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William KNIBB  1803-1845

Jamaican missionary and slaves friend

You might like to view his family tree in conjunction with reading this item.

One could write a whole book about The Reverend William KNIBB.  John Howard HINTON, The Rev R.A.L. KNIGHT, Philip WRIGHT to name but three already have!  Of these WRIGHT's 'Knibb the Notorious' is perhaps the best 'read', whether or not you're into William KNIBB.  HINTON's book is on-line as a Google eBook.  William features anonymously in Andrea Levy’s award winning 2010 novel, 'The Long Song'

He was born a twin on 7th September 1803 in the family home in Kettering, Northamptonshire, the third son of Thomas, a tailor, and 'poor but noble' wife Mary, née DEXTER.  His twin was a girl called Ann, who inexplicably told HINTON that she always celebrated her birthday on the 6th of September.  There were eight children in total.  Life could not have been comfortable, his father, often the worse for drink, was declared insolvent in 1810.  Seven years before that, he had avoided being called up to serve for his country against Napoleon by paying a substitute to stand in his place on the Kettering Militia List, a 17 year old, William GOOBY.

Mary was pious and the religious partner of the marriage.  She was a teacher and member of the nonconformist Kettering Independent Church called 'The Great Meeting', the building now part of The Toller Chapel.  Her husband positively showed no such religious inclinations, much to the later sadness of William in letters written to his mother from Jamaica.  His formal schooling only lasted to the age of 12 and more than one commentator has remarked on his skill at playing marbles, rather than upon any academic brilliance.

He also attended from the age of 7, the Reverend Toller's Sunday School with brothers Thomas and Christopher (later a draper in Birmingham).  Samuel LEA attended (infrequently it seems) and later married William's twin Ann.  Another brother Edward KNIBB, a one-time shopkeeper in Liverpool, followed his father into bankruptcy.  He later went to Jamaica ('the lowest and most vulgar person I have ever met with'  per Henry BLAGROVE, although William's letters to Edward show no hint of that) and opened a provisions shop in Falmouth.  His brother James kept bad company by all accounts. 

By contrast, William's Sunday School teacher had, according to some reports 'early on recognised the lad's maturity for his age and the compassionate side of his nature' and others quote Mr Gill 'a good boy but somewhat volatile and very difficult to manage until his affection had been gained'.  He looked like and looked up to Thomas, four years his senior.  The two boys followed similar career paths.  Both became apprenticed in turn to Mr J G FULLER whose printing business was in Gold Street, Kettering, close by his father's Baptist church.  Indeed, the Reverend Andrew FULLER was a founding member, with William CAREY, John RYLAND, Reynold HOGG and others, of the Society formed in Kettering in October 1792 "for propagating the gospel among heathens", destined to become the Baptist Missionary Society ('BMS').  Andrew FULLER was Secretary of the Committee.

In 1816, following the death of his father the year before, Mr FULLER moved the printing business to Bristol, Thomas and William moving with it.  John Ryland, by then Doctor, had long since become Pastor at the Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol, paradoxically a city that had thrived on the slave trade.  He had been persuaded to take over the Secretaryship of the Missionary Committee and perhaps that was the spur for the business removal.  In any event, Mr FULLER became the Superintendent at Broadmead.  The brothers were drawn to its Sunday School and were kept exposed to the work of the BMS through continuing to print its pamphlets and accounts.  RYLAND was also Principal of Bristol College, the oldest Baptist theological school which had been specifically founded to train Missionaries - to spread the gospel, it has to be said, not to campaign against slavery.  Prospective missionaries were encouraged to marry before taking up their posts, so as to avoid any temptations or unfounded accusations from working in countries where the moral codes of life were, let's say, somewhat different than in England.

Thomas KNIBB led the way to Jamaica, with his bride 'Bett', having been accepted as a teacher in 1822, the year William committed himself fully to God.   Dr John RYLAND himself performed the baptisms.  Within 14 months of beginning to teach at the school in Kingston, and before he could make any real impact, tropical fever struck Thomas down in April 1824 (sic).  Here is a link to some moving lines written by one of his sisters on his departure and upon his death followed by a commentary.

William, who was regarded as less able than Thomas and amazingly (for what was to come) had never considered himself capable of preaching, immediately applied to take his brother's place.  This despite the death also in Jamaica of his friend Samuel NICHOLS, assistant to James COULTHART, who was himself ill at the time.

   William KNIBB    portrait
An early signed portrait (courtesy of Rose Marie HARRISON née KNIBB)

Aged just twenty, he succeeded in persuading the BMS to allow him to go to Jamaica.  He first married fellow Church member Mary WATKINS in Bristol; her background in South Wales is obscure, apart from the fact that her parents died when she was young.  She spoke fluent Welsh.  Before setting off, he took her to meet his family in Kettering, where his mother wished them God's speed.  Later her nephew Benjamin DEXTER, the son of her brother Worcester DEXTER, was to make the same journey as a Baptist missionary with his wife Ann.

The graphical account of William and Mary's voyage given in 'KNIBB the Notorious' reveals what was entailed in making such a journey across the Atlantic at that time.  William was to make nine crossings in all.

He began teaching, following in his brother's footsteps at mission schools (starting at the "Gully School" on the same premises as the "Gully Chapel" which became the East Queen Street Baptist Church) and preaching at various places, including Port Royal, without at first Licence to do so.   To him from the outset, the whole concept of slavery was totally abhorrent:  slaves were people not property, capable of deciding for themselves whether to accept Christianity and its reward of eternal life to all who acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  He couldn't begin to entertain the planters 'excuse', not gainsaid by the Anglican church, that Africans were intellectually incapable of making an educated decision about anything, not least religion.  This excuse enabled the planters to justify to themselves the barbaric practice of slavery and so a collision course with William and like minded evangelical preachers was inevitable.

His personal letters home show how determined William was to do all within his power to 'slay the monster' that was slavery.  However, the BMS relied upon the goodwill of the masters on their sugar plantations and could not support (at least openly) the emancipationist movement.  Missionaries were firmly instructed and reminded not to interfere in civil or political affairs.  This was their stance right up to the reception of William's speech at their public Annual Meeting in Spa Fields Chapel on 21st June 1832.

