Death of Mr Henry Knight Observer August 10, 1895
We have to record the death of Mr Henry Knight, of the Arcade, at the age of 75. As there are few men who have played such a prominent part in the history of our town as Mr Henry Knight has done, his death is worthy of something more than a passing reference. There can be no doubt that Mr Knight was a very remarkable man. and had he been blessed with the advantages of a better education, he might possibly have played a still more prominent part in the world. He came to Ryde about 40 years ago, and became possessed of the Arcade. He soon took an interest in local affairs, and was noted as one who was always in opposition. He possessed the power, not often seen in laymen, of assimilating Acts of Parliament. As he was ever ready to give a legal opinion, and to quote chapter and verse in support of his contention, he soon became known as the “Amateur Lawyer”, a soubriquet which gave way, later on, to that of the “People’s Henry”, as he always professed to champion the cause of the ratepayers. By many he became regarded as an unprincipled agitator – a regular fire-brand – while others considered him as an honest man, whose only object was to battle with jobbery and corruption. In truth he possessed all the qualities of a reformer. His enthusiasm and energy knew no bounds, and those who disliked the man could not help admiring the ability and energy with which he fought any battle in which he was engaged. At first he was not taken seriously, but a time soon arrived when it was discovered what a potent force he was. The question which agitated the community and created an amount of ill-feeling which can hardly be understood by the present generation , was that of through communication. As soon as the Isle of Wight Railway was projected, the question arose how people were to be conveyed from the steamers by the railway. A company was promoted by Mr W Webster, QC (the father of our present member, Mr Richard Webster), called the Ferry Company. They built a pier (now the Bathing Pier) and a number of docks, and their object was to place people in the railway carriages directly they arrived, and carry them across a viaduct over the Esplanade, near the Castle, through East Street, and thence through the Marshes to the railway. As that part of the Esplanade immediately east of the Pier became covered with wharves and docks the scheme, though warmly championed by Mr Benjamin Barrow, became most unpopular. The Ryde Board of Commissioners declared perpetual war against the Ferry Company, and thousands of pounds were spent by the Commissioners and by the Pier Company, till at last the Ferry Company were obliged to succumb, their affairs were wound up in Chancery, and their powerful rivals, the Pier Company, became possessed of their partially-completed pier, docks and works. But the question of providing through communication became mnore urgent as traffic increased. The Pier Company having obtained a Tramway Act in 1862, it became known that they intended to carry the tramway along the Esplanade and through Monkton Street. There was a great deal of prejudice against tramways at that time. The whole town was up in arms, and the subject of our notice was to the fore in opposition, as usual. The opposition succeeded, and several other attempts to settle the question failed. Mr George Young (a gentleman whose ability had brought him fortune) then joined the Pier Company with the express object, as he declared, of settling the question of through communication and bringing the Railway down to the Pier. Under this gentleman’s astute guidance the Pier Company began enclosing that portion of the Esplanade which is now the Gardens in order to run a railway and make a station there. People barely realised what was to be done at first, but when, in 1870, the work commenced and it was seen that the best part of the front of this town was to be occupied by railway works, public indignation rose to a perfect furore. Mr Knight was quite in his element as the leader of the opposition, and his popularity with a certain section of his fellow townsmen became unbounded. The town was divided into Knightites and anti-Knightites, who hated each other with a cordiality suggestive of the times of the Montagues and Capulets. A certain section of the Corporation, who were said to have shares in the Pier Company, were accused of being traitors to the town, and of deliberately surrendering public property of enormous value to, and placing the town under the heel of, a powerful company. Another question which still further aroused indignation was a proposal to purchase the Gas Works, which was likewise denounced by Mr Knight as “a job”. He was the principal agent in founding a Ratepayers’ Association, which was soon joined by the most influential ratepayers of the town. Their object was to remove all those