Friday, October 14, 2016

Soapmaker to the King

One of the things I love about being a professional genealogist is the fascinating people you discover in other people's family trees.  With permission of his descendant, here is the story of John Knight, who went from being the son of a farmer with little in his pocket to being the maker of one of the most widely used soaps in Europe.

John Knight was born 25 Dec 1792 in Barkway in Hertfordshire, the son of farmer Ambrose Knights [sic] and Susanna Burgess. The births of all the children of Ambrose and Susanna are recorded in the records of the Monthly Meeting of Quakers in Hertfordshire, but each includes a note that the parents are not members of their Society.

John Knight 1792-1864

The Society of Friends, as the Quakers are more accurately known, was founded in the 17th century. Initially they welcomed anyone who followed the "Quaker way", but over time they became more stringent in their requirements for membership of the Society. It became very difficult to become a member unless you were born to Quaker parents.  Nevertheless, non members were and are welcome to attend most of their meetings when they conduct their worship, though there are a few meetings each year that are only open to members.  So it is most likely that Ambrose and Susanna (and with them their children) were attendees at the services at the Society of Friends' meeting house, but were not actually Quakers.

In about 1808, aged just 15, John Knight left home to try and make his fortune in London. His first job was in a grocer's shop in Mile End, London, where he had to make tallow candles for his employer to sell. Tallow candles are made from the rendered fat from beef or mutton, and were much cheaper than beeswax candles. While doing this he got the idea of making soap with the waste materials. 

On 24 Jun 1817 he married Phoebe Ann Fitchett in St Dunstan in the East, and they went on to have seven children: William (1818-1910), Phoebe Ann (1819-1865), John Burgess (1820-1909), Edwin (1822-1909), Alfred (1824-1863), Abner (1826-1833) and Ambrose (1828-1902).

The birth of John's eldest son, William, which took place at Ratcliff Highway on 16 Mar 1818, was recorded at the Monthly Meeting of the Quakers in Ratcliff and Barking, with the annotation that he was not a member.

Despite his upbringing with the Society of Friends, John Knight regularly attended church at St George in the East and had his son William baptised there in 1819, and all other children as they were born. John was an overseer of the church, and served as a churchwarden there in 1836-7.

Around the same time that he got married, John Knight set up in business for himself on Ratcliff Highway (now called The Highway) in Wapping. The road dates back to the Roman times, when it was one of the main routes out of London to the east. Records state that this business was a candle dipping factory, and that Knight continued experimenting with soap manufacture. However the baptism records of his children, covering the period 1818-1828, give his occupation as variously "oil & colourman", "oilman", "colourman" and "oil merchant". One of his employees, giving evidence in a court case in 1840, describes his employer as a "tallow-melter". These are all closely related aspects of the same business. An oilman sold lamp oil, paraffin (also known as kerosene) and other oils like linseed oil.  These oils were used for cooking stoves and many other functions as well as lighting. The colours refer to pigments which are used to colour paint. Along with these he no doubt also sold tallow candles, which were a necessity in the days before electricity.

It's easy to see the connection between oils and tallow and soap making - one of the key ingredients in soap is fat. There also are many reports, though without a date, of Knight buying bones from the bone-men for his soap manufacture. 

At this time soap was an expensive commodity, usually only affordable by the upper classes. In fact there was a tax on soap until 1853. Knight's goal was to make an affordable soap that people would enjoy using. The area around where he worked was full of chimney sweeps, boat builders, factory workers and many others who needed to be able to clean their hands and clothes of the filth and dirt that went hand-in-hand with their work.

In 1836 the business had expanded and moved from Ratcliff Highway to a larger premises in York Place, Old Gravel Lane, where he seems to have focused more (but not exclusively) on the soap manufacture. In that latter year he is described as "soap maker and oil merchant", and the 1841 census he gives his occupation as "soap maker". Old Gravel Lane (now called Wapping Lane) runs south off Ratcliff Highway near the Wapping Basin and goes almost as far as the Thames. York Place ran off Old Gravel Lane to the west. The closeness to the Wapping Docks allowed for easy distribution of his finished products.