"..........  I call upon children, by the cries of the infant slave who I saw flogged on the Macclesfield Estate, in Westmoreland. ..... I call upon parents, by the blood streaming back of Catherine WILLIAMS , who, with a heroism England has seldom known, preferred a dungeon to the surrender of her honour.  I call upon Christians by the lacerated back of William BLACK of King's Valley, whose back, a month after flogging, was not healed.  I call upon you all, by the sympathies of Jesus".

At this point, Mr DYER, Secretary of the BMS, is stated in the Patriot to have pulled the tail of his coat by way of admonition.

"Whatever may be the consequence, I will speak.  At the risk of my connexion with the Society with the society, and of all I hold dear, I will avow this.............  Lord, open the eyes of Christians in England, to see the evil of slavery and to banish it from the earth."

William's oratory brought thunderous applause and by the end of the evening DYER himself had proposed the next round in the struggle - a public meeting at Exeter Hall.

William, after a period at Savannah la Mar, where he established new 'stations', achieved full Pastor status at Falmouth and began to make several enemies amongst the planters, traders and merchants whose livelihood rested upon slavery and the slave trade, still in full swing on many ships operating outside the jurisdiction of the British Empire.  William WILBERFORCE and others had been famously instrumental in getting the British involvement in the slave trade banned in 1807.  Only the women anti-slavery activists of the period advocated the immediate abolition of the institution of slavery but they held no sway with the authorities.  The Anti-Slavery movement pressed for the mitigation and gradual abolition of slavery.  Religious education was a way forward.  Amelioration laws were passed to facilitate this and to 'prepare' the slave population for their liberation by enabling them to manage their own lives.  The Colonial authorities were reluctant to comply.  Hence Licences to preach were required in an attempt to regulate what was 'taught'.  The hidden agenda seemingly was to create a subjected labour force that would be adaptable to the labour market.

Within this framework, William had set about his task.   He resolved to evangelise the oppressed people for whom brother Thomas had surrendered his life.  He was, as somebody said, 'made to mount the whirlwind and to ride the storm'.  However, whilst he was more than once accused of inciting slaves to revolt, he never did so, relying upon his acquired skills as a prolific letter writer and orator to turn the minds of men who mattered to his way of thinking.  Early on, he was threatened with withdrawal of his Licence to preach, having given persistent and public support to Sam SWINEY, a deacon of his who had been flogged for 'preaching' when, in reality, only praying with others during William's absence.  Later, at the time of what became known as the 'Christmas Rebellion' in Jamaica, he was arrested taken first to the Falmouth courthouse and then to Montego Bay, there threatened with death by the local Authorities.  The revolt, allegedly led by Sam SHARP, occurred when the slaves mistakenly thought that freedom had already been sanctioned by the British Parliament before which a Bill had been placed by Thomas 'Fowell' BUXTON .  William had to convince his congregation that this was not the case and he advocated strongly against violence as a means to achieve freedom from slavery.  There was little trouble where his influence extended but that did not stop the militia burning down his chapels and schoolrooms.  After seven agonising weeks, during which time he was in peril of his life being taken by those who opposed him, all charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.  During his career, he was more than once cruelly libelled, notoriously by the John BULL newspaper - see KNIBB v BUNNEY.  The British press were generally hostile as they represented the planters' point of view.  Ill-informed articles in 'The Times' during the century were incredibly biased towards them and were sure to engender racialist hatred.  Such reporting nowadays would thankfully send an Editor straight to jail.

The Christmas riots, or Baptist War as called by some, demonstrated not only the stirrings of black power, a concept up to then unthinkable, but also the military brutality used to crush the rebellion.  In response, William was chosen to go to England to represent there all the other Jamaican Baptist Missionaries.  The purpose of the trip was to explain exactly what had happened and to raise money for the rebuilding of the burnt out missions, his own included, fired by the militia during the insurrection.  His arrival in 1832, with his pregnant wife and family, coincided with the passing of The Reform Bill, which would see a more representative House of Commons.  On hearing the news, he exclaimed 'Thank God, now I will have slavery down'.  First he had to account for his actions in Jamaica before seeking the money to rebuild the Churches but took every opportunity to bring to the public's attention the evil of slavery. 

'Facts and Documents connected with the Late Insurrecion in Jamaica and the Violations of Civil and Religious Liberty arising out of it'


"The Baptist Chapel at Falmouth had been occupied during Martial Law as Barracks by the St Anne's Regiment.......It was completely demolished..... information was given to Lieutenant Thomas Tennison......"it was no matter whether they broke it or not, he supposed they would set fire to it too!"

Mr Knibb ... paid a visit to Falmouth early in March.  For three successive nights his lodging was stoned, and he was cautioned by two respectable gentlemen, against venturing out in the evening, as a party had clubbed together to tar and feather him.

After Martial Law was discontinued, the horses of Mr Knibb were taken from Falmouth, by Major General Hilton, who has, until very recently retained posssession of them."

The full publication contained a Memorial by the Baptist Ministers seeking relief from the Governor of Jamaica and other relevant documents designed to make the British Public aware of what had happened at the time of the Insurrection.

The Missions were always short of capital and resources, not least because William always endeavoured for his chapels and schools to be self-sufficient but of course that didn't take account of the 'great and glorious' destruction of the 'pestitlential hole, Knibb's Preaching Shop' by the Militia - those words used in letters printed in 'The Jamaica Courant' which published other letters in similar vein.  The losses and expenses amounted to £23,250 in Jamaican currency but the Governor refused to meet the claim.

The Notice below was surely inspired by William's stand at the 21st June Annual Meeting of the BMS, and he certainly made use of it by including a copy of the Notice in the 'Facts and Documents' publication.

RESOLVED .........  That the principles of Christianity and slavery are so entirely opposed to each other, that the only remedy for these evils is the immediate and complete extinction of slavery; and that is the opinion of those meeting and that in the approaching General Election, it is the duty of every friend of humanity and Christian religion, to give a decided preference in his vote to those candidates who will support in Parliament, such measues as shall have for their end the accomplishment of this desirable object.

(Signed) HENRY WAYMOUTH, Chairman

From a Special meeting of the DEPUTIES from the several Congregations of PROTESTANT DISSENTERS of the three Denominations in, and within twelve miles of London .... 26th July 1832 as extracted from a Notice in 'The Times' the following day and included in the 'Facts and Documents' already quoted.