members of the Council suspected of being connected with public companies. Mr Knight succeeded in gaining a seat on the Town Council in the November election of 1871. Then the fun began! We have not space to describe the irritation of that remarkable time, nor the whole of the steps taken by the Ratepayers’ Association, of which Sir Collingwood Dickson, Bart., was chairman. Suffice it to say that when Mr Knight obtained, as a member of the Council, access to the Corporation minutes and books, he soon began to make accusations of illegal expenditure. Appeals to Quarter Sessions against the rates, the issue of writs upon the old members of the Council for such sums as £700 and £800, were amongst the incidents of the exciting time when Alderman James Dashwood was mayor. The result was that eventually the harrassed members of the Corporation, whom Mr Knight denounced as “the clique”, resigned in a body, (with the exception of Mr Thomas White), and the leading members of the Ratepayers’ Association took their places. Mr Leach was elected Mayor, and Sir Collingwood Dickson, General Jeffreys and Mr Bowlby were placed on the Aldermanic Bench. Such a complete turnabout had never before been seen perhaps in the history of any town, and it was unquestioningly largely due to the pertinacity of Henry Knight, who attained such an influence in the new Council that he was sometimes called the Dictator. At other times Mr Leach and General Jeffreys were joined with him, and dubbed “The Triumvirate”. But no sooner had Mr Knight been wafted by the peculiar circumstances of the time into office, than his popularity began sensibly to decline. He had been regarded as the “incorruptible”, but it soon became evident that he was not to remain unassailed. The first blow to his prestige, was that directly he got into power – after having clamoured for a legal Town Clerk – he put one of his proteges, who had no knowledge of the work, into office. There were also stories of gas meters (of which he was found to be the agent), &c, while he alienated friends by the rancour with which he pursued those who had retired from office. Very few wanted to see townsmen who had made mistakes in carrying out public duties, ruined by legal proceedings. But Mr Knight and his friends showed little mercy, so the star of Mr Knight and his colleagues began sensibly to decline, and eventually the old members, headed by Dr Barrow, got back to power again. A singular thing contributed to Mr Knight’s retirement from public life. Mrs Girling and a number of her “Shaker” disciples paid a visit to Ryde, and held a mission at the Victoria Rooms. Mr Knight was completely fascinated by the singular doctrines propounded, and became a constant attendant. On one occasion, when the women were gyrating and dancing on the platform, to the astonishment of everyone, Mr Knight rose and declared his solemn belief and conviction that Mrs Girling was a re-incarnation of Christ; that the dancing girls were under the influence of the Holy Spirit; and that the end of all things was at hand! From that time forth he championed the cause of the “Shakers” as vigorously as he had combatted his opponents in local matters. He spent much of his substancein supporting the “Shaker” community, who had an encampment at Hordle. The members of that community suffered terrible hardships, but they were told they could none of them die unless they were guilty of sin. Some of them did die from the suffering they had to go through. It was not, however, till the prophetess herself passed away, that her disciples lost faith. It need hardly be said that Mr Knight’s adherence to this movement lost him all his local influence. He has never been taken seriously since. Mr Knight’s abilities have been displayed in other directions than those we have indicated. He was the original inventor of the ingenious horse clipping machine which (in an improved form) is now so well known. He was likewise the patentee of other ingenious contrivances, including a tin-opener, which is also still sold. He claimed to be the first in the field with an automatic weighing machine. We do not think his patents brought him much money; he had, however, not a few lawsuits about them, in which he took unfailing delight. In private life Mr Knight was an estimable citizen, his chief fault being the truly British one of pugnacity, which led hiim to be an uncommonly hard hitter. He liked to take the weaker side, and if possible win the victory. We believe it was this feeling, as much as anything else, which made him sympathise with, and work so hard for Mrs Girling and her fanatical disciples. There can be no question that in Mr Henry Knight we have lost one of the most remarkable men who ever came into Ryde, but it is also true that he was the means of sowing much ill-feeling and many dissensions which are only just beginning to subside.