and across the marshes to the Thames, then a more gruesome reminder of life at the turn of the century would have greeted them. About a mile either side of where the Roding flowed into the Thames, gibbets stood on the banks of the river (Note 11). Hangings no longer took place there, but hanged criminals were strapped into metal cages as a warning to others. Birds picked at the flesh, despite the tarring to slow down the decay, and the odour from the rotting bodies spread across the fields towards Barking. The gibbets were used less often then when Captain Kidd had been hung out at the beginning of the 18th century, but in 1793, a sailor anchored opposite the Roding, on the other side of the river, was appalled at the practice and commented on ‘the number of our countrymen suspended on gibbets in chains on the banks of the Thames as we waited by. (My) soul sickened and revolted at so sad a spectacle…’ (Note 12)


Ilford did not yet have its own church<ref>St. Mary’s, Ilford was consecrated in 1830</ref>, so the Sunday morning walk to St Margaret’s in Barking provided a weekly family outing, but there were few other opportunities for them all to go out together. George was five when London experienced its coldest winter on record, with temperatures going below –20C (Note 13) on one occasion, and it is possible that they would have made the journey to London Bridge to visit the frost fair that had been set up on the ice. It was repeated in similar conditions the following year, but even if the journey had been too difficult, the Roding would also have frozen, disrupting the fishing for months, but giving the children a new place to play. Much closer to home, the whole parish would have turned out for the Barking Fair (Note 14) a few weeks earlier, just three miles North of Ilford. Founded originally as a picnic for friends but now a major event, over 100,000 were said to have attended it at its peak (Note 15) . One observer described it as where 'a great number of people meet in a riotous and tumultuous manner, selling ale and spirituous liquors and keeping tippling booths and gaming tables to the great encouragement of vice and immorality'. It had been banned in 1793, but by the following year it was back again. The huge Fairlop Oak, after which the fair was named, was losing some of its grandeur when George and his family started going there, but it was still an impressive tree with a girth of 36ft and a spread of 116ft. Revellers lighting fires inside its trunk had hastened its demise and with further fire damage in 1805 it finally blew down a few years later.

It is not surprising that most of the boys went on to become gardeners themselves, but George didn’t. It is possible that he started as one, but something changed his mind. He

may just have been restless or ambitious, but his future career suggests that he had a formal education; possibly one that his brothers didn’t have. In 1788, just before George was born, a new workhouse was built in Barking and at the same time the directors opened a ‘free grammar school’ for local children (Note 16). It had two large buildings, one of which housed the master, and offered places for 20 boys and 20 girls in the parish, aged between 7 and 11. There the boys were taught reading, writing and arithmetic (the girls did ‘homespun work’ in place of the arithmetic), were given dinner in the workhouse, and it operated with the minimum of corporal punishment. Was George one of the lucky ones? Perhaps not, but it was not unusual for one child to have a different education from the others; the same pattern would certainly be repeated in the next generation (Note 17)

Serving in the Navy

George would have left school shortly after the turn of the century. On a national scale the next few years would be dominated by the war with Napoleon. Essex could see this clearly with Martello Towers being built on the coast and the Thames Estuary in case of invasion from France and parishes each having to make plans to allow the whole county to evacuate under a scorched earth policy should ‘Boney’ succeed in landing. During the war the poor suffered as wage increases were far outstripped by the rise in food prices, but, as gardeners, the family may have been spared the worst of this. By the start of 1813 George was a young man of twenty-three, possibly still working for his father, but probably educated and seeking to change his life. Young men were under pressure to join the naval reserve and on 7th December he went down to Deptford and became one of the 150,000 men (2% of the total workforce (Note 18)

who were serving in the English navy. The ship he joined was HMS Hebrus, a newly built, 44 gun frigate preparing for her first voyage. Normally those who had no experience became Landsmen, and were responsible for looking after the tackle, sails and swabbing the decks, but George became an Ordinary Seaman, suggesting that he had some experience of sailing, possibly with the Barking fishermen (Note 19).