William KNIBB's determination had won over the BMS Committee to recognise that slavery had to be abolished.  He argued that until its abolition 'root and branch' there was no way of slaves enjoying everything the gospel had to offer.  Notably he spoke at a packed public meeting of the Friends of Christian Missions, Exeter Hall, London on 15th August 1832, where it was said that his face 'glowed as he spoke with impassioned sincerity and fervour for the cause'.

"I look upon the question of slavery only as one of religion and morality. All I ask is, that my African brother may stand in the same family of man; that my African sister shall, while she clasps her tender infant to her breast, be allowed to call it her own; that they both shall be allowed to bow their knees in prayer to that God who has made of one blood all nations as one flesh"

From William KNIBB's speech at Exeter Hall, The Strand, London on 15 August 1832, at which he raised to the full view of the 3,000 present, iron slave shackles, which he hurled deafeningly to the floor.  Those same shackles were over 70 years later donated to the BMS and were lent to the Kettering Manor House Museum in 2003 for their exhibition as part of the bicentenary celebrations of William's birth.

The speech was received with 'deafening applause' albeit that 'The Times' reporter present quoted the by then famous speaker as 'Mr Nibbs'. To redress that, Printed Reports of the Speeches ran to at least three editions - the third, 5,000 copies.

William embarked upon a series of public meetings throughout the length and breadth of the Kingdom to make known his repugnance of slavery.   He was accompanied at times by Thomas BURCHELL who had joined him from America. Devon DICK in 'William KNIBB: A National Hero?' recounts his exploits as follows:

His speeches to packed audiences were regularly printed in pamphlet form and were reported in local/national newspapers, thereby reaching many more thousands of electors.  Having come to prominence, William gave forceful evidence, with others, for several days before Committees of both Houses of Parliament. *

After a long struggle and the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Bill, slavery was to be abolished in British Colonies as from 1 August 1834, with £20 million compensation to be paid to the slave owners, but for six years those over six years old were to be apprenticed to their former masters, so full freedom was still not achieved.  The apprentice system was much abused, particularly the price that apprentices had to pay to acquire their freedom.  The gross amounts sought hardly supported the planters continually voiced complaints that the negroes were lazy.  Nothing infuriated William more than this widespread accusation which he was able to demonstrate time and time again was an unjustified slur on the blacks.  Needless to say, the slaves themselves received not a penny in compensation.

"You may have heard that the apprentices are lazy and idle, and this is just as true, as that they have 'four parlours and a saloon'.   Though attempts have been made to annoy them, and though a most iniquitous law has been passed, which compels night-work, still they submit".  From a letter to Mr Eustace CAREY in February 1835.

William had returned to Jamaica as a hero in October 1834 and set about re-building his chapel 'kindled by hell', to quote James MONTGOMERY, a poet from Sheffield, who penned some lines based on a remark by William concerning a plant called the tree of life' that he had found growing on the burnt out ruins of the chapel at Rio Bueno.  He sought and obtained permission in December 1835 to utilise for his congregation the very Court House where he had been taken after the Christmas riots.  He often preached to thousands, baptising scores of souls in single sessions.  Continued pressure by William and others eventually reduced the period of apprenticeship to 4 years.  So it was that on 1st August 1838, the 'monster' of slavery was finally dead.

"The hour is at hand, the monster is dying"  as recited by William KNIBB on 31 July 1838 at his Falmouth church, Jamaica moments before midnight, the time set for the final abolition of slavery.  Once the church bell  had struck, he shouted "The monster is dead; the Negro is free!". A pair of shackles were then buried in a coffin with a sign over the grave. "Colonial Slavery died 31 July 1838, Age 276 years".

The peaceable way in which emancipation was achieved and celebrated gave William much satisfaction.  There was no rioting nor drunkeness and no blacks committed crimes as was feared by the Authorities.  A fitting celebratory plaque, was affixed above William's pulpit in the Falmouth Chapel.

Sculpted by W COOK, Birmingham, England

Below the figure of Justice, the likenesses of Granville SHARPE, Joseph STURGE and William WILBERFORCE appear with William KNIBB at the base, below former slaves clearly enjoying their freedom.

"I here pledge myself, by all that is solemn and sacred never to rest satisfied, until I see my black brethren in the enjoyment of the same civil and religious liberties which I myself enjoy, and see them take a proper stand in society as men" declared William KNIBB on 1 Aug 1838 at a public meeting in Falmouth, Jamaica , the first day of freedom for the slaves."

Even so, the former slaves were more or less left at the mercy of the plantation owners regarding eg fair and proper payment of wages.   New taxes were introduced which were grossly unfair.  Once again it was William who took up the cudgels on behalf of the oppressed, making further trips to England in this respect and to counter spurious allegations made against him and his fellow missionaries.  He published accounts showing all income and expenditure of his Mission, and though it pained him to talk about his own lifestyle (which was unquestionably humble) he produced a receipt for 15 pounds for the 'so costly magnificent car in which the pope of Jamaica (for so accusers called him) visits his diocese'.

At this stage in his life, he didn't apologise for straying into the political arena because of the many new unreasonable measures which impacted on the freed slaves.  He spoke out against capital punishment, European immigration to Jamaica (which was killing thousands unaccustomed to the climate).  He denounced the need for and cost of an armed police force, giving detailed evidence of the lack of crime committed by the emancipated population.   His publicly reported speeches of the time to packed audiences wherever he went demonstrated once again his popularity and the huge influence upon those who attended.  But he never gloried in his success, all commentators agreeing upon the fact that his fervent commitment to the cause and his utter humility shone through.  He publicly refused to accept the title 'The champion of the negro', giving credit to others eg BURCHELL whom he thought hid their light under a bushel.

This is what William looked like around this time.  It's a copy of a Baxter print commissioned by the BMS which was given away to subcribers in a series of three baptist luminary pictures with the 'Patriot' magazine - later in1848 the few remaining of 1500 supplied were offered for sale by the publishers at 7 shillings.  This one comes from a copy kindly supplied by the New Baxter Society.   Note the silver inkstand shown on 'The Antiques Roadshow'.

