Born on April 23rd, 1852, Knight was a noted traveller and war correspondent of the 19th and early 20th century. He spent most of his life having impossible adventures at sea and on land, and wrote several factual books of his exploits. After losing an arm in the Battle of Belmont, he even wrote an account of how to rig a ship for single armed sailing in order to encourage others in his position to get back in the cockpit.
This account of his life draws on Arthur Ransome's introduction to Knight's Falcon on the Baltic and Small Boat Sailing. If and when I get my hands on his other books, which are sadly out of print at present, I shall update any areas that are only sketched in here.
Edward Frederick Knight was born in Cumbria in 1852, but was taken to France two years later when his family relocated. This proved to be a propitious move as he soon became bilingual, and was often mistaken for a Frenchman throughout his life. His family moved back to England after the Loire and Cher flooded in 1857, having been rescued from the second storey of their house by a lifeboat.
He started life as something of a ruffian, being known as 'Old Bloody' during his schooling at Bath where his family then settled. He then continued his schooling at Westminster where he spent many hours exploring the school roofs and towers, but despite his intrepid nature, he was diagnosed with consumption and left Westminster to be tutored at home, which continued until his enrolment at Cambridge University. He later decided that his consumption was actually a burst blood vessel caused by swimming, and certainly it never overshadowed his later life.
He is possibly most famous for his book Small Boat Sailing, often quoted in the novels of Arthur Ransome as the essential book for dinghy sailors. He didn't start his travelling life on the sea, but on foot, having hiked extensively through France, explored the Alps and explored parts of Africa before going off to Cambridge to begin his degree. At 18 he had tried to enrol in the French Army during the Franco-Prussion War, having walked twenty miles to Lisieax from his father's home in Honfleur, but was turned away as he was 'foreign' and had to walk home again.
The most interesting exploit of his youth was his last walking tour before gong to University. He caught a train from Honfleur to Lyon, walked to Marseilles, caught the steamer to Algiers, walked to the desert (a mere 250 miles), where he met and befriended a battalion of French soldiers, marched with them to the last French outpost before Timbuctoo, then hiked alone through Khabyle country, was arrested as a spy and then made his way back to his father's house in Honfleur, all for the princely sum of £15!
(Rather than walk straight in, half-starved, filthy and sun-blackened, Knight slept in the garden and sneaked in early with the morning milk in order to make himself presentable before seeing his family again.)
Once at Cambridge he spent his first year battling with Mathematics, Law and Moral Science, but soon gave this up in order to pursue an ordinary degree having decided
"...vacations were better spent wandering under the skies then in reading for exams."
It was at Cambridge that he first became interested in boats, having been indoctrinated by "Rob Roy" MacGregor, one of the first canoeing enthusiasts, to take a canoe and explore various English and French rivers. From a canoe he moved on to his own small sailing boat, and nearly drowned himself learning to sail it in the Seine Estuary. After his father's death in 1873 brought him a small private income, he bought himself a yacht, the Ripple, and began to explore slightly further afield along the English Channel and the west coast of France. He was normally alone on these voyages, but taught himself navigation and grew in his knowledge of the sea.
He left Cambridge in 1874 and continued to study Law, becoming a barrister. However, this life was not exciting enough and he departed to Albania with an artist and travelled around gathering material for his first book Albania and Montenegro (now out of print). In 1880, aged 28, he decided on a whim to buy a new boat and purchased the Falcon, a 28-tonne yawl. He was tired of life in the city, and so gathered several friends, also barristers, and a ship's boy, and sailed from Southampton the South America. This expedition lasted almost two years and culminated in his second book The Cruise of the Falcon, (also now sadly out of print). Having left the Falcon in South America and returned to England, Knight discovered that his inheritance had been challenged and he had lost all his savings. His main income now came from his books.
Unfortunately, Knight's novel writing was rather poor, despite his aptitude for telling the stories of his own exploits. They did afford him a living however, although they have fallen into obscurity and I can find no record of any of the titles.
In 1886, now in his 30's, he purchased a converted lifeboat and christened her Falcon, although the original was somewhere in Trinidad, having been left with friends after his previous expedition. (He had tried to sail her again on a visit to the Carribbean in 1885, but discovered too late that she was bottom heavy with two feet of weeds growing on her hull, and had to be towed back to port by her launch.)
This second boat is the Falcon of his third famous book The Falcon on the Baltic published in 1888, an account of his cruise from Harwich to Copenhagen through the inland waterways of Northern Europe, and the Baltic Sea. Though now also out of print, I have been lucky enough to read this one and it's a fantastic, right up there with Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World. Knight has a particularly engaging style of writing and is so obviously in love with both his boat and the lands he sails through that it is difficult not to get caught up in his joy and enthusiasm.
In 1889 he set off on another adventure, this time to Trinidad in the Alerte, along with nine 'gentlemen adventurers' and four paid hands, in order to hunt for buried pirate treasure that was rumoured to be hidden there. As Arthur Ransome writes in his introduction to Falcon on the Baltic:
The result (of this voyage) was no treasure, several quarrels and another very good book.
Indeed, Knight's fourth book The Cruise of the Alerte inspired Arthur Ransome to write Peter Duck, his most adventureous and far fetched novel of the Swallows and Amazons series.
At this point sailing takes a back seat in Knight's life. Aged 38, he became a correspondent for The Times and spent most of the rest of his life travelling around the world reporting on world events. Ransome describes him as never miss(ing) a war if he could help it. His early life had almost been preparation for this existence, and his earlier adventures in France were supplemented by expeditions to India, Kashmir, Tibet, the Himalayas, South Africa and Madagascar.
Whilst in Sudan during 1896 he had all his camels painted with purple rings around their eyes, neck and legs and a large Times clock on their rump, in order to dissuade camel rustlers.
In 1897 he was sent to Cuba by the times to report on the Spanish-American war. Cuba was barricaded to all visitors, but in his inimitable way Knight managed to gain access. He convinced a captain to set him adrift in a shallow punt six miles from the Cuban shore and attempted to paddle to the island. Unfortunately the boat soon capsized on the rough Atlantic swell and the steamer had all but disappeared over the horizon, but Knight with his usual optimism described his punt as 'an excellent sea boat when full of water'. He rested in her in between capsizes and by the morning, after a night in and out of the water, sat in her stern, underwater, paddling her towards land. He lost everything he had taken with him and was promptly arrested as a spy, but still had succeeded in his objective.
After his release he served in the South African war, writing for the Morning Post. Here he lost his arm, and after his retirement from war writing went on to write two manuals on sailing, one of which contains information on how to rig a boat for a one armed sailor. He never stopped sailing, having a boat rigged to his own, one-armed design, again called Ripple. He wrote his Reminiscences in the 1920's, where he writes passionately of his early years, but dismisses the last twenty five years of his life in less than a page.
He died in 1925 on the 3rd July.
E.F Knight was an inspirational man who had a life we could only dream of having today. His books are now very rare and hard to find, but are definitely worth the effort of hunting down. A brief list is included below.
- Where Three Empires Meet
- Albania and Montenegro
- Madagascar in Wartime
- Rhodesia of To-Day
- Letters From the Sudan
- The Union Castle and the War 1914-1919
There are some books available on Amazon's ZBooks
But they can get quite pricey!