Hebrus had taken on stores already, so a week later, on 18th December 1813 she set sail from Deptford with a complement of 284 men. Life on board was hard, but no harder than for many back in England. The food was repetitive, based on a cycle of bread, salted beef and pork, pease, oatmeal, butter and cheese, together with the lime juice to prevent scurvy, but it was regular, and not as bad or as full of weevils as often thought. There was also a daily ration of a gallon of beer and a pint of grog, so it was hardly surprising that drunkenness was an issue, for which men were flogged regularly. Space was at a premium and George would have had to make do with 14” of width for his hammock, with privacy non-existent. Volunteers were normally paid a bounty on joining, and pay for an Ordinary Seaman was set at £14 a year.

Sailors were also required to buy suitable clothing from the purser – in George’s case, it cost him 3/9d (Note 20) –  although many wore their own clothes.


Many sailors wore their own clothes


As a new ship Hebrus had an inexperienced crew, so the first days would have been spent training. As well as learning how the ship ran on a day-to-day basis, George and the others would have practised firing the cannons and all the other aspects of war. The efficiency of these ships was a result of teamwork in everything that was done; the men were split into two watches, one of which worked while the other slept. Watches were then divided into groups, each with their own tasks to do according to their abilities. For eating the watches were organized into messes of up to a dozen men, each mess having its own allocation of food which they ate together on a table slung from the beams.

The men expected to fight and were very aware of the possibility of death, but disease was actually a much bigger killer than war, with almost two thirds of deaths attributable to poor hygiene and conditions. Accidents were then the next biggest cause; war killed less than 10%, but the prospect of hand to hand fighting must have worried many much more. That prospect arrived sooner than expected and before the crew was fully prepared.

French ships almost always sailed in pairs, and on January 23rd 1814 the British ships Creole & Astraea had come across La Sultane and L'Etoile off the Cape Verde Islands. A fierce running fight had taken place from which the French ships had eventually escaped and headed for St Malo. Off Roscoff, on March 26th, they almost ran down the sloop, Sparrow, disabling her rigging, but the Hebrus was close by and engaged. Her gunfire attracted the Hannibal which bore down and captured the Sultane while signalling to the Hebrus to pursue Etoile. The fifteen hour chase and final capture is described in the following report by Hebrus’ captain, Edmund Palmer:

The Hebrus and L'Etoile by Nicholas Pocock


"We continued in pursuit the whole day with our canvas spread. About midnight we reached the race of Alderney and with wind scanting, we began to gain on him fast; by the time we had run the length of point Jobourg, heading for the Bay of La Hogue, he was obliged to attempt rounding it almost within the wash of the breakers; and here we were fortunate enough at between one and two in the morning, to bring him to battle; we crossed his stern, our jib boom passing over his taffrail, and shot in betwixt him and the shore in eight fathoms of water, and it falling nearly calm at this time, the ships continued nearly in the same spot until the conclusion of the action. At its commencement we suffered considerably in our rigging, the enemy, firing high, shot away our foretopmast and foreyard and crippled our mainmast and bowsprit and cut away almost every shroud, stay and brace we had. Our fire from the first, and throughout was directed at our opponent's hull, and the ships being as close together as they could be without touching, he suffered most severely, every shot that struck passing through him. About 4 o'clock his mizenmast fell by the board, and his fire ceased, when after an obstinate contest of two hours and a quarter he hailed us to say that he had struck his colours. The moment we could get possession it was necessary to put the heads of both ships offshore to get clear of a battery which had been firing at both of us during the whole action, those on shore not being able, from the darkness, to distinguish one from the other. We anchored soon afterwards in Vauville Bay. I have to report the loss of some brave men, 13 killed and 25 wounded, some of them dangerously. The Etoile had 40 men killed and 70 injured."