Baxter print of William KNIBB

In September 1839, he founded the weekly newspaper the 'Baptist Herald and Friend of Africa' which gave the emancipated slaves a voice of their own and inspiration to better themselves.

A unique and highly successful innovation of James PHILLIPPO, readily adopted by William, was the system of Free Villages.  He acquired land in the hills beyond the plantations (usually via agents as the owners would not have sold to him) for settlements where emancipated slaves could live and build cottages free from the threat of eviction from their former Estate hovels.  He personally stood surety for all monies borrowed but conveyed the land to the mission.  The villages were not intended to be self sufficient (the hill land was not that productive) but each family would be able to grow something of their own as a supplement to their plantation wages.  The emphasis was very much upon family life, something the poor negro slave, bred for the market, had never been able to experience.  New chapels were built at each location with both Sunday schools (for religious study) and day schools to educate the young.  William organised the training and appointment of teachers.  One such township, Kettering (appropriately named for its associations), was founded nine miles outside of Falmouth, where his principal church remained.  Two others were the free villages of Hoby Town & Birmingham in Trelawny in memory respectively of his friend Dr James HOBY and Joseph STURGE of that City in England.  Six miles distant, another one of his mountain stations was named Wilberforce.  The free villages became victims of their own success for having funded many projects, a two year drought gave rise to severe financial problems.  William had also stood as surety for his colleagues in similar enterprises and was a risk of being made bankrupt if the loans were called in.  He was sent to England in 1845, returning in triumph after a month having secured the necessary funds.  William had also started registering freeholders as voters and in 1844 mobilised the black voters to support a platform which included land reform and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church.  However none of the black candidates were elected.

A year earlier, he helped found the Calabar seminary at Rio Bueno for the training of local men for service to the BMS in the West Indies and Africa. Massa KNIBB, as he was addressed, in all baptised around three thousand of his poor 'blacks', the term he used himself, each spiritually readied for the event - he would not baptise anybody merely to swell the numbers.  In tribute to his works, many emancipated slaves adopted the surname KNIBB.

Personal tragedies were the deaths of most of his children at very young ages (Andrew Fuller KNIBB in England) and worst of all his adored eldest and namesake aged 12 years in 1837.  The youngster had already begun to follow in his father's footsteps in caring for the children of slaves and was beloved by them.  HOBY wrote a book about him and a memorial plaque is located in the Falmouth Baptist Chapel - not to be confused with William's memorial outside the Church.

"The same God who made the white made the black man.  The same blood that runs in the white man's veins, flows in yours.  It is not the complexion of the skin, but the complexion of character that makes the great difference between one man and another." So spoken on 1st August 1839 at a meeting of the Falmouth Auxiliary Anti-Slavery Society chaired by a black man.

William attended the landmark first World Anti-Slavery Society Convention held at Freemasons' Hall in June 1840, famously painted by Benjamin HAYDON - click here to see a copy.  He is to be seen there amongst the good and great in the emancipation movement (lady delegates for the most part excluded to a curtained gallery).  Edward BARRETT and Henry BECKFORD freed slaves who accompanied him from Jamaica are depicted, BARRETT seated next to John SCOBLE much against the latter's wishes as expressed to the painter - there's Victorian toleration for you! - and he Secretary, no less, of the Society who called the Convention.  HAYDON also gave another delegate with 'infidel notions' a less prominent place than first intended, reserving that for 'a beautiful believer in the Divinity of Christ' - William KNIBB perchance?

A major accomplishment for him, on this trip to England, was to persuade the BMS to start missionary work in Africa.  His daughter Catherine later went with her husband Captain Thomas MILBOURNE on a Missionary ship to the West African coast.  This took a toll on her health and, returning to Jamaica, she died there in 1858.  Their daughter "Minnie" left Jamaica for England where she was taken to meet her prospective stepmother by Mary, who was herself in England 1861-1862.

Fund raising was always an issue and burdensome.  William and his fellow missionaries didn't receive a subsidy as did the Established Church.   As usual he innovated.   One example was the sale by him in England of medals issued in 1842 to mark the BMS Jubilee in Kettering at which he attended.  He had though accepted from his congregation the offer of a house for himself and his family in the knowledge that they would have somewhere to live should he die of one of the bouts of fever, ever present.  He returned there from his last mentioned trip to England in 1845.  The house is no longer standing but a photograph of the renovated Falmouth manse is shown here

His great granddaughter, Inez Knibb SIBLEY (descended via daughter Ann & the Rev Ellis FRAY, a mixed race graduate of the Calabar seminary), wrote 'Freed slaves gave William his house at 'Kettering' where he died of fever at the age of 42' after a four day illness.  This was before he could accept an invitation to go to America to speak against slavery there.  He left Mary his widow and their three surviving daughters, two of whom married; Ann and Catherine (as both mentioned).  An estimated 7,000-8,000 people thronged around the Falmouth Church for his funeral just 25 hours after his death, so quickly did word spread.

Here's an old photograph of his tomb erected outside the Church at Falmouth with the inscription written on it alongside.  A photograph of it as it stands today is shown here

William KNIBB's tomb in Falmouth, Jamaica
To the Memory of William Knibb
Who departed this life on the 15th November, 1845, in the 43rd year of his age.
This monument was erected by the emancipated slaves to whose enfranchisement and elevation his indefatigable exertions so largely contributed; by his fellow-labourers, who admired and loved him, and deeply deplore his early removal; and by friends of various creeds and parties, as an expression of their esteem for one whose praise as a man, a philanthropist, and a Christian minister, is in all the churches, and who, being dead, yet speaketh.

Photo by E Wells Elliott

Great nieces, Polly and Lily KNIBB, following in the tradition of tolerance espoused by their grandfather Thomas and great uncle William, founded a 'School For Ladies Of Colour' when racial prejudice still abounded.

One hundred and forty three years were to pass, when in 1988, on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, William KNIBB was granted Jamaica's highest civil honour, The Order of Merit.  Only one other non-Jamaican and no 'white' man shared this honour at the time.   Devon Dick summed up his powerful paper advocating this award as follows;

"He was for the black man and had great faith in the untapped resources of the negroes.  No other person of his era demonstrated such faith in the prowess of the black people.

His lifetime's work in a nutshell.

In 1961, The William KNIBB Memorial High School was founded in Falmouth, Jamaica.

