Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knight, Charles (1791-1873)
KNIGHT, CHARLES (1791–1873), author and publisher, son of Charles Knight, bookseller of Windsor, was born in 1791. The elder Knight, a man of cultivation and public spirit, published the ‘Microcosm,’ written by George Canning, Robert Smith, John Frere, and other Eton boys in 1786 and 1787, and its successor, the ‘Miniature,’ edited by Stratford Canning sixteen years later. The father also spent much time on local affairs. He was on very friendly terms with George III, who used to come to turn over his books. One morning in 1791 he was horror-struck at finding the king in his shop poring over Paine's ‘Rights of Man,’ then just published. The king made no comment. In 1803 Knight was sent to a school kept by a Dr. Nicholas at Ealing. Before he could acquire more than a rudimentary knowledge of the classics, his father removed him from school, and took him as an apprentice in the summer of 1805. The elder Knight sold old as well as new books, and Knight acquired a good bibliographical knowledge. An imperfect copy of the first folio Shakespeare, bought by the father in a library, was given by him to the son. Having access to a fount of similar type, and ‘abundant flyleaves of 17th-century books which matched the paper,’ Knight composed, with the aid of the facsimile, and printed himself every missing or defective page, and made his copy perfect. He sold it for a ‘tempting price’ to an Eton tutor; but his careful study of the text was of value to him in later days. About this time he began a lifelong habit of dabbling in verse. He wisely burnt his early attempts, but later he published a little of his work. In 1813 he wrote a play, ‘Arminius,’ which, though declined by the management of Drury Lane, was printed. On the marriage of Princess Charlotte he produced a ‘mask,’ entitled ‘The Bridal of the Isles,’ called by Leigh Hunt ‘very crisp and luxuriant.’ He was among the founders in 1810 of a short-lived ‘Reading Society’ at Windsor. The ambition to become a popular instructor already possessed him. His first idea was to achieve this end by journalism, and during the session of 1812 he began to learn the trade by reporting for the ‘Globe’ and ‘British Press.’ On 27 Feb. he was accidentally left alone to report a speech by Canning. In August 1812, as joint proprietor with his father, he started the ‘Windsor and Eton Express.’ His experience made him aware of the obstacles placed in the way of ‘popular instructor’ by the stamp, advertisement, and paper duties.
In 1818, his father being mayor of Windsor, Knight was appointed overseer of the parish. He threw himself into the work with his usual enthusiasm, startled his brother officials with a proposal that they should visit the ‘out-poor’ at home, and once successfully chased a supposed bigamist, who had left a wife ‘on the parish’ at Windsor, into Oxfordshire. He took the opportunity of visiting the house at Burford reported to have been Lord Falkland's, and pushed on to Wantage, that he might see the birthplace of King Alfred. In 1817 he edited and published an edition of Fairfax's ‘Tasso’ (Singer's edition appeared in the same year). He was still keen about popular instruction, and so early as 1814 had sketched out the plan of a weekly series, which should bring all kinds of knowledge, mixed with lighter matter, within the reach of the poorest. At last, on 1 Feb. 1820, in conjunction with Edward Hawke Locker [q. v.], Knight produced the first number of the ‘Plain Englishman,’ comprehending original compositions and selections from the best writers, under the heads of ‘The Christian Monitor,’ ‘The British Patriot,’ ‘The Fireside Companion.’ J. B. Sumner (afterwards archbishop of Canterbury) wrote ‘Conversations with an Unbeliever,’ and apparently papers on political economy; J. M. Turner (bishop of Calcutta 1829–32) wrote on ‘Naval Victories,’ and Locker on ‘The Bible and Liturgy.’ The editor wrote a series of simple tales. In June 1820 Knight became editor and part proprietor of a London weekly paper, ‘The Guardian,’ in which he combined literature with politics, and (apparently) set the first example of summarising articles in the magazines. J. W. Croker, in spite of their political differences, helped him in both departments. ‘Croker was,’ says Knight, ‘always ready to give me his opinion, as I believed honestly, and was always glad to gossip with me on subjects of literature.’ The ‘Plain Englishman’ came to an end in December 1822; the ‘Guardian’ was sold at the same time; and in the course of 1823 Knight, partly at Croker's instigation, started as a publisher in London. In the course of the past two years, as an interlude to more serious business, he had been publishing the ‘Etonian’ (October 1820 to July 1821), and had by this means come into contact with W. M. Praed, J. Moultrie, W. S. Walker, and H. N. Coleridge, who now were Cambridge undergraduates. With the help of these, reinforced by Macaulay, Malden, and others, he started ‘Knight's Quarterly Magazine,’ edited by himself, and ‘printed for Charles Knight & Co., 7 Pall Mall East’ (1823–4). Matthew Davenport Hill, De Quincey, and others contributed (cf. Notes and Queries, 1st ser. ix. 103, 334); but the magazine was hardly successful, and practically dropped with the sixth number, though one other was published a year later. In 1824 Knight published Vieusseux's ‘Italy and the Italians,’ and in July 1825, for the Cambridge University Press, a translation by C. R. Sumner (afterwards bishop of Winchester) of Milton's ‘Treatise on Christian Doctrine.’ In November he was preparing a scheme for a ‘national library,’ a cheap series of books which should condense the information contained in voluminous and extensive works. But this was cut short by the financial panic. The prospectus ultimately appeared in the name of Messrs. Murray, and arrangements were even begun for the merging of Knight's business in that firm. These, however, fell through, and with them Knight's business. In the summer of 1827 he was compelled to place his affairs in the hands of trustees. After a short period of promiscuous literary work on James Silk Buckingham's paper, ‘The Sphinx,’ on the ‘London Magazine,’ of which he became part proprietor in March 1828, and elsewhere, he undertook to superintend the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which (taking its title from that of an article in the ‘Plain Englishman’) had been organised a few months earlier by Brougham, M. D. Hill, and others. At first his duties were mainly those of ‘reader’ for the committee; subsequently he wrote and edited. He had not yet re-established himself as a publisher, and the first number (for 1828) of the ‘British Almanack and Companion,’ which he had long projected as an antidote to the trash which was still disseminated under the name of almanacks, and which the society now took up, bears the imprint of Baldwin & Cradock. But by 31 March 1829 he was again in Pall Mall East. On that day appeared ‘The Menageries,’ written by him as the first volume of the ‘Library of Entertaining Knowledge.’ From this time till its dissolution in 1846 Knight remained the society's publisher. In this capacity he produced the ‘Quarterly Journal of Education,’ 1831–6; the ‘Penny Magazine,’ 1832–1845—this by the end of its first year had a sale of two hundred thousand; the ‘Penny Cyclopædia,’ 1833–44; the ‘Gallery of Portraits,’ 1832; besides smaller works. Early in 1832 a new post, which it was proposed to create at the board of trade, for arranging official documents, was offered to him by Lord Auckland, then president. Knight wisely refused, for his nature, at once practical and impatient of restraint, would have chafed beyond endurance at the pedantries of a government department. However, in 1835, when the new poor law was coming into operation, Knight was appointed publisher by authority to the commission. About this time he removed his place of business to Ludgate Street. In 1831 and 1832 he wrote ‘The Results of Machinery’ (of which Spring Rice said ‘that it had effected more good for the repression of outrage than a regiment of horse’) and ‘Capital and Labour.’ These were afterwards reprinted in one volume under the title ‘Knowledge is Power.’ In 1836 he began to publish in parts the ‘Pictorial Bible.’ This was quickly followed by Lane's ‘Arabian Nights;’ then came the ‘Pictorial History of England’ by G. L. Craik and C. MacFarlane, with other contributors, published in monthly parts for seven years, from 1837, a book which is still unbeaten as a history of England for domestic use. ‘London’ (1841–4) was in great part written by Knight himself. From 1837 he had been occupied with what he himself probably regarded as his magnum opus. From the time of his boyish experience he had wished to edit Shakespeare. In 1838 appeared the first number of the ‘Pictorial Shakespere.’ Knight's edition has doubtless been superseded at many points. His faith in the first folio may possibly have been too unflinching; but H. N. Coleridge was not far wrong when he called it ‘the first in the country conceived in a right spirit,’ and no future editor can afford to neglect it. The ‘Pictorial Shakespere’ was completed in 1841. Before the last part appeared Knight had begun to publish ‘a series of original treatises by various authors’ under the name of ‘Knight's Store of Knowledge for all Readers,’ leading off himself with two numbers devoted to Shakespeare. The ‘library edition’ began to appear in January 1842, and during 1842 and 1843 Knight went to Stratford, Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, in search of materials for the ‘Biography,’ upon which he was now at work. In the spring of 1844 appeared the twenty-seventh and last volume of the ‘Penny Cyclopedia,’ and the event was celebrated by a dinner, at which Knight was ‘entertained’ by his friends, Brougham being in the chair. The ‘Weekly Volumes,’ a series started largely owing to a suggestion of Harriet Martineau, were begun at this time. The first appeared on 29 June, the publisher opening with a biography of William Caxton. In this series (appearing every week for two years, and every month for two years more in the ‘shilling volume’) many well-known works made their first appearance: Miss Martineau's ‘Tales,’ G. H. Lewes's ‘Biographical History of Philosophy,’ Mrs. Jameson's ‘Early Italian Painters,’ Rennie's ‘Insect Architecture,’ ‘The Camp of Refuge,’ and many more. The ‘Penny Magazine’ was now drawing to an end, and with it Knight's connection with the Useful Knowledge Society. He made a short effort to continue the magazine in his own name; but this series only lived six months. Three months before this, in March 1846, the society itself had come to an end. Hitherto Knight had taken the risk of the various works brought out under its auspices, the society receiving a ‘rent,’ practically a royalty, in return for the prestige of its name. The ‘Biographical Dictionary,’ which it undertook at its own expense, failed after devoting seven excellent volumes to the letter A, when the loss was nearly 5,000l., and the society prudently wound up.
Knight gradually withdrew from miscellaneous publishing, though his pen was as active as ever. The ‘Weekly Volumes’ only paid their way, but he had for some time been carrying on with better success a series of ‘picture-books, especially adapted for sale by book-hawkers,’ called ‘The Pictorial World,’ illustrative of natural history, English topography, &c. In 1847 he began his ‘Half-hours with the Best Authors,’ and ‘The Land we Live in,’ containing pictures and descriptions of everything noteworthy in England. To obtain materials he travelled all over the country. In 1848 he started a weekly periodical, ‘The Voice of the People,’ to which Miss Martineau contributed; but it failed after a career of three weeks on account, she says, of the dictatorial interference of whig officials (Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, ii. 298). In 1846 he had begun to publish in parts ‘A History of the Thirty Years' Peace, 1815–1845.’ After sixteen chapters had been written Miss Martineau took it up, completed it in 1849, and in the following year wrote an introduction, taking the history back to the opening of the century. This, published in 1851, would seem to be the last work of general literature bearing Knight's imprint. Since that time with the exception of one or two reprints of his works, only official or semi-official publications have been issued by the house, which in his later years had migrated to Fleet Street. His own books were in future published chiefly by Bradbury & Evans; a few by Murray.
In 1851 Knight was invited by Dickens to take a part in Bulwer's comedy, ‘Not so bad as we seem,’ in connection with the ‘Guild of Literature and Art.’ He had already been connected with Dickens's amateur companies; but this seems to have been the first time that he was cast for a part. He played Jacob Tonson in the performance at Devonshire House.
