Esmond Pennington Knight was born on 4th May 1906 at 9 Vicarage Gardens, East Sheen, Surrey, a quiet suburban road close to the edge of Richmond Park. His father, Frank Knight, was a successful cigar merchant who helped to run the family business, Knight Brothers, importers high quality Havana cigars from Cuba. Originating from Kent, the Knights were a colourful family and included the artist John Buxton Knight (1841-1908) whose work hangs in the Tate Gallery in London. Esmond's mother, Bertha, was a talented musician and singer whose grandmother, Sarah Pennington, sang in the chorus at Queen Victoria's coronation. Bertha and Frank Knight had four children, all boys - David, Tony, Gilbert and Esmond.
"We were all a bit scared of my old dad," Esmond confessed in an interview in later life. "He was a very forceful and dominating person. We never had any girls in the house, they simply weren't invited. So we were ridiculously self-conscious. My mother was very sympathetic to the four boys, but she was afraid to raise her small voice against my father - who was so loud and confident."
Esmond's birthplace in Vicarage Gardens, East Sheen, Surrey.
Esmond was the youngest of the four and when he was two years old, the family moved to a larger house at 7 Langside Avenue, Putney, just a short distance from Vicarage Gardens, to accommodate the family. It was here that he spent his childhood and early adult years, until he married in fact. In his autobiography, Seeking The Bubble, Esmond describes some of his vivid early childhood memories: seeing the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, being driven in state across Barnes Common in an open Landau seated alongside King Edward VII; witnessing the pioneer French airman, Pegoud, flying upside down in a Bleriot monoplane over Hurlingham, just across the river from Putney; hearing a single cannon-shot ring out across the sea from the Isle of Wight on the day the First World War began; and seeing a Zeppelin shot down in flames over London.
Esmond's formal education began at Willington Preparatory School which in those days was situated in Putney, a short walk from the family home. He didn't enjoy his early schooldays, nor did he particularly shine academically. His summer school report for the year 1920 reads: "Is making an effort to recover from past slacking." Nevertheless, Esmond is remembered at Willington to this day, and for many years two of his paintings hung on the wall of the school hall. One of them was a self-portrait of himself in character as Fluellen from Olivier's film of Henry V. In 1985, Esmond returned to Willington (now relocated to Wimbledon) to take part in the school's centenary celebrations. He performed two recitations for the boys and staff - The Archer At Agincourt (which he had developed as a one-man show in the 1970s) and an account of his personal experience on HMS Prince of Wales in 1941 - the event that changed his life so dramatically.
The Knights' home in Langside Avenue, Putney, where
Esmond and his three brothers were brought up.
Willington School has another famous old boy, Captain Lawrence Oates, the member of the Scott expedition of 1912 who heroically sacrificed his own life in an effort to save his colleagues. Although he and Esmond were not contemporaries and almost certainly never met, the Knight and Oates families were well acquainted - they were neighbours. In fact Esmond claims that old Dr Oates next door saved his life once by “rendering brilliant first aid when I fell in the garden and cut my head open”.
At his second attempt, Esmond passed the entrance exam and followed his older brothers to Westminster School. One reason for his lack of academic success was the nerves from which he "used to suffer abominably" and which later plagued him on first nights in the theatre. Nevertheless, once he settled in at Westminster he developed a very deep affection for his school and made many friends there. Years later, sitting in the wardroom of HMS Prince of Wales in the spring of 1941, he was shocked to see photographs of what remained of the school after a Luftwaffe raid had virtually razed it to the ground.
Academic achievements may not have come easily to Esmond, but he was a natural athlete. In particular he developed prowess as an oarsman and was a member of Westminster's rowing eight, competing on several occasions at the Henley Regatta. His fitness and stamina would stand him in good stead during his acting career which in the 1930s would include some physically demanding parts, including a boxer (The Bermondsey Kid) and a footballer (The Arsenal Stadium Mystery).
A signed promotional photograph from the 1930s.
It was during his first year at Westminster that Esmond saw a school production of Terence's Phormio which had a profound effect upon him. "As I sat there, waiting for the play to begin, I was conscious of that strange feeling of excitement as I gaped at the painted drop representing the theatre at Pompeii, and I had that sensation of nervous elation and expectancy which the audience must have felt at the first performance." The play was in Latin, and although he did not understand the content, he was deeply stirred by it and as he left the theatre . . . "I then and there resolved that, by hook or by crook, I must be an actor."
There were many opportunities at Westminster for theatre trips, being situated close to the West End of London, and Esmond was by no means the only pupil there harbouring desires to work in the theatre. A contemporary of his, Glen Byam Shaw, became a highly regarded actor and director with whom he worked, and who later influenced Esmond's daughter, Rosalind, in her decision to become an actress. There were family theatre trips too. One in particular, to see Cinderella at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith, he would recall vividly when he took over the very same theatre as an actor manager in 1939.
At an early age Esmond developed a passion for falconry, thanks mainly to the influence of his Uncle Chas - Captain C.W.R. Knight. During his summer holidays in 1924, a teenaged Esmond took part in the Pageant of Empire at Wembley Stadium, helping his uncle give a display of falconry in the arena. They flew peregrines and merlins loose and "to the lure", much to the bewilderment of the majority of the vast crowd who had never seen anything like it before. He also earned extra money (£3 a week) looking after three of the three hundred horses involved in the pageant (including sleeping on straw close by them) and charging around the arena dressed as a "Nigerian Horseman" uttering blood curdling yells, waving razor-edged swords and trying desperately not to fall off! The theatre and spectacle of the event had a marked impression on him, and by the great ball that marked the end of the pageant, Esmond again determined that he must become an actor.
Gradually the seed sown by the production of Phormio at Westminster and the experience of the Pageant of Empire grew as Esmond became exposed more and more to the great actors and performances of the day. As fate would have it, the progression from schoolboy fantasy to a real opportunity to develop a career as a professional actor would be quicker than he could ever have imagined.