In addition to The William KNIBB Centre (a youth and education establishment) in his home town of Kettering, there are other tributes there to William.  Click on any of the three thumbnail pictures below to see larger versions and read all about them below.  In the case of the mosaic, choose which panel you wish to enlarge.

Market Street plaque to celebrate William KNIBB's bicentenary - click to see larger version
Market Street plaque
Kettering Coat of Arms - 1938 - click to see larger version
Coat of Arms
EKTA Mosaic to celebrate William KNIBB's bicentenary  - click to see larger version of selected panel
EKTA mosaic

Left, a blue plaque erected by the Kettering Civic Society in Market Street on the site where the family once lived.  (Photo by Alison Bagley, courtesy of The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph.)   Click here to see its unveiling in a slideshow.  This was as part of the celebrations held in Kettering to mark the bi-centenary of William's birth, not least a K/NIBB/S Gathering

Centre, his legacy is to be seen in the Coat of Arms of his native Kettering - a black figure stands on the right with, dangling from his left wrist, a broken chain, symbolizing William's pioneer work in the cause of the abolition of slavery.

Right, an impressive mosaic in the Newlands Shopping Centre.  It was placed there by EKTA ('unity' in Hindi), an enterprising group of young people of ethnic minority descent who address issues about racialism.  They were helped in the project by individual contributions from members of the public, all under the creative guidance of artist Carole Miles.  An explanation of what is depicted in each of the three panels appears when you click on one of them.

Would that in this century William KNIBB were recognised elsewhere than in Jamaica and Kettering as the great man he was, an early crusader for racial equality - no less than the Martin Luther KING of his day - .  Whereas CLARKSON, WILBERFORCE and others were resigned to the abolition of slavery happening in time, it was William KNIBB who secured its immediate implementation in the British Empire, paving the way for it to be later abolished elsewhere - much later in many colonial countries.  Even in this day and age, the World needs men as forceful and courageous as William KNIBB to eradicate slavery once and for all.

* An analysis of the evidence he gave to the House of Commons Select Committee can be read on line at Google Books.  Many books and articles referring to William KNIBB in glowing terms appear there.

©ACJ 2000 Updated 2003/6

Do visit the website of the William KNIBB Memorial Church at Falmouth, Jamaica and kindly consider giving a donation to their Hurricane Ivan Appeal.

I would mention the following websites for other articles about William KNIBB and related matters

Here's a tale from 'The Missionary Herald' about 'The Stolen Girls' which shows yet another aspect of William's humanity.


Kettering Return of Enrolment 1 Aug 1803, Religious Persecution in Jamaica - Report of the Speeches of The Rev Peter DUNCAN and The Rev W KNIBB (Exeter Hall - 15th August 1832), various newspaper cuttings and tributes.
'The Life of Benjamin Robert HAYDON From his Autobiography and Journals' edited and compiled by Tom TAYLOR 2nd edition Vol 3 - published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans 1853 London.
'Baptist Autographs in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 1741-1845' Baptist History Series, published by Mercer University Press 2009
For other books and publications - please see Dossier

1.   The Reform Act 1832 mentioned above also impacted upon other social ills such as the Swing Riots.
2.  An edited version of the William KNIBB item above appears on the Victorianweb which has a wealth of other information about the period in which William lived.


(Contributed by David G KNIBB of Seattle)

You might like to view their family tree in conjunction with reading this item.

We first find the KNIBB family in the English village of Claydon some 15 miles northeast of Oxford.  This is gentle farming country up the Thames River from London.  King Charles set up his government in Oxford in 1644-46, only a few years after Samuel and Joseph KNIBB were born in Claydon.  By then Oxford University was already over 400 years old.

Samuel and Joseph were cousins, so at least two KNIBB families lived in or near that village.  Samuel, born 1625, was the third son of John KNIBB, yeoman of Claydon and Warborough.  His cousin Joseph, born 1640, was the fifth son of Thomas KNIBB, yeoman of Claydon.  The two fathers, John and Thomas, may have been brothers.

Samuel's Apprentices

George TIPPING - Jan 1665
John MILLER - Jan 1668

Samuel started business in Newport Pagnell, but moved to London by mid-1662.  Joseph did not leave Claydon until five years later.  Samuel was the first of eight KNIBBs admitted to the Clockmakers' Company.  Some 50 or 60 English clockmakers had petitioned King Charles I for permission to incorporate the Clockmakers' Company, which was a form of guild, and he had granted their request in 1631.  Unfortunately, Samuel's career was short.  He died in London in 1674 [or 1670?ACJ], twelve years after moving there.

His cousin Joseph moved from Claydon to Oxford in 1667 with Joseph's younger brother, John.  Joseph KNIBB started work as a gardener at Trinity College, part of Oxford University.  He soon switched to clock making, however, and was making clocks in Oxford before he moved to London.  He moved to London about the time of his cousin's death.  One source suggests that he took over Samuel's London workshop and administered his estate.  Joseph joined the Clockmakers' Company in 1670.  He was elected as a Steward of that group in August 1684 and as Assistant in July 1689.  Joseph remained in London until 1697, when he retired and returned to Oxfordshire.

KNIBB clock pic Joseph was the most famous of the KNIBB clockmakers.  He supplied clocks to King Charles II and reportedly prospered. Joseph developed a clock-making technique called "Roman Striking," described thusly:  "In order to save power by reducing the number of blows by the hammer necessary during one winding, he caused the hours to be struck on two bells, one deeper toned than the other."

Certain hours were struck on the higher pitched bell, and others on the lower.  "This meant only 60 blows a day instead of 156, or 480 for an eight-day movement instead of 1248.  This system did not find general adoption and only a few of KNIBB's clocks with it have survived; they are consequently much sought after by collectors.  Dorothy KNIBB has a picture of one sold in the summer of 1980 at Asprey's in London.  She arrived after the sale, but an attendant told her it sold for about £20,000 ($33,800 at today's exchange rates).

Joseph KNIBB developed some link with Italy.  Good KNIBB clocks have been found there, and the Roman Striking concept may have originated there.  He may also have found the idea for night clocks in Italy.  We do not know if Joseph KNIBB actually visited Italy, but he may have.  An early adding machine invented by one Thomas KNIBB and another person is also in the science museum in Florence, Italy.

