Knyfton family's links with Westbury-sub-Mendip

PUBLISHED: 14:55 09 March 2006 | UPDATED: 08:58 24 May 2010

At Uphill Castle, the former home of Mrs Graves-Knyfton, there was preserved the armour worn by one of the family's knightly ancestors at Agincourt.

At Uphill Castle, the former home of Mrs Graves-Knyfton, there was preserved the armour worn by one of the family's knightly ancestors at Agincourt. The Knyfton's lineage is of ancient Derbyshire origin, and an old manuscript says that "Many and most of the family were knights". One of them sold his estates and spent the whole of a large fortune in support of Charles I, and died a pauper.Originally the name was Kniveton: the family seat was at Kniveton near Ashbourne, in Derbyshire. As early as the time of Edward I the family owned estates in the locality, and old family tombs with brasses on are to be seen at Muggington, seven miles from Derby.Not only are the Knyftons associated with Uphill, where the River Axe joins the Bristol Channel, but they also formerly had a seat at Westbury-sub-Mendip, on the Mendip slopes above Westbury Moor, through which the Axe runs.Writing nearly two hundred years ago, historian Collinson described Westbury as being pleasantly situated under the southern edge of Mendip and comprising mostly pasture land. He said the River Axe divided the parish from Wookey and Wedmore. There was a large decoy pool and another at nearby Nyland Hill "in which a great number of wild ducks, teal, widgeon, sea-pheasants, and other wild fowl, are captured". Westbury existed in Saxon days, and in Domesday was referred to as Westberie.It is a village that suggests a history stretching over centuries. There is the broken village cross on its huge foundations, standing at the tortuous bend in the road. The church, approached past a pretty lodge, is surrounded by huge trees including many fine beeches and a monster yew with a hollow trunk in which four or five men could stand. The church tower rests on a splendid Norman arch.Nearby Rodney Stoke has many tombs of the famous Rodney family, and there is also one at Westbury church. It is to George Rodney, who died in 1586 - "His body lies in the earth, but his soul strives towards Heaven."It is a simple tomb, and the inscription is rather crudely done. George Rodney was a son of Sir John Rodney, of Rodney Stoke, and a direct ancestor of Admiral George Brydges Rodney, who was born in 1718 and died in 1792, and whose great achievements included the defeat of the Spanish and French fleets.Another memorial is a tablet erected by daughters in memory of a beloved father: "Charles Barnes, Died in this Church on Christmas Day, 1943, whilst preparing for the morning service. Vicar of this parish 1891-43. 'Blessed is that servant who his Lord when He cometh shall find so doing.'"On the northern wall of the nave there is also a Knyfton family memorial. It includes that to Thomas Tutton Knyfton, JP, DL, of Uphill Castle, "only son of Thomas Tutton Knyfton and Betty, his wife, born at Westbury, 1798. Died at Uphill, 1887. Buried in the old church at Uphill."There is also a record that in the same year of Thomas Tutton Knyfton's death the Westbury church tower and six bells were erected as a gift in his memory by his widow, Georgina Sophia Knyfton, who was a daughter of William Hungerford Colston, JP, DL, a former Rector of West Lydford.Thomas Tutton Knyfton was a much-loved man who did an immense amount of public work and generously helped good causes. He was a former High Sheriff of Somerset, was for some years chairman of the Axbridge Board of Guardians, and Recorder of the borough of Axbridge for 53 years until it ceased to have a Mayor and Corporation in 1886.The Knyftons have long been associated with Uphill and members of the family are buried in a vault beneath the tower of the old church on the hill. A George Knyfton's name appears in the parish records of 1700, while a churchwarden, Thomas Knyfton, had his name put on the church bells, dated 1775.For many years the Knyftons lived in a house in Old Church Road, nearly opposite St Aubyn's Avenue. Uphill Castle or Manor was built in 1805. In very early days it was a boys' school, and it was sold to the Knyftons by the Rev John Henry Gegg. The Knyfton family had the tower built and the castellated features added, and named the residence Uphill Castle.Mr Thomas Tutton Knyfton was a handsome man, and a bust of him in Italian marble was made by Charles Summers, a Weston artisan who emigrated to Australia and became that country's most famous sculptor. It was in Mrs. Graves Knyfton's possession at Uphill Castle.The Uphill Castle property was bought by Mr Thomas Tutton Knyfton's father, and Thomas Tutton Knyfton also at one time owned property in the Westbury and Theale locality. The