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Jeremy Knight: My Story So Far

Jeremy Knight

Published 2st June 2018

I was born on 22 November 1959, half an hour after my twin brother, Stuart. We were premature and I was placed in an incubator. For the first few months, I was very poorly, whilst my brother was fit and healthy. I would wriggle during feeding and once knocked my mother’s front teeth out. 

My father left Barnardo’s aged 14 with no qualifications. He spent 10 years at evening classes, becoming a mechanical engineer and draughtsman. When I was six months old, we moved from London to Melksham, Wiltshire. My parents later bought a plot of land in rural Wiltshire, where they designed and built a bungalow. Occasionally cattle would wander into the garden to eat mum’s roses.

It was an idyllic childhood. I would pick blackberries and elderberries and my dad made his own wine. Along with Stuart and my older brother, I would walk a mile and half to primary school every day. It was only 50 years ago, but children didn't think anything of it.

During my early school years, I had a terrible stutter and no co-ordination. I would be given mundane tasks to fix it, like stacking bricks on a trolley. I suffered with double vision and wore glasses with a plaster over one lens, in the hope that it would strengthen my weak eye, but it didn’t. I was also hyperactive and incredibly thin. The doctor told my mum not to worry and remarked that I could always get a part in a film about Belsen. 

I was reading constantly and read everything in the children's library, so borrowed adult books. I hated fiction and instead read archaeological books, or things like the Guinness Book of Records. However, my spelling and writing was atrocious. On Mondays, the teacher would give us a paragraph to learn to improve our spelling. On Fridays she would ask someone, usually me, to write it on the board in front of the class. She would use embarrassment to improve spelling, as she thought it signified laziness. I’d get a wrap around the knuckles with the ruler as teachers didn’t believe someone who claimed to read so much could spell so poorly. They thought I was lying.

One teacher had served with the RAF during the war. Sadly, he probably wouldn't pass teaching qualifications nowadays, but he was passionate about history and inspired me. But many other teachers couldn't cope with me and I was almost placed in the remedial group at the local comprehensive. Fortunately, my mother intervened and asked for an educational psychologist to assess me. 

Growing up, I loved archaeology and aged eight I knew I either wanted to work in a museum or become an archivist. My parents’ idea of a holiday was to load up the camper and explore castles, landscapes or natural history. During one trip to the Lake District, I bought a stone polishing kit and we drove home with over a hundred stones in the boot. I bought an old cotton reel dispensing cabinet and filled it with 740 stones, all catalogued, with numbered cards detailing what it was and where it came from. 

I only did two A-levels; history and geography, as I took extra writing lessons. Typing was discussed as another option, but it was perceived as a job for women at that time. I still type very quickly with only one finger. I was given an extra half an hour for my A-level paper on the condition that I spend that time making it legible.

I went to Lampeter University in Wales to read history and archaeology. My exam papers were written, dictated and typed before being marked. I graduated in 1981 at the peak of the recession. After one of many unsuccessful interviews, I visited Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and enquired about voluntary work. The curator invited me back the next day. One of the museum library volunteers was Naomi Corbyn, who I got on well with. She was excited about her son becoming an MP, so I always kept an eye on his career. 

On my first day, I was handed a toothbrush and 74 Anglo-Saxon skulls and told to clean their teeth. But I loved it and was soon given permission to create an archaeological display of Mesolithic Wiltshire. The government introduced the Manpower service scheme, offering pay of £80 a week to help people learn a skill. This allowed me to stay for another year, when I worked on 10 displays on Neolithic Wiltshire, helping us will the Small Museum of the Year award.

I moved out of my parents’ home when one of the volunteers, the renowned archaeologist Peggy Guido, offered me a spare room. The rent was £20 a week, with half in cash and half in sherry. Peggy was of that generation of amazing people who would name drop unintentionally. I remember we watched Tea with Mussolini and she remarked she’d met Mussolini. She’d had lunch with Hitler and was friends with people like the sculptor, Eric Gill. 

Peggy thought my writing and use of English was appalling, so along with another neighbour who could speak multiple languages, helped me re-learn English as a foreign language. Through Peggy, I also met many inspiring people, including the artist John Piper, who was commissioned to create a stained-glass window for the museum. It was the end of the era of the passionate amateur who had the ability, enthusiasm and resources to explore. 

After a year of Mesolithic and Neolithic displays, I attended a teacher training course. I felt it was important to be a better communicator if I wanted to work in museums and teaching was a way to improve those skills. I’d also had such a terrible time at school that I hoped to help young people facing a similar situation. 

Whilst the Institute of Education in London agreed with my opinion that poor spelling and handwriting shouldn’t be the determining factor for success, the reality was that teachers couldn't understand how somebody with such difficulties could be expected to teach. However, entering the teaching profession wasn’t what I wanted. I simply needed to learn to communicate better, as I love to tell and hear stories. 

After university, I had applied to over 700 jobs and went to 120 job interviews. Although unemployed for five years, I did temporarily work at a cheese factory, wrapping roulade in cling film. I would have probably worked for my uncle’s textiles company in Yorkshire had I not landed the role of assistant curator at Littlehampton Museum in 1986. I took to the job like a duck to water.