Captain Palmer’s account gives the important facts but tells little of the confusion, terror and slaughter that surrounded the sailors. A contemporary sailor described fighting a sea battle with more feeling (Note 22)


A strange noise, such as I had never heard before, next arrested my attention; it sounded like the tearing of sails, just over our heads. This I soon ascertained to be the wind of the enemy's shot. The firing, after a few minutes' cessation, recommenced. The roaring of cannon could now be heard from all parts of our trembling ship, and, mingling as it did with that of our foes, it made a most hideous noise. By-and-by I heard the shot strike the sides of our ship; the whole scene grew indescribably confused and horrible; it was like some awfully tremendous thunder-storm, whose deafening roar is attended by incessant streaks of lightning, carrying death in every flash and strewing the ground with the victims of its wrath: only, in our case, the scene was rendered more horrible than that, by the presence of torrents of blood which dyed our decks.


Sailors could often not hear anything for days after a fight and the sight of limbs lying on deck, of dead colleagues being thrown overboard during the battle, and the closeness of the enemy must have been difficult to deal with.



The medal that George could have claimed in 1847

The entry in HMS Hebrus’ muster book with ‘R’ next to George’s name showing that he ‘ran away’ from the ship


How far along his journey to the middle classes had George now come? Rebecca was six months pregnant when they married, which would have been apparent at the service, and she herself had been born illegitimate (Note 27), although she had been given her father’s surname, and her parents married two years later. Neither of the witnesses at the wedding were members of either family – had they stayed away, disapproving, or had they simply not signed? Rebecca’s family did have some distance to travel, so may not have been there; indeed they may have expected to have had the wedding in Norfolk where they lived. Her father had been a widow when he married Rebecca’s mother, and educated enough to write his name, but had stayed in Norfolk, possibly as a farmer. There is no clear reason as to why Rebecca left Ingham and came to London, but shortly after marrying she and George moved to be closer to his work as a barrister’s clerk in Chancery Lane, and soon afterwards their first son, George, was born.



London, at this time, was not a pleasant place to live. Dirt, damp, fog and smoke combined to make the air unpleasant, and in winter it felt like a twilight zone for much of the day. The American ambassador in 1817 recalled that the fog was so thick at New Year that the Bond Street shops had their lights on at noon (Note 28), and the poorer areas must have seemed considerably worse. To those brought up in the country, such as George and Rebecca, the city was probably a dismal place.

Return to London and Marriage

Christchurch Newgate, with part of Christ’s Hospital school visible on the left of the picture

Newgate prison when George and Rebecca were living nearby


George’s sudden re-appearance must have come as a surprise to his family. Once the war ended the navy would have been less likely to look for him, but initially he was a wanted man and needed to avoid recapture. Choosing to live in the city may have been to find suitable work, but it was also a good hiding place.

By the end of 1817 George must have felt that he was safe, and in December he married Rebecca Scott Boutell at Christchurch, Newgate (Note 25). The Wren church stood next to Christ’s Hospital School, which one of George’s sons was to attend fifteen years later, and both George and Rebecca must have lived nearby as they are both ‘of this parish’ on the marriage certificate. The church is surrounded by London landmarks with St Paul’s immediately to the south, St Bartholomew’s hospital to the north, and the Old Bailey and Newgate prison close by, representing both the beauty and the squalor of the city. Public hangings outside Newgate were still common and Elizabeth Fry, who had recently visited Newgate prison, was now campaigning to improve the conditions there, particularly for the women and children (Note 26).

The fight was the last major naval engagement of the war and Hebrus returned to Plymouth with her prize. Shortly afterwards she set sail across the Atlantic, passing Bermuda on her way to Washington (Note 23), where a landing party took part in the raid that burned down the White House. A few days afterwards those on board were to witness the first flying of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’- the new American flag – as the ship passed near Fort McHenry in Baltimore (Note 24). George, however, was not on board. He had deserted shortly after landing in Plymouth.

We will never know why. Perhaps he was simply scared. Perhaps, as an educated man, he found it difficult to live with the type of men who joined the navy. Running away was a very brave or a very foolish thing to do as he gave up all the money he was owed, including his share of the prize money<ref>The 1808 regulations increased the fraction of the prize money awarded to the junior crew members (midshipmen and below) to over a quarter of the total for capturing L’Etoile (often a significant amount) as the navy bought any captured ships. If George had been caught, however, the punishment would have been severe. Discipline on board a ship was harsh, with floggings even for minor offences. Had George been captured immediately he may have just faced a flogging, but the longer he remained uncaptured the more likely it was that he would be court-martialled and even hung. When, forty years later, the navy introduced the Naval General Service medal, for which those who been in the fight between the Etoile and Hebrus were eligible, it was perhaps not surprising that George was not one of those forty survivors who did apply for one. One unanswered question remains, though: why did George choose to name one of his sons Thomas Hebrus Knott? Was he looking back with rose tinted spectacles, or just trying to hide something from his family?


