This is a short tale about how a picture led me to discover two very different people and their very different lives. They both lived in the East End of London, one an artist, Reginald Knowles, the other the boy who lived next door.
This boy was Jimmy Fish, the brother of my mum’s step-mother. I will never know when they first met, how often Reginald and Jimmy saw each other, if they chatted over the garden wall or whether Reginald told him the stories behind his pictures. Their personal history remains their own but, like all stories, it still has a beginning and an ending.
It started with my mother’s stepmother’s sister, Vera, giving me an early twentieth century print when I was young. (above) It shows a young man asleep, dressed in fine clothes and draped over a stone seat, sleeping under an orange tree. A young woman, dressed in blue, gazes upon him adoringly. I liked it very much. It appealed to my whimsy nature, having a whiff of ‘otherness’, an ‘Old World’ romance about it. It has travelled with me from Warwickshire to London, to Hertfordshire and now Shropshire.
Vera told me that an artist had lived next door to her family before the Great war and had given the print to her brother, Jimmy, who couldn’t walk and used a wheelchair. She said this kindness had been treasured by her family.
I became curious about the artist and eventually discovered it was by the illustrator Reginald Knowles. The idea of this print as a gift to a boy I knew little about encouraged me to find out more about both of them. This is what I found out…
Beginnings – Reginald Knowles
Reginald Lionel Knowles was an artist and illustrator in the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in popular in the East End of London, 1879. His father was Ebenezer Caleb Knowles from Stourbridge in the Black Country. Ebenezer moved to London and worked as an insurance clerk in the East End, later teaching music including the violin. Reginald’s mother, Emma Dece Scutt , was a teacher from Dorset.
Reginald had three brothers, Charles, Horace, Herbert, and a sister Marion who died when she was two. Charles and Horace were also artists with Horace having a successful career as an illustrator for books by Enid Blyton amongst others.
Reginald left school at sixteen finding employment with J. M. Dent, the successful publishing firm (Beardsley and Walter Crane also worked for Dent). He also ran his own studio for a while. Reginald had regular work with Dent, designing title pages, openings and end papers for the Everyman’s Library until in 1935 when he was replaced by Eric Ravilious.
Reginald also collaborated on a couple of books with his brother Horace, Legends from Fairy Land and Norse Fairy Tales.
Sometime in the early part of the twentieth century the family moved to Bath Street in Poplar where they found themselves next door neighbours to the Fish family, a lively collection of Irish/cockneys. One of their seven children was Jimmy Fish.
Beginnings – Jimmy Fish
Jimmy was born in 1907, the son of Mortimer and Delia Fish. Mortimer’s dad, William, was a stevedore (a docker). Dock work was hard and dangerous and William was tragically killed in an accident at Tilbury Docks in 1893 when Mortimer was eight years old. His wife, Susanna, was left with seven children, five under sixteen.
Susanna was a mangle-woman (she hired out her mangle to other residents of the community) and also took in washing. Her older son William worked as a labourer and fifteen year old Emily became a servant. It must have been tough for the family to make ends meet and Mortimer found work as an errand boy at a lodgings in Wimpole Street, Marylebone. This was a turning point for him.
The Old Bailey records state that in 1898, thirteen year old Mortimer Fish was charged with ‘Deception and Forgery’ after being caught trying to cash a check belonging to a dentist from the Wimpole Street lodgings. Mortimer pleaded not guilty but despite two local clergymen from his parish vouching for his good character he was found guilty and subjected to twelve lashes of the birch and three days in prison. This must have been a horrible and frightening ordeal.
One can only imagine what drove Mortimer to take such a risk or maybe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time but five years later he had secured an apprenticeship as a shipwright, eventually becoming a shipwright journeyman. He married Delia from County Kerry and had a large, and, by all accounts, happy family which included his second eldest, Jimmy.
