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John Bolton Knight (1827-1898)


Maker of a fine dulcimer: brass inscription plate reads “J.B.Knights, Maker, Rickinghall”.


After many years of being unable to trace any J.B.Knights in Rickinghall or nearby, I had a breakthrough in 2014. Something caught my eye on looking through Knights in Suffolk – and it turned out to be the baptism of the dulcimer maker’s son in 1856. Through much detective work and following hunches to find definitive evidence, I now know quite a bit about the maker, although the instrument is the only indication of his musical activity and craft skills known at the moment.


James Boulton Knights (sometimes spelled without the ‘u’) was born around 1827 in Wymondham, first son of James Bolton and Maria Knights, who were unmarried at the time. By the time of the first national census, in 1841, his parents were married and his father was a miller in Wramplingham. These villages are in an area known to be busy with dulcimer players in the late 19th /early 20th century.


By 1850 the family were nearer to Norwich – James is listed as the schoolmaster (under the surname Bolton) at the British National School, Costessey and in 1851 they were living at Bradberry Gardens, Heigham, in Norwich itself, in a large household which included James’ cousin Charles, a carpenter.


In 1854 James married Ellen Fitt at St Mary’s Baptist Chapel Norwich on 17th October, where he gave his name as James Boulton Knights, and used this name from then onwards. The Fitts were pipemakers from Ber Street. James profession was given as ‘accountant’ and his address as Lower Westwick St, adjoining Coslany St. Again, Ber Street and the Coslany area are known centres for dulcimer playing and making. Their first son, Herbert, was born in Ber Street in December 1855, but he was baptised in Rickinghall on 3rd August 1856, giving us the earliest known date for the family in Rickinghall.


Their second son Arthur (Albert in the 1881 census) was also born in Rickinghall, on 17th May 1857, and their third son, Augustus, was born in Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire. In the 1861 census James’ occupation is again given as schoolteacher, so it’s fair to assume that is how he spent his years in Rickinghall. The school there was a handsome building with adjoining two storey schoolhouse, and only built in 1854, just before James and family moved there. He wasn’t the first schoolmaster there – the 1855 White’s Directory gives William Thomas Nathaniel Williams as the schoolmaster.


James’ remaining children, daughters Flora (1866-1905) and Agatha (1870-1935) were both born in Breedon-on-the-Hill, but by the 1871 census, they had moved to Babraham in Cambridgeshire, where James lived for the rest of his life. In addition to being the schoolmaster he was also the parish clerk for many years, so was obviously at the hub of village life.


The first school in Babraham was built with an endowment from a local family, along with a small row of almshouses, in 1730. The building seems to have remained in in use as a school until 1959, but a newspaper report soon after James had moved there, described the village as having ‘no efficient school’ – this was part of the updating of the national education system through the 1870 Education Act. After James’ death, another report (1899) gave the joint salary for a schoolmaster and mistress as £110 and comments that this is less than the standard £126 paid for a master alone elsewhere. A website on the history of the charity that endowed the school and almshouses, says the school ‘functioned with some ups and downs’ and the comprehensive parish history online at www.british-history.ac.uk hints further at the situation during James’ tenure (1871 or maybe as early as 1867 to sometime before his death in 1898, but at least 1896).


‘Additions were made to the school, which stood in the middle of the row of alms-houses, in 1861 and 1869, and a new room for infants was added in 1902 when the number of pupils reached 70. A night school was poorly attended in 1867 and had been abandoned by 1877 for lack of support, but the schoolmaster held technical classes on winter evenings in 1897 and 1900 and there was then a parochial library. In 1872 most of the children were withdrawn from the school in protest at the imposition of fees, and although by 1878 Babraham children were again educated free, fees being paid only by pupils from other parishes, strong opposition was aroused by a Scheme giving the trustees powers to charge if necessary.’


James died in Addenbrokes Hospital on 24th October 1898. He is buried at St Peter’s in Babraham and left an estate worth £124.7s1d.


James’ daughter Flora assisted her father in the school after her mother died. Sons Arthur and Herbert both grew up to be teachers, Herbert a music teacher in Epsom, Surrey and Arthur in London (1881) and then Garboldisham (on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, near Rickinghall - 1891). A report in the Cambridge Independent Press from 13th January 1888 gives a description of a visit from some of Arthur’s pupils to Babraham to take part in a concert. The youngest son Augustus who was blind in one eye, also went to London where he became a ‘refreshment house keeper’. Augustus tragically committed suicide on a visit home to his sister Flora in Babraham, on 3rd January 1899, just a few months after their father had died. Newspaper reports include comments from his wife about him suffering from depression and mental illness. Flora moved away soon afterwards.


In conclusion, it is a finely made instrument, so clearly James Boulton Knights had very good woodworking skills or he worked with someone else. He would have come across dulcimers either in the Wymondham / Wramplingham area as a lad, or in the Coslany /Heigham areas of Norwich as a young man. In the latter area there was at least one master cabinet maker producing high quality dulcimers at the time – Mark Widdows, who ran the Lamb Inn and then the Arabian Horse public houses and was listed in censuses as ‘musical instrument maker and publican’. We have seen three very fine Widdows instruments and he also fitted out boats and was a Freeman of Norwich in his role as craftsman. James would have kept up with his Norwich contacts to some extent as his in-laws continued to live in the area.


The Knights’ instrument – given the ‘Rickinghall’ provenance, must have been made between 1856 and 1861, making it one of the earlier instruments we have been able to identify.


We have not come across any records of James Boulton Knights playing music (eg newspaper reports of village concerts) but the fact that his elder son went on to make his living through music indicates he was brought up in a musical household, and that James is likely to have played the instrument, not just made it for someone else. The fact that in the 1888 village concert, JB Knights is not mentioned as a performer, suggests that by then he wasn’t playing.



dulcimer made by John Knight now owned by Martyn White

     a      b






Click on a thumbnail to see a larger picture


Photo descriptions & sources

a. Dulcimer made by John Knight (John Howson)

b. Dulcimer made by John Knight (J H)

c. Dulcimer made by John Knight (J H)

d. Dulcimer made by John Knight (J H)

e. Dulcimer sound hole  (J H)

f.  Dulcimer makers plaque - 'J B Knight' (J H)

g. Dulcimer iron beaters (J H)

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