HOME
Captain C.W.R. Knight
Captain Charles William Robert Knight, M.C., F.R.P.S., F.Z.S. (1884 - 1957)

Esmond was very close to his Uncle Chas, with whom he shared a passion for natural history, especially birds, and in particular falconry. Captain C.W.R. Knight (known to all as 'Chas') was a fascinating, colourful character who made a living as an explorer, author, photographer and lecturer. He was also an occasional actor, most notably playing a character not dissimilar to his own, the eccentric Captain Barnstable in Powell and Pressburger's  I Know Where I'm Going (1945). Also appearing in the film was his golden eagle, Mr Ramshaw, who was almost as well known as his master. They travelled extensively together, notably to the United States and Canada, crossing the Atlantic frequently (18 times by the end of the war).

t Captain C.W.R. Knight and his famous

Golden Eagle, Mr Ramshaw

Chas Knight was born in Sevenoaks, Kent, in 1884, the third son of Charles and Emily Knight and the brother of Esmond's father Frank. He was educated at Sevenoaks School and although he travelled widely, Sevenoaks remained 'home' for his entire life. In the 1901 census he is recorded at aged 17 as 'living off his own means'. When war broke in 1914, Chas was in France within the month with the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. He was a crack shot and was soon selected as a sniper - 'Sniper Knight' remained a nickname for many years. Even when hidden in the ruins of an old barn on sniping duty, he was still conscious of the wildlife and even wrote an article for Country Life called Wildlife In The Trenches which was published in 1915 accompanied by his own photographs. Some were taken whilst perilously exposed to the enemy, up trees and in open ground. From 1915 to 1919 he served in the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. He went 'over the top' on more than one occasion and saw action at Ypres, Messines Ridge and the Somme, and was awarded the Military Cross. He was commissioned and, after being gassed, went to the USA in 1917 as a captain in the 1st Battalion H.A.C (Honourable Artillery Company), in charge of a demonstration drill team.


p From left to right: Esmond holding Mr Ramshaw, Leslie Hoyle with a trained falcon,

and Chas Knight holding Coronation, an African Crowned Eagle.

After the war Chas worked for a while for a tobacconist in the City, probably with his brother Frank (Esmond's father) in the family firm of Knight Brothers - importers of Havana cigars from Cuba. But Chas hated it and gradually developed a living from selling photographs and articles on birds, and using his detailed knowledge of natural history by giving lectures, initially in Great Britain but gradually in other Commonwealth countries and in the USA. He also bought a Newman-Sinclair cine-camera and started to make films about birds, pioneering the use of tree top hides to capture rare footage. The first one, Wildlife in the Tree-tops,  was premiered in 1921 and was an insight into the family life of kestrels and herons. The films soon became very popular, especially with Chas's enthusiastic, excitable commentaries. Later, in America, he filmed the habits of sparrow-hawks and ospreys.

In 1924, as part of the Pageant of Empire at Wembley Stadium, he gave a display of falconry in the arena dressed in Tudor costume in front of a huge audience, assisted by an 18 year old Esmond. Many of the audience had never seen anything like it before and one lady was heard to remark: "I don't know if they're real birds, but if they aren't it's very clever."

In the same year as the Pageant, Chas Knight married Eva Olive Margaret Bennet who sadly died just two years later. They had a daughter, Jean, who inherited her father's love of animals and worked as an animal trainer on a number of films including Powell and Pressburger's Gone To Earth (1950).

Although an authority on falconry, Chas Knight will probably be most remembered for his association with the golden eagle. In 1927 his film of eyries in Scotland, The Filming of the Golden Eagle, was first shown with considerable success at the Polytechnic Theatre and in the same year his book cataloguing his experiences making the film was published - The Book of the Golden Eagle. He also produced a set of postcards to commemorate the event:

(click on images to enlarge)

When he developed a partnership with Mr Ramshaw his lectures and appearances became even more popular and appealed to those who would not normally have taken an interest in wild life. Many anecdotes from their lecture tours appear in a book called All British Eagle, subtitled The war-time adventures of Captain knight's world-famous Golden Eagle - Mr Ramshaw. In fact it covers a much broader period of his life than just the war years, from the late 1920s when he discovered Mr Ramshaw in London Zoo, through the 1930s and up to the summer of 1943. Memorable is the occasion when Mr Ramshaw broke loose from his chains on the rooftop of the Gotham Hotel in New York and could be seen by Chas flying away across the city. Fortunately he was eventually apprehended sitting on top of a cab by a policeman after an all-cars alert.