The Inner Temple Library, home to both George Knott and Charles Warman

Serjeant's Inn in Chancery Lane

Mr Henry Merewether, serjeant-at-law

1820 and 1821 were emotional years for both George and his royal namesake. On the national stage ‘mad’ King George III had died, and the Prince Regent had become George IV, but had refused to allow his wife to be crowned Queen, and had locked her out of his coronation (an event that had been eighteen months in the planning). The grandeur of that event cannot have passed George and Rebecca by, especially as the procession after the service had passed close by their house, but those same eighteen months had their own more domestic dramas. Although Rebecca had now had a third son, two of George’s brothers – William and John – had died as young adults, and his mother had died shortly afterwards, perhaps brought on by grief. As George went back to Barking for his mother’s funeral the differences between his life and those of his brothers must have been very clear. He was the only son not to have followed in his father’s footsteps and become gardeners. While they continued to work on the outskirts of London, first in Walthamstow, and then later on the other side of the city in Clapham, he was working at the heart of the capital, beginning to mix with men who were influential at the highest level, and had started to fulfil the Victorian ideal of bettering himself.

Clerks were the backbone of Victorian life. As a clerk to a barrister George was at the higher end of a profession that also included the humblest of office juniors. Part of George’s success was the result of hanging onto the coat tails of a very successful man but, as Anthony Trollope wrote about Mr Crabwitz, a barrister’s clerk in Orley Farm, he ‘considered that no inconsiderable portion of the barrister’s success had been attributable to his own energy and genius’. Clerks were expected to do everything for their barrister. Lovel, the clerk to another fictional barrister of the time, was described as ‘at once his clerk, his good servant, his dresser, his friend, his ‘flapper’, his guide, stop-watch, auditor, treasurer. He did nothing without consulting Lovel, or failed in any thing without expecting and fearing his admonishing’ (Note 29). Not all clerks had this much influence over their barrister, but the relationship would have been close.

George was clerk to Henry Merewether, who had become a barrister in 1809, and was winning a variety of cases on the Western circuit (including the defence of John Seymour Esq who was accused of ‘an offence that cannot be named, with a young man (his footman).’) (Note 30). In 1827 Henry was made a serjeant-at-law, and in 1832 he became solicitor-general to Queen Adelaide, the wife of King William. Henry was a Whig (so must have used all his barrister’s skills when working for Queen Adelaide, an extreme Tory) and a loud voice in the movement for political reform. Whether these views fitted those of George it is impossible to say, but he would have been privy to much of the discussion surrounding the issues and, as a house owner, one of the beneficiaries of the Reform Act in 1832.

Barrister's Clerk

George’s father had died in 1831. In his will<ref>Public Record Office PROB 10/5244</ref> he left less than a hundred pounds to his surviving sons, but it was unusual for a gardener to leave a will at all. As well as some good furniture, he had clearly been saving money in the London Provident Institution and been living a comfortable life; he wore a signet ring and hunting watch for instance. Perhaps, surrounded by the city and the law, George had persuaded his father to save, and then to leave a will. Or perhaps it was his father’s ideals that had encouraged George to better himself. Whichever it was, George and his family continued to prosper; only a daughter eluded them. By 1834 George (one of five brothers) and Tibs had had six sons of their own, their only daughter dying very young; but then, at last, a daughter was born who survived, and their family was complete.

