John Henry and Esther Knowles had thirteen children: Eliza, Laura, Bill, Sally, Joe, Nell, Jack, Winifred, Harold, Ernest, Esther, Elsie and Muriel. Ernest died of illness at age nine or ten; Elsie died by accident when still a baby. The other eleven all lived into old age. This web page gives brief accounts of them.
Thirteen kids was a lot, even for a couple born in the 1870s. (Grandad Knowles was himself an only child; Grandma, one of three.) The eleven Knowles children who survived to adulthood had only nineteen children between them likewise surviving. I have thus had eighteen first cousins on my mother's side, not counting deaths in infancy. Of first cousins once removed (i.e. children of first cousins) on this side, I probably have more than thirty, but have nothing like enough information for a full count. Of second cousins on my mother's side — that is, people with whom I share a great-grandparent, but not a grandparent — there seem to have been six: five from Great-aunt Eliza, one from Great-aunt Leah … unless I add in Fred Littlehales and his brother Ron, issue of Auntie Annie, to make eight … but this is further than my interest in tallying relations really goes.
Eliza Leah Knowles was born October 18, 1892, and died April 5, 1973.
She married a fellow named Edgar Sawdon. Uncle Edgar was at some point a worker on the estate of Lord Harewood in Yorkshire. Later he became superintendent of a graveyard. He was against interment, though, and insisted he should be cremated: but Eliza buried him anyway. (This is my mother's story.)
I have an extremely dim memory of visiting at Aunt Eliza's house, which had cream walls and a brown door. She had two daughters: Mary (married name Barker) and Nellie (married name Hartley). Nellie, who is one or two years younger than Muriel, was still alive at Christmas 2003.
Laura, born 1893, seems to have been the only Knowles to have tried to continue the philoprogenitive tradition.
Laura married one Joseph Jones, and they had six sons, then a daughter. They lived in Hednesford in a broken-down cottage called "Sunnyside."
I think we visited Laura once, but I was very small and can only remember her standing in her kitchen with a rolling pin. I remember there being a great many children around: but this is probably a false memory, or else they were her grandchildren, as her own children must have been a full generation ahead of us.
One of Laura's sons died from a brain tumor at the age of seven. Another, Ron, was held prisoner of war by the Italians in World War Two. He is an instance of a very rare phenomenon: an English prisoner of war with nothing but praise for his captors. They even did their best to treat a chronic ear problem he suffered from, though apparently without success: he became deaf in middle age. Ron died of a heart attack in his fifties, leaving a widow and one son, another Ron.
The bright star of Laura's family was her youngest son, Neil. He was doing well and rising in the business world. Then he had an affair with the boss's secretary. When she dumped him he drove up to Cannock Chase and sat in his car with the engine running but the exhaust blocked up. Fortunately Laura had died the year before.
In early 1999 Laura's daughter, Kathleen, was still living in Hednesford. The others are all dead.
Uncle Bill (John William Knowles, born 1895, died May 27, 1983) married Gladys Blewitt, one of eight children of a farmer named Samson Blewitt, a famous character around Cannock.
We saw Bill and Gladys often; at the Hednesford cottage, or visiting with them at their house: 342 Cannock Road, Wolverhampton. The house had steps going up from the gate, with a little brick wall on each side, and I particularly liked to play there.
Bill and Gladys were a very kind and loving couple, who left behind them many happy memories. My sister Judith stayed with them while I was being born, and she possesses a letter written from Gladys to Mum at that time.
Bill managed to avoid work in the mines. Instead, he got a job in one of the car factories that were starting to appear in the Black Country in the twenties and attained what passed for affluence in the Knowles family. During my early childhood, when we visited Grandma and Grandad Knowles often, Bill was the only member of the family with a car — a large black Wolseley saloon. My mother claimed that as a young man Bill wore spats. He was eventually a chauffeur for the CEO of Boulton Paul, the aircraft manufacturers.