Chas Knight's character shines through in the book too. During a trip to Germany in 1938 he recounts meeting some veterans of the Germany Army from the First World War, one of whom, over drinks, asks his assurance that they are all good friends now.

"Of course!" I replied.

"Ach!" he exclaimed in a relieved voice, "Prosit!"  Each of us grabbed his drink and we clinked glasses and repeated "Prosit," which is a rough translation of "Bung-ho!"

In the 1930s he was responsible for bringing ospreys, also known as sea hawks, from America and releasing them into the wild in Scotland. To commemorate one such event the Captain published another set of postcards of photographs. This set is owned by Steve Crook, with whose permission they are reproduced:

(click on images to enlarge)

Ospreys from America that have been released in Scotland

The moment before release

Osprey ready to fly


Osprey hovering

Osprey returning with fish

Osprey eating a fish

Esmond visited his uncle many times and they worked on a number of projects together. In 1933 they were falconry advisers to Alexander Korda during the making of The Private Life of Henry VIII and Esmond himself played Henry VIII the year before in a film about falconry produced and directed by the Chas Knight. They also worked on a film about golf at some stage. In 1940, whilst waiting to be called up to the Royal Navy, Esmond stayed in Sevenoaks for a while, joined the Local Defence Volunteers (Home Guard) and helped his uncle train locals in civil defence.

The Captain's exploring activity included leading a National Geographic Society expedition to South Africa in 1937, the exploits of which he put into a book - Knight in Africa.

Esmond features on a number of occasions in Chas Knight's 1943 book All British Eagle which although subtitled "The war-time adventures of Captain C.W.R. Knight's world-famous Golden Eagle - Mr Ramshaw" does in fact cover their adventures in the 1930s too. The book includes several photographs of Esmond, some of which can be seen on another page of this website - (Biography 1937 - 1939). The preface is quoted here at length as it describes a delightful scene which is then captured perfectly in an accompanying photograph:

There can never be another Mr. Ramshaw. What a personality; what poise; what dignity! And how tremendously alive he is! Nothing seems to escape his crystal-clear eyes or - for that matter - his keen ears. I have only to peep round the door at him, and, at once, that sleek head and those searching eyes will be turned expectantly in my direction.

This is one of the rare occasions on which I can see him and he can't see me. I am indoors whilst he is outside, enjoying the June sunshine and playing with Jean, my daughter now in the Women's Land Army; Flight Lieutenant Leslie Hoyle - whom Ramshaw has not seen for two years - and Lieutenant Esmond Knight, my actor-nephew, who was blinded during the Prince of Wales-Bismarck action.

It is a lovely day, as warm as mid-summer, with roses and sweet-williams in bloom.

They seem to be having a very jolly time out there. Ramshaw is occupying the only really comfortable chair - one with well-padded arms and back, and is, to the delight of the others, having a little game all by himself; grabbing at the cushioned back of the chair with terrific gusto, turning, twisting, and grabbing again with such violence that one can see the fabric and stuffing giving under the strain of it. He certainly does enter into the spirit of whatever is going on. Now he is leaning back, his eyes flashing, gripping with all his light as though doing battle with some mighty opponent.

"Here, go easy!" I shout as I join the party, "that chair's worth about ten pounds, why not roll up a sack and let him play with that?"

"Oh he likes the back of the chair much better, don't you, Ramshaw?" Jean enquires. "Please don't put him off, Dad."

At the sound of my voice, Ramshaw stops his antics, and, sitting bolt upright, gazes enquiringly in my direction. "There, you've spoilt it all," complains Jean peevishly. "But my dear girl, I really don't think it's worth while ruining a perfectly good arm-chair - even if we have been keeping it in the coach-house."