For a number of years they had lived in Chancery Lane, in a house owned by Henry Merewether (Note 31). George had been described as a ‘gentleman’ (Note 32)>; from at least 1831 and he was encouraging the next generation to follow in his footsteps: the 1841 census shows George and all his sons (except Frederick) as clerks, as if born to the role. Frederick was too young to be a clerk, but was about to go to Christ’s Hospital, the city school next to the church where his parents had married. George was now earning £150 a year from his position as a barrister’s clerk<ref>Frederick Knott’s application papers to Christ’s Hospital (Guildhall Library) (Note 33) - and the opportunity to send his son to so well-known a school , possible in no small part thanks to the men he now knew, was seized with enthusiasm. 


Frederick's signature on the application to Christ's Hospital

The annual oration in 1844 at Christ's Hospital which Frederick and his family would have attended


Part of George's application to Christ's Hospital including William Tooke's signature

Frederick’s application papers required the signatures of three ‘house holders’ who were known to George. Unsurprisingly they were all solicitors and attorneys, but they included William Tooke, (Note 34) the distinguished lawyer, scientist, philanthropist and Member of Parliament who, with others, would go on to found the Law Society the following year, and the Royal Society for the Arts two year later. One of the others was George Faulkner who had started as a clerk to some solicitors (Note 35) before becoming an attorney and partner in the same firm. His career may have been one that George wished to emulate.

Crime was a part of every day life, despite the harsh punishments, and George experienced it at first hand in 1836 when he was pickpocketed. His statement<ref>Proceedings of The Old Bailey 14 July 1826</ref> in the Old Bailey tells the story:

On the 18th of May I was walking along the Strand, by Pickett-street, near Boswell-court, and felt a twitch at my pocket—I turned round, received information from a young man, and took hold of the prisoner, who was standing still, as I missed my handkerchief—he said, "What?" and directly ran up the court—he had heard the young man said that he had got my handkerchief—he broke from me, and ran up Boswell-court—he was pursued by Caley, and I followed, but he ran faster than I could—Caley caught him, without my losing sight of him—I have not found my handkerchief since.

The accused, a 20 year-old called Edward Simpson, claimed innocence; but he was not believed and transported for life for stealing a handkerchief worth 2s.


St Andrew's, Holborn, where Charles Dickens was a regular visitor


George and his family were parishioners at St Andrew’s, Holborn, where all the children were baptized, and many of these men would have been fellow parishioners. It was a large and fashionable church, where men such as Charles Dickens were regular visitors, and future prime ministers were baptized<ref>Benjamin Disraeli was baptized there in 1817.</ref>. The market gardens of Barking must have seemed a world away from this society.


George was not, of course, one of the movers and shakers himself. Although he rubbed shoulders with these powerful lawyers his close friends remained the other clerks in his practice. His closest friend was Charles Warman, who was clerk to another barrister in the Inner Temple<ref>Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1828 following a theft of china from Charles’ shop.</ref>. Charles was originally, and remained, the owner of a china and glass shop in Islington, but he, too, was ambitious. He had run the shop with the help of his first wife (Note 36) who had died childless. Now, quite late in life, he had started a family with his second wife, and was combining the shop with his career as a clerk. In honour of their friendship Charles named his daughter Alice Knott Warman and George returned the compliment by naming his third son Charles Henry Knott – the Henry possibly after Henry Merewether.


Henry Merewether had written a paper arguing the case for the City of London’s rights to the banks of the Thames and, partly as a result of this paper, he was elected Town Clerk of London. He is said to have taken a salary cut of £5000 a year, but the position was an influential one, and it is probably not entirely coincidental that George Knott became an Inspector of Weights in the city shortly afterwards. That same influence was surely at work a few years later, in 1847, when Frederick finished at Christ’s Hospital and, the very next day, became a clerk in the Town Clerk’s office. He had only spent four or five years at the school, wearing the traditional blue coat and yellow stockings, but he had achieved academic success, winning a mathematics prize (Note 37) and, at fifteen, was considered old enough for the workplace.

