The Knights Family & Bell Foundry


For over 200 years generations of the Knight family cast bells for local churches in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and, Oxfordshire as well as further afield. There are still many bells in use today which were cast by various members of the Knight family, some of which are inscribed with the founder's name, date and, usually, a short legend.

It isn’t  known exactly when bell founding started in Berkshire, but it was certainly a flourishing business in Reading during the 14th and 15th centuries.  It is highly likely that William Knight learnt his trade at a foundry owned and run by  Joseph Carter in before leaving to set up his own business in 1518.

Records of this time are sparse, but it is thought that the foundry was near Broad Street in the town centre where remains of foundry slag were discovered during excavations for the redevelopment of the area.

In 1519 William was the Church Warden at St. Lawrence Church in, Reading..  He  was also the Under Warden of the    Founders Company of London in 1519 and in 1528 became the Upper Warden and the Master of the Guild in 1531. 

He died in 1535 and is buried in St. Lawrence Church, Reading.

Knights Foundry

He was succeeded by his son William Knight, and the business continued to grow and prosper. Many tower bells were cast for local churches until his death in November 1585.

He was succeeded by his son Henry Knight and it is recorded in the ‘History of Berkshire’ that he was responsible for the casting of between eighty to ninety bells during his ownership of the foundry.  In 1619 the very first bell for St. Mary’s was cast and is signed and dated by Henry Knight with the legend ’HENRX KNIGHT  MADE MEE 1619’. Henry died on the 8th January 1622 and his death is recorded in the register of St. Lawrence Church in Reading.

The succession of the foundry was then left to a Francis and Ellis Knight, who presumably were the sons of Henry and they continued in partnership. In 1637 another bell was cast by Ellis Knight and is signed with his name, the date and legend ‘HONOR GOD 1637.   However, after the siege and surrender of the town of Reading to Cromwell’s soldiers under the Earl of Essex in 1643, there appears to have been a serious stagnation of trade and for the four following years this former flourishing foundry does not appear to have turned out a single bell.  

However, over the following years the business continued to grow, receiving some very prestigious orders; in 1656 Mary Cromwell, the third daughter of Oliver Cromwell, commissioned 6 bells to be cast  for St Nicholas Church in Chiswick.. Five of these bells  3, 4, 5, 6, & 7 are still part of the present ring. They are historically  interesting bells because there were not many bells cast during the Commonwealth Period and all are inscribed with the founder’s name and date.  Mary Cromwell is buried in the churchyard at St. Nicholas church.

According to records from that time,  Henry Knight (II) was in apprenticeship during this time and many bells can be attributed to him. Francis Knight died in 1671 and it seems likely that it was then that Ellis made  Henry (II) a full partner in the business.   In 1666 the foundry cast another bell for St. Mary’s, and  is signed by both
Ellis and Henry Knight. the succession passed to him after their deaths. During his tenure of the foundry a large number of bells can be attributed to him and are distinctly inscribed ‘HENRY KNIGHT MADE MEE’

Henry (II) died in January 1672. The inventory of his goods describes him as ' Henrie Knight Sen r late of Reading Belfounder'. After his death, succession passed to Henry's son Henry Knight (III) and Ellis Knight (II).    However, Ellis retired from the business around  1675, and Henry's business shrank to a small output. He died in 1682, and Ellis came out of retirement and  once more took over the business.    He eventually retired permanently in 1684,  handing over the management of the foundry to Samuel Knight

Ellis died in Reading in 1694
Samuel’s earliest known bell is at Stanford Dingley and is dated 1684.  By about 1702 the business had seriously diminished  and in 1710 Samuel made the decision to the move the foundry to London. 

The actual site of his foundry is not known, but it is believed to have been in Shoe Lane, in Holborn, and in the parish of St. Andrew’s with which Samuel had connections. For the first twelve to eighteen months, after the moved there seems to have been hardly any business, however, in 1712, the tide eventually turned, and he sent at least thirty-six bells to church towers in Sussex and between  eighty to ninety bells to church tower in Kent and Surrey. 

In 1726 8 bells were cast (probably on site) for Canterbury Cathedral and they still hang in the SW tower. In 1734-5.   He also  contributed to the renowned ring of twelve bells (of which the majority are still rung) at  Southwark Cathedral in 1734-5 and in 1739 a ring of 8 were cast for St., Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, which is known today as the Parish church of the House of Commons.  However, sadly, just before the job was completed Samuel died and it was completed by his foreman and successor Robert Catlin, and the 5th bell is inscribed with his name and the massive frame at Southwark Cathedral was made by Robert Catlin and is still in use today 280 plus years later. 
In 1739  a number of bells were also cast for St. Sepulchre (Old Bailey) Church- these are the bells which feature in the nursery rhyme ‘When will you pay me said the bells of Old Bailey’.

Samuel Knight died in 1739 and he made Robert Catlin, his lifelong friend and business colleague his executor, leaving the business to him in his will.  Robert Catlin died in 1751 leaving the business to his successor Thomas Swain.

The Knight’s fanily were prolific in casting tower bells for many Berkshire churches.

The following is not a comprehensive list of  local  churches  but does give an idea of how important they were locally.

Aborfield (1639/1653), Aldermaston (1681), Aldworth (1635), Ashampstead (1662),  Beedon (1615/1675/1683), Binfield (1629/1698), Boxford (1618/1639/1640),  Bradfield (1630/1655/1665/1705,  Bray (1612/1613/1656/1678), Brightwalton (1627), Brimpton (1642),  Bucklebury (1610/1634), Caversham (1637/1660),   Chaddleworth (1635),  Chieveley (1633), East Garston (1677),  Kintbury (1576/1669), Lower Basildon (1621/1665), Midgham (1674), Purley (1627/1629/1635), Reading (1640), Shaw-cum-Donnington (1631, Shinfield (1664), Sonning (1640/1641), Stanford Dingley (1609/1607/1684),  Streatley (1631/1649/1661), Thatcham (1624), Tidmarsh (1649/1687)), Ufton Nervet (1633/1642/1650),  Welford (1576/1609/1674), Woolhampton (1586), Yattendon (1657),