With Bill's help, the other Knowles boys all escaped from colliery work. When the war came, Bill helped them get jobs with Boulton Paul. Because his wife's people were farmers, and two of her brothers were butchers, he was able to get fresh meat during the war, too, which he sent on to Grandma and Grandad. Altogether, Bill was a life support system for the Knowleses.
Auntie Gladys I remember as fat and jolly, with a very heavy and nasal Staffordshire accent, pronouncing "bus" as "booz" (the vowel short as in "book"). Uncle Bill was devoted to her, and her death broke his heart. He lived on for many years; I remember calling on him last, in company with Mum and Judith at a nursing home in Wolverhampton in late 1978 or early 1979. When someone mentioned Gladys he burst into tears.
Bill and Gladys had one son, Douglas. Douglas married Joyce and was in the construction business. However, he got into a lawsuit, suffered a big judgment against him, and never worked again (because anything he earned would have been garnished). I don't know how he lived. I know how he died, though: sometime in the late eighties he won a trip to Spain in a competition. Arriving at the hotel, he fell over dead. Douglas and Joyce had two children, Paul and Jennifer. Paul attained some rank in one of the local police forces.
The above is from my own memory and from things told me by Mum and Cousin Stanley. Aunt Muriel has another point of view. "Like the rest of my brothers, he came from Havington, not Givington. All the years I cared for Mum and Dad I did not receive any help from Bill or the others. They treated Mum like dirt. The story about them getting meat for us during the war is rubbish. Gladys did have a brother Syd who was a butcher in Wolverhampton, but I don't think we had much off him. They used to come visit weekends to see what I had managed to get off the factory black market and the shops in Handsworth."
Sally (Sarah Jane Knowles) was born July 3, 1896. I do not know the date she died.
Sally lived in Hednesford, across from the back of Grandad's cottage. She married Fred Thomas, a collier, and had a daughter, Freda, born 1921, and still alive and living in Hednesford at Christmas 2003. Freda married a fellow named Clarence Shaw. They had a daughter named Linda, who married an insurance broker named John, and went to live "in a little village back of Hednesford Hills" (Muriel). Linda and John have a son named David.
My mother seems not to have liked Sally, for reasons I never explored; but we visited with them a number of times. They had chickens, which I thought very exciting.
Sally had had an illegitimate child before marrying Fred. This child was born in my grandparents' house (February 1st 1919) and raised as one of the younger children. We always called him "Uncle Jerry," though he was really our cousin, of course. I met him once, in my infancy, but I know this only by hearsay and cannot remember him at all. Muriel was very close to him, however. They were only two years apart in age (Jerry the younger). Jerry seems to have suffered greatly in the way of insults and snubs from other family members, particularly my uncles, on account of his illegitimacy. Muriel also reports that Great-grandma Perry, i.e. my mother's mother's mother, when handing out treats like cake or candy, would bypass Jerry in scorn. Hearing this kind of thing, one can't help but feel that there has been some general improvement in human nature across recent decades.
Mu: "Jerry was always my loving brother, even in his rages (after the War). Imagine a boy of sixteen learning from his silly girlfriend that his Auntie Sally was his mother. We had had a lovely relationship with him until then. He ran away and joined the army. They released him on compassionate grounds — under age, Maisie pregnant with Muriel Helen — but of course when we went to war he was called up again. He spent his 21st birthday in a barn somewhere in Belgium. He and his team pulled their guns all the way through a hostile Belgium to Dunkirk, where they had to destroy them. Then he spent several days on the beach waiting to be picked up." [This was the famous evacuation from Dunkirk, May-June 1940, the low point of the British Army's fortunes in World War Two.] "Nell and Teddy found him in some barracks in Yorkshire. They were given permission to take him home to Airedale. Teddy bathed him, fed him, put him to bed, then later brought him home to us. We also grew to love his silly wife Maisie. No matter what he did she was always faithful to him."
Joe was born "on the same day as the old King," according to Cousin Stanley. I can't make this match anything, as he was plainly born in 1898, while the nearest Kings would be Edward VIII (June 23rd 1894) and George VI (December 14th 1895). I guess it just refers to the day of the year.