Joseph KNIBB had two younger KNIBBs as apprentices.  Peter KNIBB was apprenticed to him about 1670 and was made free of the Company on November 15, 1677.  ("Free of the company" meant an individual had completed his apprenticeship and could then act as a clockmaker without supervision.)  Peter, born 1651, was the son of George KNIBB, about whom we know nothing.  (AJ See now below re this and following statements).  The second apprentice to Joseph was Edward KNIBB, who was apprenticed in 1693.  He may have been Joseph's son; we do not know.  Edward went on to join the Clockmakers' Company in 1700 after Joseph's retirement.

Joseph's Apprentices

Peter KNIBB - 31 July 1668
Thomas SMITH - 1 Oct 1669
Patrick VANS - May 1672
Edmund MASSEY - Dec 1673
John MILLER - Ex Samuel
John DREW - Sep 1676
Edward WRIGHT - Apr 1682
Brouncker WATTS - Jan 1685
Thomas FARMER - Ex Edward MASSEY?
Edward KNIBB - c1693
James HUNT - May 1699

Joseph retired in 1697 and moved from London to Hanslope in Buckinghamshire.  Even after retirement, Joseph continued to do some work.  He died in December 1711 at the age of 71 and was buried on the 14th of that month at Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire, some five miles away.  His will was proved by his younger brother, John, the following spring on May 4, 1712.

John, who was ten years younger than his brother, Joseph, had accompanied Joseph from Claydon to Oxford in 1667 when both were young men.  John was then only 17.  There is some dispute about whether John ever was admitted to the Clockmakers' Company.  One source says not; another says he was apprenticed to his older brother, and took over the Oxford business when Joseph moved to London.  In any event, we know that he did help Joseph make clocks while they both still lived in Oxford.  Even after Joseph moved on to London, the two of them continued to collaborate, the one helping the other out if he was short of a particular part. 

John's Apprentices

Samuel ALDWORTH - 27 May 1673
William HITCHCOCK - 4 Sep 1675
Thomas LIDBROOK - 26 Jul 1679
Mathias UNITE - 18 Oct 1681
John FORD - 28 Apr 1682
John GOWETH - 11 Oct 1686
John FREE - 7 Jul 1696
Thomas GILLETT - 29 Jun 1698
George WENTWORTH - 2 Apr 1706
Humphrey BRICKLAND - c1710

John KNIBB stayed in Oxford and acquired local eminence.  He became mayor in 1698 and again in 1710.  He was also bailiff, keykeeper, and alderman.  His son, Joseph, went into the clockmaking trade as an apprentice to Martin Jackson on June 5, 1710.  This junior Joseph KNIBB was himself admitted to the Clockmakers' Company in 1717.  John KNIBB died in 1722.  (See Thomas HEARNE's account above)

The KNIBB clockmakers were not parents to the KNIBBs who emigrated to Virginia.  They could have been brothers; more likely they were cousins.  Whether they were related at all is an open question, but the given names of Samuel and John suggest a connection.  It was common for parents to name a son after his uncle or grandfather.

We know that two KNIBB households in Claydon, Oxfordshire, produced sons named Samuel and John during the period from about 1635 to 1645.  We also know that Samuel KNIBB of Virginia was born somewhere in England in 1637, and named one of his sons John.  Thus, there is a circumstantial link.  It seems probable that John and Thomas KNIBB, yeomen of Claydon and fathers to the first clockmakers, were themselves brothers, and that another of their brothers was Solomon, our eldest KNIBB ancestor in Virginia.

Four years after Samuel KNIBB the clockmaker left Claydon for London in 1663, another Samuel KNIBB, who may well have been his first cousin, was setting foot on the shores of Virginia some 3500 miles away.


H. Alan Lloyd, Old Clocks (4th ed. 1970, published by Ernest Benn Ltd., London)
Cecil Clutton, ed., Britten's Old Clocks and Watches (9th ed.);
Ronald A. Lee, The KNIBB Family of Clockmakers (1964 Manor House Press, Byfleet, Surrey)


Some more genealogical information about the KNIBB Family of Clockmakers has now come to light as shown on the Clockmakers' Tree and Listing.   Not all of it has been authenticated as yet but it is known that one branch of the clockmaking family moved to Stoke Goldington in Buckinghamshire.  It is not inconceivable that Samuel and Joseph's forbears actually originated in that area, which might explain why Samuel started his business in Newport Pagnell.  The Job KNIBB/Beata PENNE marriage, mentioned above  *  , appears as the very next one in the Farnborough Register to clockmaker Peter KNIBB's marriage to Katherine SHREWSBURY on  29th April 1679 in that same parish.  These two KNIBBs were brothers and first cousins to Samuel and Joseph.  It was some of Job's descendants who moved to Stoke Goldington.  George KNIBB b1750 was still described as a clockmaker even though I suspect he made only the wooden cases for clocks.  It appears likely that there was more than one KNIBB family in Stoke Goldington;  one of those branches can be tracked right down to a well documented tree that includes four distantly related KNIBB families who have participated in the One Name Study.  You can see the beginnings of this line to the right hand side of the wide Clockmakers' Tree * .
I'm also keen to sort out the exact links between the KNIBB &WISE clockmaking families. We know from BEESON that the wife of Thomas KNIBB (mother of Joseph and John) Elizabeth WISE had a brother William WISE b 1621 who was a clockmaker. He started business at Wantage, Berkshire before 1660.  She also had a cousin (or kinsman) who was a clockmaker. In those times 'cousin' more often than not meant 'nephew'.

1.  Clocks from CFC BEESON's vast collection are now housed at The Museum of  the History of Science, Broad Street, Oxford and include eight John KNIBB clocks and watches. 
2.  Correspondent Dennis KNIBB of Canada met BEESON before emigrating and made notes of the family which have confirmed my researches (See the Family Tree of the KNIBB Clockmakers below
3.  Additional material re some apprentices from "The Early Clockmakers of Great Britain" by Brian LOMAS
4.  The photograph of the Joseph KNIBB longcase clock appearing above and on the Home Page is by courtesy of The Manor House Museum
5.  The Hanslope & District Historical Society have a most informative website that includes a picture of Green End Farm - the site of Joseph's retirement home.
6.  On 25th September 2010 a Blue Plaque commemorating the lives of the KNIBB clockmakers was erected on the eastern gable end of Claydon Church Room opposite Leys Farm, a property associated with the KNIBB family. See   See also


Thomas KNIBB (alive 1770)

Dissenting compiler fl. 1754-65

He wrote The Psalm Singers Help - a collection of tunes in 3 parts, then used in several Churches and dissenting Congregations in London with a thorough bass (sic) for harpsichord or organ.  Also an introduction for the use of learners. 

