A Georgian adventure: The Knight family and the transformation of Exmoor
Ordinary Meeting of Fellows (Fellows and Guests Only)
"A Georgian adventure: The Knight family and the transformation of Exmoor", Lecture by Mr Robert Wilson-North FSA
In 1818, John Knight's bid to purchase the former Royal Forest of Exmoor from the Crown was accepted. He then set about the last and largest single land reclamation project in England - at its heart was the creation of a great Georgian estate from scratch. He had acquired 16,000 acres of uninhabited, barren moorland and set about its transformation using gangs of labourers to build a 29 mile long boundary around the estate, networks of land drainage, 2 canals, nearly 20 miles of roads, 2 farms, cottages in the 'Scottish style', a mansion, and Picturesque gardens (he was the cousin of Richard Payne Knight of Downton, cousin of Thomas Johnes of Hafod and nephew of Mary Bamfylde of Hestercombe).
John Knight, a family trustee of the British Museum, was a wealthy iron master from Worcestershire and this massive wealth drove the reclamation, but in the end it was not enough and he retired to Rome leaving his son to continue the reclamation in a different way.
Contemporary records are sparse and John Knight's motivations, methods and aspirations have been hard to examine. However, in recent years there has been a sustained programme of integrated archaeological survey, building survey and historical research to better understand what happened on Exmoor in those frantic years. This in part led to the discovery of a substantial archive of family papers in a loft in Kidderminster in November 2016 which has materially changed our understanding of how the reclamation was approached.
This lecture is the fascinating story of how a vast landscape, perhaps the last wasteland in England, was changed by a great family in two generations. It is also about the concept of land improvement in England and notions of what could be achieved against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. It draws on a range of new evidence, both archaeological and historical, that has been amassed in recent years, and offers a new perspective on the Knights and their reclamation of Exmoor.