Royal Primrose Soap

In 1844 Knight started producing "Royal Primrose Soap", which won a prize medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition. It went on to become one of the most popular brands in the world.

By the 1850s the business was employing 150 people and producing 2000-3000 tons of soap a year. His sons (with the exception of Abner, who had died young of measles), all joined him in the business, which became known as John Knight & Sons.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in business it is a way to make money. In July 1852 Knight's business was forced to take out an advertisement in the "London Daily News" warning about copies of his soap being passed off as the real thing.

SOAP – JOHN KNIGHT'S PRIMROSE SOAP. As the public are having a spurious article palmed on them as John Knight's celebrated and well-known Primrose Soap, they are respectfully requested to observe that the name and address, "John Knight, Primrose, York-place, Old Gravel-lane, St George's East," is stamped distinctly on each bar.

Knight was known for his philanthropy: he built an infants' school in Old Gravel Lane near his factory, frequently gave small gifts of money to the women from the workhouse who attended church with him, and employed poor widows and orphans in jobs that could be more cheaply performed by machine, purely in order to be able to give them employment.

John Knight retired 1859, and his eldest son William took over the business, with his other sons also involved, and the business continued to thrive. Meanwhile John and his wife moved to Chigwell, where he built the Victorian Gothick "Hainault House" on High Road, since taken over by Chigwell School and given a Grade II listing. His old home in York Place was replaced by apartments many years ago.

Hainault House

John Knight died at his home "Hainault House" on 6 Apr 1864 and is buried in Chigwell. His headstone at Chigwell parish church reads:

Sacred to the memory of John Knight of Hainault House in this parish & for many years a Resident of St. Georges in the East who was born at Barkway in the county of Hertford on Christmas day in the Year of our Lord 1792.

Knight left £3,500 to all his sons, £100 to his daughter, Phoebe Doyle, an annuity of £600 to his wife Phoebe, and £8,000 in a trust for his sister's children.

After Knight's death the company continued under the control of his sons.

In 1880 the business needed a still larger premises and moved to Silvertown, further east in the borough of West Ham. The Royal Primrose Soap Works was built on Knights Road, Silvertown.  The area once occupied by the Old Gravel Lane factory has been redeveloped and York Place is no more.

The Royal Primrose Soap Works, Silvertown

In 1906 John Knight and Sons, soap markers and perfumers, was replaced by the public company John Knight Ltd, with a capital of £570,000 comprising 500,000 Ordinary Shares of £1 each and 70,000 Deferred Shares of £1 each. Around the same time a scheme was introduced whereby employees (some of whom had been working there for 30 to 60 years) were given a share of the profits, which could amount to 3 weeks' pay. It was felt that their loyalty to the firm was so marked they should receive something other than just their regular wages. It was also felt that giving every single employee a direct interest in the business could be beneficial not only to the employees, but to the company itself. The company was supported the reduction of the shifts at the factory from 12 hours to 8 hours, a strategy which increased employment and also increased productivity.

In 1919 the company introduced a new product that would go onto become more famous than "Royal Primrose Soap". "Knight's Castile Soap" was marketed as a beauty aid and as something to improve your complexion. Other products made by the company included "John Knight's Family Health Soap" and "John Knight's Anti-Rheumatic Soap".

John Knight Ltd held a Royal Warrant for the supply of soap since at least 1922.

By 1922 John Knight Ltd was an associate company of Lever Brothers (now called Unilever). They were listed as an Exhibitor in the 1922 British Industries Fair, showing various soaps (household, laundry, perfumed, soft, medicinal, shaving, flakes and powder), Toilet Preparations, Glue, Tallow, Edible Dripping, Edible Oils, and Oil Cake for cattle feeding.

The animal rendering plant in Silvertown is still in existence, despite having been badly damaged during the Blitz. Over the years the business on this site has included seed and cake warehouse, a glue factory and a fat melting plant.  In 1969 it was sold to Prosper De Mulder family (PDM Group).


  1. Good one - will have to wait for my next week's gems to share it.

  2. Jenny, so glad you could shared this research as years ago Knights Castile was the main soap brand I managed. I never knew where the name came from so finally I am informed. Thanks!!!

    1. Isn't it great when things connect like that