Knight Family Archives Transcription Project

Portrait painting of F.W. Knight

Frederic Winn Knight                          



This project was stimulated by the fascinating talk at our June 2019 coffee morning which was from Rob Wilson-North of the Exmoor National Park Authority.  Rob talked about the Knight family of Simonsbath, who transformed the landscape of Exmoor in the 19th century.  John Knight bought the Forest of Exmoor in 1820 and set about transforming it.  His son, Frederic (sometimes Frederick) Winn Knight spent the greater part of his adult life farming the land around Simonsbath and worked hard to make a success of it.  He was also an MP for over four decades from 1841 and was knighted in 1886.

Simonsbath in the 19th century 

Many of the family’s letters were discovered, largely forgotten, in an attic in Kidderminster but are now safely stored in the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton. No one has read them all yet!  They give a real insight into life at the time.  The letters have been scanned and now need to be transcribed and indexed.  Volunteers from Minehead U3A are working on transcribing the documents and have so far completed over 300 documents.  If you would like to help with this research please get in touch with Hilary Fisk. The nature of the work is that it can be done at home – with a computer. 

Old documents on a table<  Some of the Knight Family documents photographed in 2016 An example of a letter from the archive  or Click here to see a typical document scan  

a 19th century letter


The Exmoor Abstract

One transcriber is tackling the substantial multi-page ‘Exmoor Abstract’ – an account book of expenditure on fences, drainage, cottage building and construction materials purchase.  

Catherine Knight (no relation!) writes “In transcribing the accounts for work carried out for the Knight family, I’ve so far covered May to November 1819.  The accounts cover everything from building roads and bridges, digging canals and drains, building and repairing properties and quarrying, to paying blacksmith and labourers, providing ale for workers, buying and planting beech masts and haws, buying wheelbarrows, buckets and shovels, and buying writing paper and office supplies.  Some of this really makes me stop and think.  Are the beech masts planted in 1819 the beech trees and hedges on Exmoor we see today?  Why did one labourer get paid more than another?  How did they order or where did they get their purchases?  Certainly not from the corner shop!  In one month – November 1819 – the Knights spent a total of £358 9s 11d, which was a lot of money 200 years ago (over £25,000 today).” The total spend during 1819/20 was nearly £4000 – an immense sum for the time. 

u3a members who have assisted in the Project  
Hilary Fisk (Team Leader)
Kathy Barnes
Linda Bradburn
John Batt
Julie Burt
Martin Fisk
Catherine Knight
Jan Lamacraft
Di and John Martin
Bridget O’Brien
Margaret Shaw
Sandra Slade
Jenny Stoner
Ann Strik
Cherrie & David Temple
Jill Walmsley
Teresa Waugh
Doug & Glenda WombwellFor the ENPA: Catherine Dove (Conservation Adviser Historic Environment)

2022 Phase 4

March. The team of transcribers gave short presentations on some of the Everyday Stories of Exmoor Folk that the documents have revealed. Click here to see the recording of the presentations (available for logged-in members only). 

There is also a one-page report of the presentation available here

January. We have moved on to Batch 030, letters from the agent John Mogridge, circa 1845.   The letters have revealed the nature and extent of both the frustrations Mr Mogridge suffered in his relations with Frederic Knight, the landowner, and with the tenant farmers that Frederic installed in the mid-1840s to attempt to make Exmoor pay. The tenant of Emmetts Grange Farm, Mr Hibberd, was a particular thorn in his flesh, as revealed in Mogridge’s very scrawly handwriitng. ‘He must be mad’ he writes in 1846, referring to Hibberd. It was a story that did not end well. 

2021 Phase 3

November. One of the two University researchers who are investigating the Exmoor history has given a talk to the Local History Group. A recording of the talk is available (to u3a members only) – see the Group‘s web page for more detail. 

October. The next Phase (Phase 4!) of the Project is launched. We have a total of 12 transcribers in our group now and we have already completed Batch 023 which largely concerned the attempts to make Exmoor a centre of iron ore mining. The ‘agent’, Henry Scale, had high hopes and expectations in 1858 for a number of locations on the Estate where iron ore had been detected. 

July. Phase 3 completed! click here for more info. Join the team for the next Phase – Phase 4 (starting Autumn 2021). 

January.   Hilary Fisk, Cherrie Temple, and Di Martin gave a presentation of the project so far to a group meeting of the Local History group.  Powerpoints from their presentations are available from this page; and a recording of the Zoom presentation is also available for registered and logged in users only.

2019/20 Phase 1, 1a and 2

The project has been continued during the pandemic and has now transcribed over 80 documents, mainly letters to and from members of the Knight family, and ranging in date from the 1840s to the 1870s.  The topics covered in the letters are wide-ramoney and business matters, e.g. wine-buying in bulk!, family relationships, marriages, and (sadnging – ly) deaths too; – and developments of the day, such as the railways and the postal service.  The ‘every day’ story of country folk is made real in a bunch of letters from the winter of 1866/67.  Here are described the hardships of farming in winter weather.  William Scott, Frederick Winn Knight’s  shepherd, who was recruited from the Scottish borders and who probably knew about such trials, writes in March 1867… 

” we have had about a week of very trying weather for lambs.  it has Bean (sic) a very hard frost with very high winds…”

December     A description of winters on Exmoor in the nineteenth century was added to the year’s Advent Calendar, and can be visited here.

November    An account of the work was published in Third Age Matters

A page from the u3a 'Sources' section of Third Age Matters magazine

A page from the u3a ‘Sources’ section of Third Age Matters magazine, published November 2020