Printed for and sold by Thomas KNIBB.  Anyone claim him as an ancestor?

A new edition appeared in 1775 printed by G PEARCH and J GURNEY.

Henry Herbert KNIBBS  1874 - 1945

Cowboy Poet & Author

Birthplace Clifton, now Niagara Falls, Ontario but a US citizen because of his American parentage.  He jested that Clifton was 'responsible for two of nature's greatest wonders' - HHK and the Falls!  Several novels.  Mainly verse and story writer.  "Where the Ponies Come to Drink" and "Boomer Johnson" are two oft quoted poems of his.   There is a picture of him in 'World Authors 1900 - 1950, so important enough to have justified an entry.  I also tracked down his Archive at Stanford University which contains a wealth of information about his life and times as well as his literary works.  Travelled widely and lived at Rochester but later moved to California.  The Archive contains documents showing that his grandfather Isaac KNIBBS was born in England.  His biography record at Los Angeles Library states that his ancestors were Cornish tin miners, seamen and Long Island farmers.  As for Cornwall, this is what he himself believed but I'm as sure as can be that his KNIBBS family came originally from Oxfordshire in England.  My theory is that they left there looking for work in the West Country and not finding it migrated across the Atlantic.  Do visit Don KNIBBS' website to see exactly where HHK fits in.

The following websites also provide information about HHK and give examples of his work:  and

Marsha ENSMINGER surfing the internet found several items about HHK, inter alia, that the maiden name of his mother was WOODRUFF.  Indeed, her family background is well documented in the Archive mentioned above and I have a copy of her Will together with copies of many letters written by her to Harry, as he was known to family and friends.  Now, he married Ida Julia PFEIFFER - any known links with a certain film actress?!!

©ACJ Aug/Oct 2000 updated Oct 2004


Antiguan 'Gentleman' Sugar plantation owner

You might like to view his family tree in conjunction with reading this item.

His full pedigree resides at the College of Arms but a copy appears in Vere Langford OLIVER's book on "THE HISTORY OF THE ISLAND OF ANTIGUA, One of the Leeward Caribbee in the West Indies, from the first Settlement in 1635 to the Present Time."   Published by Mitchell and Hughes, 1896.  The late Graham NIBBS located this book and kindly told me about it.

I've put together as much as I can from the book and various sources.

NIBBS I did commission The York Herald at The College of Arms to carry out a basic search for me and that's how I established that James was granted a Coat of Arms on 13 Oct 1759.  He had returned from Antigua and his then address was given as St John's College, Oxford.   Later, he lived at Beauchamps House near Tiverton, Devon.

Brian NIBBS of Jersey very kindly paid for a drawing of  'the full achievement of Armorial Bearings'.  It's a representation of this Coat of Arms (copied here) that appears in the top left hand corner of the website pages.

The NIBBS family were sugar plantation owners in Antigua at the time.  I learned originally from Lester PARRY that Jane AUSTEN's father was at Oxford with James Langford NIBBS.  He became a trustee of the estate and taught a son George NIBBS, who lived for a time with the AUSTEN family at Steventon Rectory.  George was in fact a godson to Jane's father as was Jane's elder brother to James Langford NIBBS.  It is therefor most likely that the sugar plantation referred to in 'Mansfield Park' is none other than the NIBBS property.

Not all was a bed of roses, James Langford NIBBS junior was a spendthrift son who was sent back to occupy one of the Estates in Antigua and was eventually disinherited.  A map is available of the NIBBS plantations, together with listings of the local Antiguan Parish Records.

Another son, the Reverend George Langford NIBBS at Cutcombe was destined to succeed to the family fortunes (such as they were, the sugar plantations no longer yielding the fortunes of former days).  A daughter of his, Emily Mary, married Charles Edward Ascough EVERED, a former Lieutenant who was awarded an Indian Mutiny campaign medal.

A descendant of the 'armorial' NIBBS was Eleanor CORNTHWAITE who in 1951 lived at Seaton, Devon when she wrote to an ancestor of Graham's.  I had said here that attempts to trace her family were unsuccessful but I did manage to make contact with one who read the item though cannot as yet add more details about the NIBBS family.

A different branch of the family back from Antigua included James Knight NIBBS at Upton House, Nursling near Southampton .

Also doubtless related, Rosalyn WILCOCK is a traced descendant via James Burnham NIBBS of George NIBBS who owned a sugar plantation at Tortola.  She has kindly copied to me a Will of Elizabeth NIBBS nee HARRISON who died in 1865 which identifies the land James Burnham NIBBS inherited and which was bequeathed to his children.

Richard Henry NIBBS 1816-1893

Marine Painter par excellence

"The son of a member of the orchestra of the Brighton Theatre.  Mr NIBBS was educated at Worthing in a school kept by Mr TIDEY, the father of the well known artist, Henry TIDEY.  He was trained for the musical profession and eventually attained celebrity as a violincello player...... His fondness for Art was, however, so great that he devoted himself to the study of Nature, and by dint of perseverance, and the exercise of his natural capacity for close observation, he acquired a marvellous facility in grasping the fleeting effects of clouds and waves, and in painting broad manner of light and shadow with unerring certainty...." extracted from Memoriam notice - The Brighton Herald 14 September 1893.

The one and only J M W TURNER's palette ended up with R H NIBBS.  It was left by TURNER to George COBB, friend and attorney, whom it is thought drew up his Will.  COBB gave it to R H NIBBS via his connections with the Brighton Theatre.   Subsequently, R H NIBBS donated the palette to the National Gallery.  All this information has been taken from Reg MAYHEW's Family History website which quotes Extracts from " The Theatre Royal  Brighton " by Antony DALE.