The Move to North London

George’s promotion must have been met with mixed emotions by his friend Charles, who was glad to see his colleague’s promotion, but envious of that success. By sending letters to those he felt had influence, including Lord Brougham<ref>Brougham papers London University GB 0103 BROUGHAM BL</ref>, a close Whig colleague of men such as William Tooke, soon he too had achieved an improved position as High Bailiff in Clerkenwell, and the two friends were again on an equal footing. George’s new position brought him increased wealth as well as status, so he felt it was time to move out of Chancery Lane and into the suburbs of Pentonville. The house, in Penton Place, had been built nearly fifty years before, but there was green around, and it was more pleasant for the family. Although they may never have met, Charles Dickens had stalked George’s life: they often went to the same church; Dickens’ publisher lived just off Chancery Lane and readings took place at his house; Dickens himself had been a lawyer’s clerk between 1827/8; and now George had become a real life Mr Guppy, just as the character was rising from the pages of Bleak House. Mr Guppy, like George, was a barrister’s clerk who worked in Chancery Lane and lived in Penton Place, which he described as:


‘...lowly, but airy, open at the back, and considered one of the ‘ealthiest outlets. Miss Summerson.’ (Note 38)

The large, open space to the South-East of Penton Place was Myddleton Gardens. You could cross it to a gymnasium, or walk a little further East to Sadler’s Wells theatre. That had been the stamping ground of Grimaldi, better known as Joey the Clown, who a few of George’s neighbours remembered living in Penton Place years earlier, but Sadler’s Wells had not been a success since then and was a shadow of its former self when the Knott family moved nearby. Fortunately their arrival coincided with the appointment of Samuel Phelps as manager of Sadler’s Wells. The Theatres Act in 1843 had broken the duopoly that existed in London and Samuel Phelps took advantage. Starting with Macbeth in 1844 he put on a series of Shakespearean and other plays, which George and his family could have enjoyed.


The Victorians walked large distances and George would still have walked to work from the new house. ‘If the distance is not more than three miles, a walk one way….and if the occupation be sedentary, such as a clerk’s, the walk both ways when the weather is dry, is not more than sufficient exercise for one in health. (Note 39) Walking would often have been quicker than taking a horse-drawn carriage as many of the London streets were so crammed with wagons carrying people and goods, that nothing could move.


Sadler's Wells theatre in the 1840s

Mr Guppy of Bleak House: barrister's clerk of Chancery Lane and Penton Place


Newgate market in 1845

George’s work as an Inspector of weights was necessary because of the widespread use of ‘slang’- counterfeit weights and measures. Costers justified their use as a way of competing with those who were selling stolen goods at cheap prices:

‘There's plenty of costers wouldn't use slangs at all, if people would give a fair price; but you see the boys will try it on for their bunts, and how is a man to sell fine cherries at 4d. a pound that cost him 3½d., when there's a kid alongside of him a selling his `tol' at 2d. a pound, and singing it out as bold as brass? So the men slangs it, and cries `2d. a pound,' and gives half-pound, as the boy does; which brings it to the same thing.’(Note 40)


..and explained how they worked:


The slang pint holds in some cases three-fourths of the just quantity, having a very thick bottom; others hold only half a pint, having a false bottom half-way up. The scales used are almost all true, but the weights are often beaten out flat to look large, and are 4, 5, 6, or even 7 oz. deficient in a pound, and in the same relative proportion with other weights.


Not all the costers approved of slang, partly because the inspectors were making it increasingly difficult in the City, and partly because they were unnecessary for the expert:


One candid costermonger expressed his perfect contempt of slangs, as fit only for bunglers, as he could always "work slang" with a true measure. "Why, I can cheat any man," he said. "I can manage to measure mussels so as you'd think you got a lot over, but there's a lot under measure, for I holds them up with my fingers and keep crying, ‘Mussels! full measure, live mussels!' I can do the same with peas. I delight to do it with a stingy aristocrat. We don't work slang in the City. People know what they're a buying on there. There's plenty of us would pay for an inspector of weights; I would. We might do fair without an inspector, and make as much if we only agreed one with another.’

‘There are not half so many slangs as there was eighteen months ago," said a `general dealer'. "You see, sir, the letters in the Morning Chronicle set people a talking, and some altered their way of business”.


Despite the comparative rarity of slang in the city, George made about 400 convictions a year, totalling over £150 (Note 41). He had an incentive, as it was a condition of his employment that half of each fine he made went into his own pocket!