I might just as well have kept out of it. No sooner has Ramshaw realised that I have not bought him a present and have no intention of taking him out, than once more he settles down in grim earnest to the job of destroying our family heirloom. Now, at close quarters, I can hear, all too clearly, the ripping of fabric and the creaking of wood.

The fresh outburst of aggression is greeted with loud applause and roars of laughter.

"What's he doing now?" asks Esmond tensely, as he listens to the shouts of encouragement.

"Oh he's putting on a grand show," answers Leslie excitedly, "he's got a terrific hold" . . . "now he's over on his side" . . . "he's up again." Leslie sounds exactly like a radio commentator reporting on a boxing match or a game of ice-hockey, "O, nice foot-work. He's . . . He's . . . Another straight left from the shoulder! Now he's holding . . . what a grip! . . . it looks as if . . . He's down . . . He's up. Oh, cripes, look at the stuffing coming out!"


"What's he doing now?" asks Esmond tensely, as he listens to the shouts of encouragement.

In the late summer of 1940, when the Battle of Britain was at its height, Esmond and his wife Fran saw Chas and Mr Ramshaw off at Euston Station en route to Liverpool for yet another Atlantic crossing to undertake a lecture tour in the USA.  They didn't make it. On the third night at sea their ship - a Dutch liner called the Volendam - was torpedoed. The order was given to abandon ship and Chas, to his great distress, had to clamber into a lifeboat, leaving Mr Ramshaw chained and trapped in a hold below deck. They were picked up by a British destroyer and several days later disembarked safely in Scotland. Incredibly Chas then received a phone call from the shipping firm to say that the Volendam had not sunk but had been towed home and was beached at the mouth of a Scottish river. Chas made his way to the ship as fast as he could and found Mr Ramshaw safe and well, still locked in his waterlogged hold.

But Chas was a fearless man and in May of the following year he was again crossing the Atlantic with Mr Ramshaw, this time in a Dutch freighter.(In fact he once said that throughout his long and active life, which included face to face combat during the First World War, the only thing he had ever been scared of was Michael Powell!) It was on his return from this trip that Chas heard that Esmond had been injured in the Prince of Wales - Bismarck action and was in hospital in Iceland.

In 1955 Mr Ramshaw appeared briefly in a film called Geordie starring Bill Travers and Alistair Sim, much of which is set in the Scottish Highlands. In early scenes two children climb up a mountain to look into an eagle's eyrie and Mr Ramshaw is seen hovering protectively overhead. Mr Ramshaw is credited as a cast member but Chas's contribution as trainer is not.

Chas Knight died in Kenya on 19th May 1957. In his obituary, published three days later, The Times wrote of his relationship with Mr Ramshaw: "There will be many who will remember the pair as they appeared in many a school hall and lecture gallery, the powerful figure of Knight, with his drawl and his breezy humour, and Ramshaw, quiet if not quelled, perched upon his wrist, truly a splendid beast."


Films Publications
Wild Life In The Tree-Tops (1921)

Wild Life in the Trenches

Country Life (1915)

The Filming of the Golden Eagle (1927) Wild Life In The Tree-Tops (1921)
Sea Hawks (?)

Aristocrats of The Air (1925)

Williams & Norgate Ltd  (2nd edition 1946)

History of Golf (c. 1934) Mr Ramshaw, My Eagle
The Sweeper of the Skies (c.1935)

The Book of the Golden Eagle

Hodder & Stoughton (1927)

Monarchs of The Air (c.1935)

The Adventures of Mr Ramshaw The Eagle

Dodd, Mead & Co. (1936)

Leopard of the Air (1938)

Knight in Africa

Country Life Ltd (1937)

Mr Ramshaw Battles the Blitz (1943)

All British Eagle

Hodder & Stoughton (1943)

 

Also articles in Field, Country Life etc. including:-
Country Life (1937) - Captain C.W.R. Knight with "James" His South African Hawk-eagle Eutolmaetus bellicosus - Flying to the Fist.


Captain Knight as Sniper
p 'Sniper Knight' in position - a photograph taken from his book Wild Life in the Tree Tops published in 1921
which includes an account of his curious dual role as a sniper and observer of wild life in the trenches.
HOME