Joe married a fiery, strong-willed Welsh girl named Florrie, who henpecked him mercilessly. They lived in Wolverhampton. Mum told me he was always running away from Florrie, back to Grandma and Grandad, but apparently never for long.
Joe and Florrie had a girl who died at birth, a boy named Stanley, a girl named Joyce, and a second boy, Grenville.
Cousin Stanley served in the Royal Navy during WW2, on convoy runs to Halifax, Nova Scotia. His ship was sunk under him in summer '44, and after rescue he was taken in by a Canadian family. After the war he settled in Canada, worked for the Canadian government, and at last became a director of Boeing. He now lives in Ottawa. Joyce lives in Wolverhampton, and has five children, four girls and a boy. Auntie Florrie was still alive in September '94, living in a home run by the Institute for the Blind in Wolverhampton. Joe died in 1972.
Auntie Nell (born 1900) was my mother's favorite sister. She lived in Castleford, near Pontefract in Yorkshire.
Nell married Teddy Buckley, whose people had a farm near Wakefield. Nell and Teddy had only one child, a daughter named Beryl (born April 30th 1926). One of my first public appearances was at cousin Beryl's wedding. I wore a silk (or, more likely satin) Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit.
Beryl and her husband, whose name was Stuart (or possibly Stewart) Limbert, had a daughter named Fiona, born about 1954. Fiona was in a ghastly car accident in her teens and was saved from disfigurement only by some heroic plastic surgery.
In August 1957, when Fiona was an infant, we (Mum, Judith and myself) went to stay with Nell. There was an idyllic picnic in the Yorkshire Dales, a very beautiful part of that county. Nell, or perhaps Beryl, had the first refrigerator I had seen up close. On a trip into Pontefract I bought the last ever issue — number 85 — of E.C. Tubb's excellent magazine Authentic Science Fiction, which folded that month.
Auntie Nell died April 15, 1975. Fiona married a jeweler named Steve Grey. They had two children, Natalie and Edward. In late 2003 Natalie was at medical school.
Uncle Jack (John Henry Knowles) was born January 13, 1902, and died February 13, 1990. Jack served with the Yorkshire Light Infantry for seven years in India. Coming home, there was some trouble with the family and Grandad Knowles threw him out. Muriel, who was aged 12 at the time, says that Jack struck Jerry (aged 10). Whatever the facts of the case, I recall Jack as a taciturn, good-natured fellow in a Post Office uniform — he worked as a mailman.
Jack married Gwen (Gwendolyne, August 4, 1908 to July 12, 1999), a pastrycook. I recall Auntie Gwen as a large, jolly woman with a fund of jokes, riddles, puns and Spoonerisms.
Jack lived to a good age (88), dying at last of emphysema. He had been a heavy cigarette smoker. The last time I saw him was in the early 1980s, when I was living at home in Northampton. Jack and Gwen came to visit us. I could hear the sound of his breathing all the way up the front path.
Jack and Gwen had two children: Terry (Terence John, born October 22, 1936, died March 3, 2002) and
(Victoria Betty, born May 24, 1944).
Next to Muriel and Uncle Bill, and of course my mother, Jack was the Knowles we saw most of as children. Partly, no doubt, this was due to his living in Cannock, and so was convenient to drop in on when visiting Grandad and Grandma. Perhaps it was also because Vicky was the same age as ourselves.
Terry, of whom I saw very little as a child, lived in King's Stanley, Gloucestershire at the time of his death (which was from spinal cancer). He was twice married: first to Marian Burton, and then to Henni Schultz. His children are Belinda Jane Knowles (married name Shelly) and Darrin John Knowles, who married a girl named Keely-Ann Humberstone. Belinda Jayne's children, Adam Christopher Shelly and Philip John Shelly, are my first cousins twice removed.