In 1855 he was a juror at the Paris exhibition. In the same year, on the repeal of the stamp duty (to which his exertions had largely contributed), he started a ‘Town and Country Newspaper.’ The method (which failed at the time, though it has since been adopted) was to print general news in London, leaving a space blank for local news, to be supplied in the places to which the paper was sent. The ‘English Cyclopedia’ (1853–1861) was practically only the old ‘Penny Cyclopedia’ revised and brought up to date. Knight now set about the ‘Popular History of England.’ The plan of this was ‘to trace through our annals the essential connection between our political history and our social,’ to enable the people ‘to learn their own history—how they have grown out of slavery, out of feudal wrong, out of regal despotism—into constitutional liberty, and the position of the greatest estate of the realm.’ The history, in eight volumes, was completed by the end of 1862. In 1865 appeared an abridgment called the ‘School History,’ republished in 1870 as the ‘Crown History;’ an excellent school book, the merits of which more recent works have obscured.
In 1864 and 1865 Knight wrote ‘Passages of a Working Life,’ being his own autobiography; and ‘Shadows of the Old Booksellers.’ Two series of ‘Half-hours with the Best Letter-writers’ appeared in 1867 and 1868, and in the former year he ventured with ‘Begged at Court’ into the field of fiction. His sight was, however, failing, and he had to be led by a friend at the dinner given to Dickens on 1 Oct. 1867. His remaining years were passed at Hampstead and at Addlestone in Surrey. He died at Addlestone 9 March 1873.
Knight was a man of middle stature, with finely cut features, and a countenance indicative of his character, in which a sanguine temperament somewhat preponderated over accurate judgment. His schemes, though often sound in themselves, were apt to be carried into effect somewhat prematurely, and without sufficient regard to probable obstacles. Consequently after all his great publishing operations he remained a poor man. He was thoroughly honourable in business and considerate to his fellow-workers. His temper was quick, and when moved he could speak and write strongly; but he bore no ill-will, and seems never to have made an enemy. The often-quoted jest with which Jerrold took leave of him one evening after a social meeting—‘Good Knight’—gives the measure of the estimate formed of him by his friends. In politics he was a liberal, and was one of the earliest members of the Reform Club. When M. D. Hill was candidate for Hull in the first reformed parliament, Knight worked for him. ‘Tell Mrs. Knight,’ wrote Hill to his wife, ‘that her husband is one of the best speakers I ever heard.’
He was also something of an inventor, and in 1838 took out a patent for ‘improvements in the process and in the apparatus used in the production of coloured impressions on paper, vellum, parchment, and pasteboard by surface printing.’ His proposal to collect the newspaper duty by means of a stamped wrapper is said to have given to Rowland Hill [q. v.] the first suggestion of the penny post.
In 1815 Knight married Miss Vinicombe. Of their children one son (Barry Charles Henry, 1828–1884) and four daughters, two of whom married respectively the Rev. C. F. Tarver and Robert Kerr, survived them. Another daughter, Mrs. G. Clowes, died before her parents; and a son and daughter died in infancy.
Knight's position as author, editor, and publisher makes it difficult to ascertain exactly how much is due to him in the first capacity. The following, however, seem undoubted, besides articles and pamphlets: 1. ‘The Menageries,’ 1828. 2. ‘The Elephant,’ 1830. 3. ‘Results of Machinery,’ 1831. 4. ‘Capital and Labour,’ 1831. 5. ‘Trades Unions and Strikes,’ 1834. 6. ‘Shakespere's Biography,’ 1843. 7. ‘William Caxton,’ 1844. 8. ‘Old England’ (first book and part of second), about 1844. 9. ‘Studies of Shakespere,’ 1849. 10. ‘The Struggles of a Book against Excessive Taxation,’ 1850. 11. ‘Once upon a Time,’ 1854. 12. ‘The Old Printer and Modern Press,’ 1854. 13. ‘Knowledge is Power,’ 1855. 14. ‘Popular History of England,’ 1856–1862. 15. ‘Passages of a Working Life,’ 1864–5. 16. ‘Begged at Court,’ 1867. 17. ‘Shadows of the Old Booksellers,’ 1867.
[Passages of a Working Life during Half a Century, by Charles Knight; Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, 1876; The Recorder of Birmingham, a Memoir of Matthew Davenport Hill, by his Daughters, 1878; obituary notices in the Times and Athenæum, &c.; private information.]