Frederic Winn Knight 1812 – 1897

Educated at Charterhouse School and Trinity College Cambridge, Frederic grew up knowing Exmoor well. He may well have developed his love of hunting ranging over his father’s extensive estate. 

Around 1841 aged 29 he took responsibility for the management of Exmoor estate, when his father moved abroad for his wife’s health.   Around the same time he became M.P. for the constituency of West Worcestershire, his main residence at the time, which he continued to represent until 1885. As befitted his background, unsurprisingly he was a lifelong Tory.

As a young man Frederic is living the life of a man about town, He has a house in fashionable Mayfair. He marries in 1850, to Maria Louisa Couling Gibbs. The wedding takes place at St George’s, Hanover Square, and his wedding is witnessed by such luminaries as Ada, Countess Lovelace – the daughter of Lord Byron and her husband. The team has transcribed business letters to do with his marriage, but have no insight into the nature of the marriage. A son, Frederic Sebright Winn Knight, was born in May1851. 

During the 1840s the family had some financial difficulties as an inheritance did not materialise as expected. 

‘I have been an idiot to remain in Parliament, give dinners, keep hunters, and live like a man of fortune, when I should have been keeping quietly at Simonsbath on the small establishment of a country parson’ (quoted in Orwin & Sellick, page 80).

We have little to go on as regards Frederic’s personality, as the correspondence is largely written to him. A rare glimpse comes from a letter of 1879, written by Jane Winn, who was his maternal aunt, writing to Mrs Knight:-

January 1879  “I never made any Remarks on what you said in your note about Frederic’s property – it is a large affair certainly and he is a smart satisfactory man; so very different from hundreds of others.

In the mid-1840s Frederic conceived of a change of approach to the Exmoor estate. Unlike his father, he adopted the idea of tenant farming. 

He built 15 farmsteads and changed his father’s policy… to one of colonising the moor with tenant farmers who would bear the risks and rewards of the farming operations themselves and would pay him rents. (quoted from Harvey, N. (1989) ‘The Farmsteads of the Exmoor Reclamation’, Journal of the Historic Farm Buildings Group 3: pp.45–57)

This change of policy led to the need for management ‘on the ground’. Tenants had to be found, farm buildings built, leases negotiated, rents agreed. They started looking seriously into mining, All this was a lot of work. Frederic needed a manager.

Many of the letters we have transcribed have dealt with the affairs of the various tenants, decisions about leases – how much and to whom, farm buildings and boundaries, various crops and livestock ventures and their success or, quite often, failure.

Who were the managers that Frederic employed?

1834? – 1840   ( John Knight) Osmond Lock                   

1840- 1844?    John Litson

1844- 1848          John Mogridge  of Molland, Devon, so a local man  – was a Devon auctioneer

1848 – 1861        Robert Smith

[who became also a tenant – succeeded Hibberd as tenant of Emmetts Grange in 1848, continued to farm there until 1868]

1861? – 1866       William Scott ‘Bailiff at Simonsbath’  Scottish shepherd

1866 – 1887        Fred Loveband Smyth (tenant of Lord Fortescue at Wistlandpound near Barnstaple)

Those names that are highlighted are those for whom letters have been transcribed during the whole project. 

The agents worked very hard – their letters show that they ride all over the moor to see people in all weathers and check on work and give orders. They found time to write multiple letters in a day and made extremely good use of the postal service, then of course just developing in the early 1840s. It was often frustrating – letter upon letter requests decisions and instructions that seemed not to be forthcoming. Being the agent for the Knight Family was not likely to make you popular.  In 1834 Osmond Lock, the agent for Frederic’s father, John Knight, was shot at ‘in his bed at Exford’ – John Knight advertised and offered a reward for the revealing of the culprit. Later on, Frederic himself was offered physical violence:-

KN.CORR.010_1867.04.03_ From Fred Smyth to Mrs Knight,

“Madam,

I have seen Mr Crosse & have made inquiry[sic] of him as requested respecting Blake, [Blake says] “Mr Knight was a great liar, his word not to be taken, and that he (Mr Knight) would get a ?[ball/bolt] through him sometime” this is the substance of Mr Blakes remarks, it is very disagreeable to say the least of it, to hear such a bully talking of a Gentleman in such a manner, but I am sure no one believes him, nor do I think you need fear him in the least, depend on it he has too great a regard for his own safety to attempt to injure Mr Knight.”

A distinct blow to Frederic and Florence was to be the death of their son, Frederic Sebright Knight,  in February 1879  at the age of 28) We have transcribed this letter from a cousin Edward Knight, written from Nice, in April 1879:

“My Dear Cousin

I was very much impressed with your account of poor Freddys Funeral and very much touched by the sympathy displayed by your neighbours. If there is anything cheering in so melancholy an event it is the spontaneous proof of unselfish good feeling and affection shown by those who live around you. Both of you must now endeavour to lay aside your grief.  You cannot fail to do so if you think that Freddy is now much happier than he could in his state of health have been in this world.  He had as you very justly say only one fault and that was one which poor fellow he was utterly unable to control.  We can only say that he was quite helpless in the matter.  Now you must pluck up your courage and try to look at the right side of life. “

This must have affected Frederic and his view of the estate markedly. His son and heir was no more. Other members of the family had made their own lives often far away – there was no one to become the next ‘Lord of Simonsbath’.

In later life, Frederic Knight became a a figure of and an establishment staple for the cartoonists. FWK was lieutenant-colonel of the Worcestershire Yeomanry Cavalry and of the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Rifle Volunteers, raised by him after 1859, for which service he received a knighthood.[8] He was Deputy Lieutenant and JP for Worcestershire and was a family trustee of the British Museum.

In 1884/6 Frederic sold the reversion of the estate to Lord Fortescue.  Frederic retained the life interest. He died in 1897, followed three years later by his wife. All three of the Knights are buried at Simonsbath, a grave that can be seen and visited today.