Vicky was a very pretty little girl in the Shirley Temple style — golden curls, dimples. After some years of marriage to Michael Birch she left him for a fellow named John Sharp, who owned a pub. Vicky and John ended up in Malta where in 2009 they were still living. From the first marriage Vicky has Glenn (born 1971) and Lindsay (1972). Glenn married a lady named Andrea on September 18, 1999. They have two children: Jack, born 11/9/2000, and Lewis, born 7/24/2003. The family lives in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Lindsay Birch moved to the U.S.A. in 1993. She married Abram Sirignano on May 4, 2002 (her birthday, and also Vicky's). Lindsay and Abram live in New York City and expect a baby girl, to be named Lily, in April 2009.
Auntie Win (Winifred Mary Knowles, born April 22, 1906, died October 5, 1999) was the oldest member of the junior cohort of Knowles children. These last four (Win, Harold, Esther and Muriel) were closer to each other, I think, than they were to the older ones.
Win married Fred Baggott, a glassworker from Stourbridge, Worcestershire. Many of the cut-glass pieces in our home come from him, via Win and my mother. I used to boast that they were fine ware, but Muriel tells me they are in fact "seconds," with tiny flaws visible to an expert, that were given away to the workers.
Win had a miscarriage and thereafter either could not or would not attempt childbearing. Fred died January 21, 1964, and Win lived on for thirty years in the little cottage they'd shared at 23 Laburnum Street, in Stourbridge.
Uncle Fred Baggott was not a skilled worker. ("He was too slow" — Muriel.) He seems to have been employed at odd jobs and clean-up tasks around the glassworks. At the time Win first met him, he was actually unemployed, doing outdoor relief gardening at a workhouse called Sandfield House in Kingswinford, Staffordshire. Win was doing some sort of uncredentialed nursing at the place. There was a general feeling among the Knowleses that Win had married beneath her. She had the thickest Staffordshire accent of all the Knowles siblings; yet Muriel says that as a girl she spoke beautiful English. (Told of my mother's death, Win responded: "'Er's gone, 'as 'er?") "They dragged her down to their level," is Muriel's explanation.
At Win's wedding, the Baggott women — mother and daughters — scandalized Granny Knowles by turning up in starched white pinafores — their notion of elegance — and bearing a large jug, which they pushed at Granny, saying: "Come on, duck, let's uz go an' get some beer!" Granny, a straight-backed Victorian woman who cherished her respectability, was not amused.
Harold Percy Knowles (born 1909, died September 1995) married another Win, Winifred Smith. To ease the confusion, this one was referred to as "Harold's Win," the other as "Auntie Win at Stourbridge."
Harold and Win Knowles had one child, young Harold, born 1933, who played football for Wolverhampton Wanderers — a First Division team — in the 1950s. Young Harold had a son named Martin, who was still living in Telford, Shropshire, in 1999. At Christmas 2003 I heard from Muriel that young Harold had married for a third time.
In 1969(? or thereabouts) Uncle Harold suffered a ghastly accident. A can of gasoline he was carrying caught fire, and the burning fluid poured into the overalls he was wearing. Massive burns resulted, and Harold lived the remaining thirty years of his life in constant pain.
Elsie Lillian Knowles, born 1915, died in infancy after falling from a high chair and fracturing her skull.
Mother said she was told the catastrophe was her (Mother's) fault, for pulling off the restraining bar from Elsie's high chair. This may very well have been so — Mum was only two at the time, and she remembered being taunted in childhood as a "murderer."
Elsie was a favorite of Grandma's — very pretty (Grandma told Muriel) with jet black hair like her father.
Muriel was the war baby — the First World War, that is (called "The Great War" by everybody on both sides of my family).
Grandad used to tell her he brought her back from France. ("Very clever people, they Frenchies. Even the little ones can talk the language.") He
called her his little bit of bliss, and "Bliss" became her nickname in the family. We have always called her "Auntie Mu."
Muriel married Fred Littlehales of Aston, Birmingham (home of the great English soccer club, Aston Villa). Fred's mother was Annie, Great-Aunt Leah's "by-blow"; so Mu and Fred were first cousins once removed. Fred (born June 5th, 1922) is thus my second cousin, as well as my uncle. If Mu and Fred had had any children, they would have been my first cousins, and also my second cousins once removed. This is the kind of thing that drives genealogists to suicide.
