Writer, editor and researcher – mostly about history and work

Archives: June 2022

Friend Knight (1833-1909) and Mary Manser (1834-1911)

Friend Knight and Mary Manser were two of my great-great-grandparents. Both spent almost their entire lives in Tonbridge, Kent, rising through their own efforts and the incoming tide of late Victorian prosperity from poor childhoods to some level of respectability.

Their story is told in this PDF, and more briefly below…

Friend Knight

Friend was born in 1833, and grew up in one of the slum cottages along the High Street that in 1849 saw an outbreak of cholera. It may have been this that killed his father, Edward Knight, a labourer, that year.

The 1851 census shows his mother to be a ‘pauper’, and Friend working as an agricultural labourer. A public health inquiry into sanitary conditions in the town said of the area: ‘The dirtiest, idlest, and therefore the poorest, part of the population are located here.’ It says the sewerage arrangements had until recently consisted of an open drain, but that this had now been closed over – though it was only washed out by slops from the cottages. The opening into the river was in a ‘stagnant, filthy state’, with the obligatory dead dogs floating in it. From this stretch of river came water for washing and food preparation.

Mary Manser (Knight)

Friend and Mary, also from Tonbridge and a year younger, married in April 1859 and their first son, Edward, was born that August. Baptisms, weddings and funerals were all held at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul just off the high street. There were to be seven more children, of whom Ethel Amy, born 1877, was the youngest.

By 1861 Friend had risen a little in the world, and was working as a painter (decorator) and grainer. The family had moved from the High Street, though the house is no longer standing. It may have been one of the ‘wooden houses’ bulldozed as unfit for human habitation in the 1950s (though a hundred years earlier it was probably considerably better than Friend’s childhood home).

They would move again in 1885 to St Stephen’s Street. By this time Friend was advertising his services every week in the Tonbridge Free Press as a painter, glazier and plumber (and the 1891 census shows him to be an employer). There is a picture below of 9 St Stephen’s Street where they lived. He also owned number 7, next door, and let it to his son. It must have been quite a squeeze for the younger Knight, his wife and eleven children, including two sets of twins. The pub at number 11 was then called the Gardeners Arms. Number 9 was Ethel’s childhood home, and she would live there until she married Algernon Grassby and moved to Dorchester in 1902.

As Friend became established in his trade he took on other responsibilities, serving for 38 years from 1865 to 1903 as secretary of the Ancient Order of Foresters; this was a friendly society providing important sickness, unemployment and burial payments to its members. It also organised social events, including trips to Eastbourne for members’ families, and in 1887 joined forces with other friendly societies in the town to stage a fete to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. The society met fortnightly at the Red Lion Hotel at the top of the High Street, and was much given to Masonic-style robes, regalia and ceremonials, marching behind their lodge banners on key dates in the calendar.

Friend was also a founder member of the Tonbridge Working Men’s Liberal Association. In buying the two properties in St Stephen’s Street in 1885, Friend (though not Mary) gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections, and his name appears on electoral registers from that date.

Friend died in 1909; Mary two years later in 1911. After her death, the two houses were sold as a single lot for £325.

St Stephen’s Street: on the left, number 9; to the right, number 7.