W&BCAG Vice president, Sir John Knill Bt., sadly
on April 15th 1998.
Sir Johnís obituary, from the on-line Times, is
SIR JOHN KNILL, Bt.
Sir John Knill, Bt., canal enthusiast, died on April 15
aged 85. He was born on April 8, 1913.
THE restoration of the Kennet and Avon canal was the work of many enthusiasts,
but Sir John Knill was one of the prime movers. He may have appeared eccentric,
but his determination is today paying dividends as more and more people discover
the heritage of the country's canal network. He had been the last person to
trade along the Kennet and Avon prior to its closure in 1951, and no one was
more delighted than he when the Queen formally reopened its entire length at
Devizes in Wiltshire in 1990.
For half a century Knill lived for canals, becoming an established authority on
inland waterways and championing their cause at every opportunity. As president
of the pressure group Avon Transport 2000 he was an eloquent advocate for the
use of and investment in public transport. His interests extended to railways
and other alternatives to the private car.
John Kenelm Stuart Knill was the grandson and great-grandson of Lord Mayors of
London. The family's aquatic connections go back to 1824 when they launched a
firm of wharfingers in London, and their genealogy can be traced to 890, when
they migrated from the Orkneys to Normandy.
Educated at Downside, Knill served during the war as a lieutenant in the Royal
Naval Volunteer Reserve, with which he took part in the Normandy landings.
During his service years he invented the Knill machine-gun mounting, which
became a regular fixture on many of the navy's smaller vessels.
On demobilisation he was an industrial management trainee, but he soon found
office life restrictive and in 1948 he founded his own company plying the Grand
Union Canal near Rugby with a collection of commercial narrowboats.
In the early 1950s his vessels transported large quantities of salt by
narrowboat from Middlewich in Cheshire to the Newbury Laundry in Berkshire,
where it was used to soften water. But since the development of the internal
combustion engine, and particularly during the interwar years, the waterways had
been deteriorating through neglect, to the point where some, including the
Kennet and Avon, became unusable. After operating the last boat along this
canal, which had been nationalised in 1947 under the aegis of the British
Transport Commission, he sold his business to Samuel Barlow at Braunston in
Northamptonshire. Together with his wife he turned to pig farming at the family
seat, Knill, in Herefordshire, in 1954.
But if he gave up the canals commercially, he did not give them up in spirit.
Working with a former colleague, John Gould, he drew attention to this valuable
and little-known resource. His skill at publicity and his persistence produced a
petition of 22,000 signatures, and he was able to prevent a proposed Act of
Abandonment from reaching Parliament in 1955. The canal might be un-navigable,
but he ensured that it was not formally closed.
Nine years later Knill joined the Ministry of Defence at Droitwich as a clerk,
and in 1967 he was transferred to Bath, then a major base for the Admiralty. He
lived in a former canal worker's cottage in the nearby village of Bathampton,
directing countless campaigns to encourage the use of the canals.
He succeeded as the 4th baronet on the death of his father in 1973, which only
added to his reputation as a genial eccentric with a very English obsession. His
home was a magnificent clutter of jumble. A huge Victorian invalid chair with
all sorts of adjustable swivels and gadgets dominated the living room, while an
eastern idol stared quizzically at the scene from the window sill.
Of nautical appearance with his shock of white hair and peaked cap, he was
constantly engaged in unusual projects. In 1980 he drove to London in a 1964
Messerschmitt car he had restored himself in order to protest - successfully -
to the then Minister of Transport, Norman Fowler, against proposals to introduce
tax on cars kept off the road. (At the time he was secretary of the
Messerschmitt Enthusiasts' Club.) On another occasion he acquired a
diesel-fuelled narrowboat and set about restoring its original steam engine.
Unfortunately it saw no more canal service, and now resides in a museum.
But his campaigning spurred other enthusiasts, and attracted grants, piecemeal,
from trusts, councils and government. Bit by bit, the Kennet and Avon Canal was
restored. He founded the Association of Canal Enterprises in 1982, and was
president of the Commercial Narrowboat Operators Association, as well as serving
on the committees of other transport organisations, including the Hereford and
Gloucester Canal Trust.
By 1974 Knill was operating a canal water bus from his village to the centre of
Bath. He frequently touted the small pontoon as an excellent vessel for dinner
cruises, but when a group of American tourists took him up on the suggestion he
had to dock early to collect an ironing-board for the dinner table. In later
years he became one of the spectacles of Bath, propelling himself in a
wheelchair operated by an astonishing system of levers, pulley and - it has to
be said - cranks.
For 20 years he had been writing his memoirs, "John Knill's Navy",
describing his life on the canals. It is to be published next month (May 1998).
His wife Martin, whom he married in 1951, died in 1983. He is survived by his
two sons, the elder of whom, Thomas, becomes the 5th baronet.