Fred has red hair, from the sailor who seduced Great-Aunt Leah among the cowslips in some lane in Staffordshire, a century ago. As a child I was closer to Mu and Fred than to anyone else in my mother's family, or to anyone at all in my father's. Since about 1951 they lived in a neat little row house at 31 Prestbury Road, in the Witton district of Birmingham. I often went to stay with them, once (about 1954 or 1955) for several weeks when my mother was having an operation.
Fred's parents, Auntie Annie and Old Fred, called "Pop," lived over their grocery shop a few hundred yards away in the Birchfield Road; but this area was all bulldozed for redevelopment in the 1960s. I vividly remember Old Fred's shop. It had more dust in it than stock — Old Fred was a terrible miser — and I never once saw a customer in there. (Though it must have made a profit at some point. According to Muriel, Pop's brother and his wife, along with an unknown number of other relations, all lived at least partly from the proceeds of the shop, like the extended family of a Chinese mandarin.) The rooms behind the shop were poky and dark. In the garden at back was an air-raid shelter and a small fishpond covered with some green algal growth. Mu and Fred used to go up there on Saturday evenings to watch a TV series called The Quatermass Experiment, the first TV science-fiction production in England. Auntie Annie would feed me chips (= french fries) from the local chip shop, and a soda drink called Tizer, which I can still taste (and which you could still buy in England in the mid-1980s).
Old Fred had a brother named Bert Littlehales, whose wife was named Chris. Their son John, my Uncle Fred's cousin, was at least as close to Fred as Fred's own brother Ron. John married a Yorkshire girl named Jean. They had a daughter, Mandy. I can remember John and Jean quite clearly. They lived in a large apartment in another district of Birmingham, and as if it was not sufficiently notable that they had a TV, their TV boasted a mauve plastic attachment over the screen to magnify the picture. Jean gave me a puzzle toy, also of clear plastic: a stellated octahedron that came apart and had to be reassembled.
When Mandy was still an infant, Jean developed cancer. She proceeded to die a slow and hideous death, progressively deformed and disabled by various kinds of chemical and radiological treatments, all of which were new and poorly calibrated in the late 1950s. I remember Mu reporting at one point that all Jean's hair had fallen out. After her death, Mu and Fred helped John (who did not remarry) to raise Mandy. Mandy regards them almost as parents, and has reciprocated with much kindness to them in their old age. She married a businessman, Gary Quirke. Gary and Mandy have two children: Simon (b. 1981) and Daniel (b. 1984).
All my childhood time at Mu and Fred's I seem to have spent reading. They are both great readers. They had little book stands so that they could read while eating — a cardinal sin in my own house. (Since leaving home I have never been without one of these reading aids.) Mu and Fred's is a quiet house. In my childhood they had no TV. They had a radio, but did not listen to it much. Fred was at that time a science-fiction fan, and I caught it from him. He had marvellous books: George Adamski's Flying Saucers Have Landed! and Immanuel Velikovsky's When Worlds Collide, both great cult books of the early 1950s; Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell's Conquest of Space with all those color paintings (originally done for Life magazine) of the surfaces of the planets; Arthur C. Clarke's The Exploration of Space, and a book of illustrations of events in British History. When I stayed with them I used to go to the local municipal library in Birchfield Road, from which, by the age of about 12, I had borrowed and read all the science fiction books in stock. I can remember the first — it remained one of my favorites: Jonathan Burke's Alien Landscapes.
The other great literary attraction in Birmingham was at Auntie Annie's house. Fred's brother Ron had a complete collection of Richmal Crompton's "William" books — the adventures of a suburban English boy, William Brown, and his three friends. Auntie Annie let me borrow these; and by the time I went to grammar school at age 11, I had read the lot several times over. There were eventually 38 "William" books, though critical opinion (see, e.g., Philip Hensher in the London Spectator of August 28, 1999) considers the first 20 to be much superior to what followed. The books began as stories for mothers in Ladies' Home Magazine; the first collection, Just William, was published in 1922. The last came out sometime in the 1960s.