Tutton branch of the family, incidentally, was associated with Wedmore, while another branch, the Holders, were at Westbury.An amusing story is associated with Thomas Tutton Knyfton's property at Theale. It is said that he used to pay a man a shilling a year to whitewash an oak tree so that he could pick out his Theale property with a telescope from Uphill hill, some 15 miles away!So esteemed was he that when he died a London newspaper "The St James's Gazette" published a lengthy "In Memoriam" which was headed: "To the Memory of a Somersetshire Squire".A prominent Westonian of his day, Mr R A Kinglake, also wrote of him: "At an early period of Mr Knyfton's life he laboured assiduously in the discharge of his magisterial duties, the magnitude of which would have astonished many a stipendiary; for in those days little provision was made for petty sessional meetings. Weston was then a small village without any building for conducting the administration of justice, and magistrates' clerks were not always within reach."The poor curate, the farm labourer and small village shopkeeper who had failed in business from some unexpected loss, found in Mr Knyfton a guiding friend; and no deserving man or woman ever knocked at the door of Uphill Castle without receiving abundant relief and hearty sympathy."Mr Kinglake also told the story of how a distant relative had wanted to leave Mr Knyfton all her estate, but that he had pressed her to consider the needs of another relative whose means were limited.His request was ignored, however, and he was left all the property, estimated at £20,000. Immediately he heard of this he went to his solicitor and executed a deed of gift amounting to £10,000 in favour of the relative who had been excluded from the will.There is also the story concerned with the excavation of Uphill railway cutting, which was being supervised by the famous railway engineer, Isambard K Brunel.Mr Kinglake says a dispute arose between the contractors and the 200 or 300 navvies about an increase in pay."In vain did Mr Brunel reason with the men on the injustices of their claims," stated Mr Kinglake. "Suddenly a happy thought entered the fertile brain of the engineer, and he resolved to send one of his officials to Uphill Castle for the magistrate's assistance and advice."Without loss of time Mr Knyfton started for the scene of action taking the Riot Act in his hand. He passed into the thick of the crowd where he was greeted with menacing language and uplifted pickaxes. With calmness he talked to the men telling them the law was stronger than force, and that all would be well if they acted in the spirit of their contract; if otherwise a troop of cavalry from Horfield Barracks would probably be marching on Uphill."The navvies grew calmer and by the tact, good temper, and resolution on the part of this ruler of the district, peace prevailed, and the frightened village shopkeepers were reassured."Today Thomas Tutton Knyfton lies in the vault beneath Uphill's old church tower, while his distinguished life of service is also commemorated in the village church where lies a Rodney and also the faithful priest who was Westbury's vicar for 52 years and who died while preparing for the Christmas Day service.Just away from Westbury church and its cover of trees road traffic whirls a tortuous course through a village that appears to have gone as modern as most places today.But Westbury has not discarded all the old customs. It still has a Friendly Society, which was started over a hundred years ago, and every Whit Monday there are the club walk and celebrations in which the whole sport blue ribbon sashes and carry brass headed staves. Events include the roll call, a church service, luncheon, and sports.Sir James Jeans, astronomer and mathematician, and author of The Mysterious Universe, lived at Westbury-sub-Mendip during the war years. As one looks around Westbury there is much to make one reflect on the flight of centuries and man's journey.There is the history of centuries in stone at the church, but centuries must have been as seconds in the thoughts of Sir James as he sat down to write ... "A few stars are known which are hardly bigger than the earth, but the majority are so large that hundreds of thousands of earths could be packed inside each and leave room to spare; here and there we come upon a giant star large enough to contain millions of millions of earths."And the total number of stars in the universe is probably something like the total number of grains of sand on the all the sea shores of the world. Such is the littleness of our home in space when measured up against the total substance of the universe."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 25, 1962

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