Most famous works 'HMS Vengeance' at Spithead and 'Queen Victoria landing at the Chain Pier, Brighton in 1843' after her visit to Louis Philippe at Eu.

Watercolour by RHN
Watercolour by the famous artist entitled "Thames Barges"
By courtesy of Richard Gardner Antiques

Among books published (and created whilst accompanied by his brother Shirley Leslie NIBBS) was "The Churches of Sussex" 1851

(My home town is Brighton, so I am very much aware of Richard Henry's work and have some details about his immediate family.  I must say, however, that I've been rather defeated by the sheer number of Richard Henrys (as has Brian NIBBS) and the events during their lifetime!  But we can report progress on the origins of the family.  Thanx go to Linda SYSON-NIBBS who supplied a handwritten note written by Richard Henry NIBBS senior; he cites Great Marlow as the place from where his grandfather came.  Now the hunt is on to find the links with the other K/NIBB/S families who were resident there at the time ie early eighteenth century.  ACJ)

Sir George Handley KNIBBS 1858-1929

CMG 1911 Knighted 1923

'He began his career as a surveyor in the NSW Survey Dept.  He was interested in education, and in fashion of the times, was a poet conversant with several languages, ancient and modern, an artist, philosopher and lover of music.  He taught mathematics and physics at the University of Surrey and later became  Director of Technical Education for NSW.  It was he who instituted the Official Year Book throughout his tenure as Commonwealth Statistician (commenced in 1906 and concluded 1921) he maintained his strong mathematical and statistical interest in population problems, and published The Mathematical Theory of Population, first separately in 1917 and later as an appendix to the Report on the Australian Census of 1921.  He was much concerned with the Malthusian theory that population would outgrow food supplies, a threat which has become even more serious today.

Knibbs retired in 1921 to become Director of the Institute of Science & Industry......

An Annual Memorial Lecture is held in Canberra in his honour.

Phot of Sir George
I am very grateful to Stuart KNIBBS for supplying this photograph of his great grandfather.

Further reading: Professor Chris HEYDE's article on 'Official statistics in the late colonial period leading on to the work of the first Commonwealth Statistician, G H KNIBBS in The Australian Journal of Statistics, Special Volume 30B, August 1988.  Professor Joe GANI also wrote of Sir G H KNIBBS in his article "Some aspects in the development of statistics in Australia' which appeared in The Australian Journal of Statistics  Volume 18, Number 1 and 2, August 1976

Taken from
SSA Canberra Branch Inc

See now and
Wrote Voices of the North Book I & Echoes of Hellas Book II in 1913. A presentation copy to Mrs E B A'BECKETT is at Newcastle Archives per the Internet

Various K/NIBB/S in print:

Colin W J & Shirley M KNIBB - 'Rattus Norwegicus', 'Furries of Castle Mound', The Mouse with ESP' & 'The Chimney Worm'
David G KNIBB 'Federal Court of Appeals Manual' 1997-06-01 (A Manual on Practice in the United States Court of Appeals)
David G KNIBB 'Grizzly Wars: The Public Fight Over the Great Bear' Eastern Washington University Press ISBN/ISBN13: 159766037X / 9781597660372
Joyce G KNIBB - American author of amongst others 'Let Us Speak of Pleasant Things and of Warm Places in the Heart' and 'The Family' 2006 Trafford Publishing Dimensions 1412078008ISBN-13
Joyce G KNIBB & Patricia A Mehrtens - Elusive Booths of Burrillville: An Investigation of John Wilkes Booth's Alleged Wife and Daughter 1991 Heritage Books ISBN: 1556134797
Kathleen KNIBB - 'An Epitaph for a Bygone Manchester' self published 1993 and 'Manchester a Phoenix from the Ashes' 1997 ISBN 0 9531967 0 4  Click to see an item on contents from the 'Epitaph'.
Michael A KNIBB - English Professor, author of many 'religious' books and texts, solely and with others (eg The Qumran Community - re Dead Sea Scrolls, The Ethiopic Version of the Old Testament etc) - see them listed on a web search.
Shirley M KNIBB - 'Smaller pets, amphibians, reptiles and mammals' 1982

Allyson KNIBBS - American Professor of Music, Dr. Knibbs ( ) is a self-published author of historical essays, poems, and a play. His play, The Reservoir, had its first public reading at BAAD! on February 25, 2001.  He has written a short book, Twelve Differences Between the Bible and the Qur'an, briefly comparing the Bible and the Qur'an.
Sir George Handley KNIBBS 'Voices of the North, and, Echoes of Hellas' London : Alston Rivers, 1913. - a volume of verse - translations
Sir George Handley KNIBBS 'The Shadow of the World's Future' or 'The Earth's Population Possibilities & the consequences of the present rate of increase of the Earth's Inhabitants' 1928 Ernest Benn Limited

Sons of Sir George:
Norman Victor Sydney KNIBBS wrote the Industrial Uses of Bauxite  1928 and
Stanley George Curthoys KNIBBS wrote 'The Savage Solomons 1929 and "Jock of the Islands"'.

John KNIBBS - 'The Golden Century' - 2002 John Knibbs Publications - Firearms,Shotguns & Airweapons that have been produced by BSA for the commercial market for around the last 100 years First Edition edition (1986) ASIN: B00116Z85E
Paul KNIBBS 'Wixley Wood' - Lewes : Book Guild, 1998 ISBN1857762088
Steve KNIBBS'Life in the Smoke' 2007 Jeremy Mills Publishing, United Kingdom, (ISBN: 9781905217359) - A collection of humorous true stories about some of the strange people and sticky situations encountered as part of a fireman's daily lot.  The author's long experience as a firefighter lends him unique insight into the more bizarre side of life with the emergency services.
NB: Leslie KNIBBS features in "RAF wings over Florida: Memories of World War II British Air Cadets", by Jesse Willard ('Will') Largent (Aug 2000) Purdue University Press; illustrated edition edition ISBN-10: 1557532036

Charles Alexander John NIBBS - 'From the Bristol Channel to the Seven Seas' - a hundred year's work of seaman 1835-45
Syson NIBBS - 'The Town on Fire!'   A religious allegory  Bath  1862
Colin W NIBBS - 'Accountancy in Bookkeeping' 1983 Woodhead Faulkner Ltd ISBN 0-85941-193-1 & 3

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