At my interview, I suggested that we should host an exhibition on Lord and Lady Littlehampton, a cartoon created by Oscar Lancaster which for decades featured in The Daily Express. I visited the publisher, John ‘Jock’ Murray, and he allowed us to host an exhibition of 40 original cartoons. It attracted coverage in The Times and was a big coup for the museum. I was given one of the original drawings by the publishers, although I had to seek permission, as there are strict rules about receiving gifts while working for the council. There was no end of discussion about it!

I have a very strong ethical code. I also hate the attitude that life isn’t fair. Just because life’s not fair, doesn't mean that we as individuals shouldn't try to make it as fair as possible. 

One day, the curator announced he was retiring. Even after running Littlehampton Museum for a year, I had a three-hour interview before being appointed on a far lower salary than my predecessor. It was frustrating, so when a job came up at Horsham Museum in 1988, I applied. There were eight councillors, four staff members and several members of the Friends of Horsham Museum group present at my interview. I was later told that I almost wasn’t offered the post as some felt I was overly enthusiastic.

Horsham Museum had become quite moribund. Elizabeth Kelly (now Bridges) had a huge task in improving the condition of the museum after Evan Perry’s tenure as curator. There were dead pigeons in the attic and holes in the roof. After four years, she left and I came in with that work half complete. The museum needed love and attention, but even during my interview, a councillor remarked that they were thinking of closing it, so I might not be there long. But I could see the museum had fantastic artefacts and presented a great opportunity. Within a year, visitor numbers had risen from 18,000 to 28,000. 

For the millennium, money was set aside for community projects through Heritage Lottery Grants. I thought of designing heritage plaques around the district, with a booklet to encourage people to follow a trail. Some thought it was an uninspiring idea, but councillors loved it as it included villages, with places like St Mary’s House in Bramber, King’s Mill in Shipley and Parham House and Gardens featured. This project was carried out while we simultaneously worked on a grant-funded re-development of the museum. 

In terms of local people of historical importance, Percy Bysshe Shelley stands out. I immediately wanted to build a collection of Shelley items, as I came here four years before his bicentenary. As a hobby, I collect rare and antiquarian books, so attend book fairs and auctions and know where documents come up. I initially purchased a copy of Shelley's grandfather's will and since then we’ve built up one of the country’s finest Shelley collections. In 1992, we staged an exhibition of artefacts as part of a Shelley festival which attracted worldwide attention. 

I visited Lerici in Italy, where Shelley died. Several Italian officials had been to our festival and were keen on establishing a Shelley exhibition in Italy. I was invited to assist them and to hear readings of Shelley-inspired poems. As I’d come from England, the Italians classed their event as an international poetry festival! I was convinced that the huge amount of money granted to the Italian festival was most likely being misused to pay bribes during a corrupt election, so upon my return, I advised against establishing a cultural partnership.

After the Shelley festival, then HDC Chief Executive Martin Pearson agreed that Horsham should have a sculpture in the poet’s honour. Angela Conner was asked to create a fountain with moving features and I was approached to write a caption for it. My first thought when I heard about the fountain was surprise, considering Shelley drowned! But my feeling was that it had been commissioned and the council might as well celebrate it rather than hiding it away somewhere. It was a radical piece of art for a radical man.

The sculptor originally wanted to call it ‘Whoosh’ because of the noise it made. I wanted each of the eight benches to bear an inscription from one of Shelley's poems, but she didn’t like that. We compromised; she gave up on the name and we gave up on the Shelley text idea. At the official opening, it was raining but 3,000 people turned up. The fountain wasn’t working and there was a man sitting inside the sphere, peddling like mad to move the mechanism up and down! 

If it did what was originally intended, which was to light up and have water spouting from the top, it would have been more impressive. It's a shame it's gone, as it was replaced by something which has no connection to Shelley. For 10 years, it appeared every day at the introduction to the regional television news, which was priceless coverage for the town. A lost opportunity.

As a museum, we’ve punched above our weight many times, linking up with the V&A for an exhibition on cloisonné in 2013 and this year hosting a watercolour exhibition, linked with the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary. 

If my major concern was attracting high visitor numbers, I would hold populist exhibitions that have no cultural merit. For councils, visitor numbers are an easy way of saying something is popular, but I use the public comments book or online sites like Trip Advisor to gauge our success. 

People are continually surprised by the size of the museum and the variety of our displays. Sometimes, I see people showing friends or family around and referring to it as “our museum.” We’re running this for the public's benefit, so when people are proud of what we have and take ownership of it, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right. 

I started writing the History of Horsham as I was tired of inaccurate versions being written. I’ve completed seven volumes, taking us up to 1939, with one more volume to write. I produced the books in my own time with all profits going to the museum. Yet people still complained about my spelling and punctuation. It was like being at school again! Yet they themselves haven’t put their head above the parapet to research and produce anything like it. 

I’ve always felt that you can only do your best and that’s what I always give.
This is my 30th year at Horsham and the 125th anniversary of the museum. There are still things that I would love to do, particularly to promote tourism. We have 52 mediaeval buildings, over 1,800 listed buildings in the district, ancient bluebell woodlands, castles, South Downs Way and incredible food and drink producers. But Horsham has forgotten its history. We have a road named after a donkey at Ben’s Acre, but not of the Queen of England who lived here!