The family did not stay long in Pentonville and by 1851 they had bought a house in Upper Barnsbury Street, Islington. It was newly-built and in a row of fashionable terraced houses, a few hundred yards from the centre of Islington, but at the ‘wrong end’ of the street, as it stood opposite the Islington Workhouse. When the workhouse had been built in 1777 it had been surrounded by fields, but London was expanding northwards and the building now had housing on all sides. It would not be many years before a new workhouse was built, but in 1845 it detracted a little from the gentility of the area. Islington was growing but felt very different from central London. The Rev Henry Coleman, a minister from Boston, Massachussetts, visited the area just before the Knotts moved and felt he had ‘escaped the distracting bustle and din of London for quiet lodgings in Islington’. (Note 42)

Firmly in the Middle Class

George’s neighbours were a mixture of the new middle classes together with some of the more successful tradesmen. Clerks and those of independent means rubbed shoulders with printers and warehousemen. A grocer and druggist lived on one side of him (Note 43), while on the other were the Lloyds, who were to become good friends with the Knotts. William Lloyd had just returned from India, after years of service in the Indian Civil Service. William had been born in Calcutta, had come back to England to marry, and then returned to Calcutta to raise his family surrounded by the pomp of the sub-continent. India was the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire and the George would have enjoyed comparing lifestyles in London and Calcutta. The family friendship would eventually lead to one of George’s sons, Charles, marrying one of William’s daughters, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that the families would have socialised together. Both Rebecca and Charles were musicians (Note 43), so would have been the centre of many of the musical evenings so beloved by the Victorian middle class. As well as this more intimate entertainment, the family would undoubtedly have joined the millions who flocked to see the Great Exhibition of 1851, organized by Prince Albert to show off the power of the British Empire, as well as the countless other opportunities to be entertained. George had worked hard to earn his place in the middle classes, and he would now be enjoying the benefits of that hard work.


Workhouse in Barnsbury Street short;y before the Knott's house was built where the cows are standing; and the street a few years later.


Islington in 1850

Even the middle classes had to put up with London air though, which was becoming more and more distasteful, and even dangerous, each year. The manure from the cattle and horses was no longer taken out to the vegetable fields of Barking and elsewhere, so remained in the city; the population was growing rapidly; local industries, such as the nearby kilns, stank; and, in particular, the advent of 20,000 ‘water closets’ meant that the Thames had ceased to be the beautiful river it was even at the start of Victoria’s reign, but was now an open sewer. As early as 1842 Friedrich Engels, on a visit to London, had complained of the smell (Note 44), but fifteen years later it was unbearable. It was not until 1858, the year of the ‘Great Stink’, when the stench made MPs retch in the Houses of Parliament, that something started to be done, and Thomas Bazalgette started on his magnum opus: the London sewer system. Unfortunately the northern section did not open until shortly after George’s death, so he spent his last years living with the ever increasing smell, but Islington had become a prosperous suburb with fashionable shops and easy communication, so was a fashionable place to live.


George spent the last twenty years of his life in Upper Barnsbury Street. His reports as an inspector of weights for the city stopped in 1854, when he would have been sixty-five, although he was still calling himself an inspector several years later (Note 45). Six of his seven children married, and each of those had produced at least one grandchild for him during his lifetime. All the families lived close by, so he could have seen them regularly. All seven children survived him, although shortly before his own death, his daughter-in-law, the daughter of his close friend Charles Warman, died in childbirth.


Thomas Boutell as a police officer


The last of George’s own brothersdied in 1858, but they were all based on the other side of London in the Surrey suburbs and living very different lives to the one George had made for himself. Rebecca’s only brother would outlive them both, and still lived in the village where Rebecca and he had been born. First as a weaver, then as a publican, and finally as a farmer he too had lived a different life from his sister, but his son, Thomas,went on to become Deputy Chief Constable of the Norfolk Police, so middle class respectability was just around the corner. News of Thomas Boutell’s successful career would have reached Islington and, a few years before George died, the family would have been shocked to hear that he had been shot at while chasing a murderer across a field in Norfolk (Note 46). His rise through the ranks, though, would have come as more pleasant news.