Jimmy was born in 1907. He had an elder brother, two younger brothers and three sisters, the youngest my step-grandmother, Peg. The 1911 census describes him as being ‘deformed at birth’. Peg remembered Jimmy had problems walking and spent most time in a wheelchair. She seemed to know little of her brother’s circumstances which is hardly surprising in an era when adults did not involve children in such business, but she knew he had he ‘died young’ when she was twelve years old and was much loved.
It was on receipt of Jimmy’s death certificate that I discovered that Jimmy had been born with Spina Bifida explaining his paralysis.
Bath Street – Poplar, East London
After the West India Dock had opened in 1802 the whole area saw a massive rise in housing development becoming hideously overcrowded. Poplar was developed on a site called Black Boy Field during the dock expansions in the 1850’s. It was home to generations of dockers and workers from the supporting trades of commerce and industry. There were pockets of poverty and depravation, it was dirty in places and overcrowded but not everywhere.
Bath Street had a different reputation. At the end of the road were the Poplar Baths where residents could bathe and wash their laundry. There was a pub, The John Bull, and a smithy. The residents on the 1911 census are representative of the area at this time and included an bath attendant, a grocer, policeman, railway stokers, clerks, ships stewards, shipwrights. It appears a picture of gentle respectability and here, at number 32, lived the Knowles family next to the Fish family at number 30.
At this time Jimmy’s dad, Mortimer, was working down at the docks and Reginald and Charles were working as artists ‘from home’. We can assume it was during the years before the Great War that the families got to know each other. Martin Steenson has written that Reginald’s brother Charles had a ‘crippling illness as a child’. This may have given Reginald some empathy and insight towards young Jimmy’s situation.
Reginald was still living next door to the Fish family in 1919 at the end of the war when he married ‘the girl next door’, Lena Cadman from number 36 that July. I have a recollection that I was told Jimmy was upset when Reginald gave him the print which has been treasured for over one hundred years and have speculated whether he gave the print to Jimmy when he left Bath Street.
Reginald was living in Battersea when war broke out. His mother, Emma, remained at Bath Street next door to Mortimer and Delia. Bath Street was so badly bombed it had to be demolished. How the two families coped with the loss of their homes, possibly friends and their neighbourhood one can only imagine. By the 1950’s the Fish family were living in Kilburn but must have stayed in touch as they had an address for Reginald when he and Lena moved to Croydon.
Jimmy was spared the agony of the bombing raids. In 1937 he was ill with renal failure and lapsed into a coma. He died at Bath Street on 15 February with Delia at his side. Jimmy was thirty years old.
‘Old World Love Stories’ – King Constant
Reginald designed a number of illustrations for a collection of tales from the Lays of Marie de France and others from the Middle Ages, published in 1913.
King Constant is a medieval romance and I have been unable to find much regarding its origins. It may have derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story of Constantine or something similar. It is a story, typical of its time, about a Byzantine Emperor appalled to find out that the stars have predicted a poor young boy will marry his daughter. So he plots to have him killed only to be outwitted by his daughter who marries him anyway, seemingly at her father’s instruction. The Emperor accepts that this was meant to be and takes the boy as his son in law and all is well and the boy, King Constant, coverts all to Christianity and Byzantium becomes Constantinople.
By 1939 Reginald had moved to Battersea and later moved to Croydon but it seems that he stayed in contact with the Fish Family as they had his address in Croydon. He didn’t illustrate another book for many years after the Great War although he continued to work on title pages and end papers.
Reginald died on 26 December 1950 aged 71 yrs.
I have been piecing together this information for many years. I have no picture of Reginald but this year that I came across some photograph’s of Jimmy in Peg’s old albums. If a picture tells a story then the one above shows a likeable young man with two pails of summer roses in London’s East End. They are similar photos of each family member with the roses, smiling in the June sunshine of 1933. In another life we could like to assume that his life stretched out ahead of him but, in this one, war and disease stood in his way.
I am sure I would have liked him.
For more information see Horace & Reginald Knowles by Martin Steenson in Studies in Illustration, No 73, Winter 2019.
Personal information from family recollections and memorabilia.