By the standards of his age George should have died a happy man. He lived to be nearly eighty and died at home with his wife, eldest son (Note 47), and perhaps others beside him. He had been successful, albeit in a limited way, but he was the first of what was to be generations of clerks, clergy and teachers. Surprisingly, neither he nor Rebecca left a will, but he had ensured prosperity for his family. He may well have taken the guilty secret about Hebrus to the grave but, to the rest of the world he was the archetypal Victorian gentleman and a pillar of the community. Such an epitaph would have pleased him.


1.This may be the other way round; or William may not be a brother. William had a child baptized in Barking in 1779 and George/Elizabeth married in London in 1782 before having children in Barking later. However, Elizabeth may be the Elizabeth Beale baptized in Barking in 1754 - the names and dates fit and there are several references to her father, Joseph, being a gardener in Barking with some money - in which case she could have lived in Barking all her life.

2.Thousands of 'Enclosure Acts' were passed by Parliament from 1750 to 1850 as larger farms were considered more efficient. These Acts often forced smaller farmers and allotment owners to sell to larger landowners, creating many landless and dispossessed people who moved to the cities in search of a living.

3. Settlement certificate dated 1775 (Essex Record Office) moving William, Martha, Joseph (4), Henrietta(2) and William (7m) Knott from Bocking to Finchingfield.

4. It has not been proved that William was George’s brother (although whether he was is not important to George’s story). In the absence of a will or baptismal records the evidence in favour is: a) George and William were both gardeners; b) George and William’s families form the only Knott entries in the Barking registers from 1775 – 1820; c) both George and William named their eldest son Joseph (a fairly rare name at that time) suggesting that Joseph was their common father. 

5. Victoria County History of Essex quoting Lysons, London, iv, 100, 1796

6. VCH p216

7. Baldwin’s New Complete Guide 1768 & 1770

8. General Board of Health 1852

9. History of British Weather:

10. A History of Essex by A.C.Edwards p53

11. Chapman and Andre: 1777 map of Essex

12. George Tobin – Journal on HMS Providence 1791-3. Written Sept 1793

13. History of British Weather: 

14. VCH p218

15. Hainault Forest website:

16. Barking Workhouse Act (1786)

17. Frederick was the only one of George’s children to attend Christ’s Hospital


19. HMS Hebrus musters

20. Nelson’s Sailors by Gregory Fremont-Barnes

21. Official report

22. Samuel Leech’s Account of War at Sea 1812

23. HMS Hebrus log

24. Account by Robert Barratt, midshipman on HMS Hebrus 1814

25. Original marriage certificate preserved in Christ’s Hospital records

26. Various histories

27. Norfolk Record Office: South Ingham registers

28. Richard Rush, son of one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, and US ambassador to England for eight years.

29. Charles Lamb: Essays of Elia (1833) – Old Benchers of the Inner Temple. The character of Lovel is based on his father.

30. Salisbury and Winchester Journal Aug 6th 1827

31. Postal directory 1841

32. 1832 baptismal certificate for Frederick Knott preserved in Christ’s Hospital records in The Guildhall Library

33. Prime Minister Peel introduced an income tax of 7% in 1842 for those earning more than £150 a year.

34. William Tooke (1777 – 1863) had a leading role in the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce and the Royal Literary Fund and was among the founders of the London University, the Royal Society of Literature, and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. He became President of the Royal Society of Arts.

35. Proceedings of The Old Bailey 6 Dec 1815

36. Proceedings of The Old Bailey

37. Medal (mathematics prize) named and dated 1847 in author’s possession

38. Bleak House, Chapter 9

39.The Magazine of Domestic Economy, 1840, quoted in Victorian London, 1840-70, by Liza Picard

40.London labour and the London poor 1851, 1861-2; Henry Mayhew

41. Returns

42.A history of Islington by Mary Cosh

43.1851 census

44.Victorian London, 1840-70 by Liza Picard

45.1851 census

46. Newspaper report

47. George’s death certificate 1865

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