On December 8, 1863 writer and publisher Charles Knight inscribed the first volume of his Passages of a Working Life... "Matthew Davenport Hill from Charles Knight, Dec. 8, 1863". Hill signed volumes two and three after he received them.
Overshadowed by his brother Rowland Hill, lawyer and penologist Matthew Davenport Hill (1792-1872) was one of the leading promoters of education reform, and more especially the disemination of cheap literature to the masses through his influence in founding The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), for which Knight was the primary publisher. Knight and Hill were friends for virtually their entire lives. In the index to his autobiography Knight mentions Matthew Davenport Hill about fifty times.
Knight's chatty, funny and candid autobiography seems to include conversations, anecdotes and remarks on the whole gamut of early nineteenth century English society. The most famous characters in his life, apart from Hill and Brougham, were Charles Dickens, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, John Moultrie, Wintrop Pared and the Duke of Wellington.
Knight's family background was unusual to say the least. He was named after his father, Charles Knight (senior), regarding whom the Windsor Local History Group published the following on their website in 2019:
"Charles Knight (senior) was born around 1750, and brought up by the Rev James Hampton, a Yorkshire clergyman. The rumour that he was the illegitimate son of Fredrick Prince of Wales and Henrietta Knight may well be true. Fredrick died in 1750, and was known to have had a liaison with Henrietta Knight, a society beauty. James Hampton was in the pay of the royal court, and after James’ death, Charles Knight inherited a considerable legacy, and moved to Windsor. He set himself up as a printer and bookseller opposite the castle gates, where George III paid him frequent visits, like brother to brother.
"In 1812 Charles Knight senior with his son Charles Knight junior started printing Windsor’s first newspaper, the Windsor and Eton Express. By this time he had become an alderman, and was twice Mayor of Windsor. In 1819 he retired, and left his printing business to his son. He died in 1824, but there was no obituary to him in his paper, just a brief death notice.
"Charles Knight (junior) was born in 1791. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father never re-married. He grew up learning about the printing business, but was also overseer of the poor in Windsor, encouraged by his father. He made the startling and unheard of suggestion of actually visiting the poor in their homes.
"After his father’s death, Charles sold the newspaper [in 1827] and moved to London to follow a career which made him famous. He had ever been keen to bring books and learning to the poorer classes...."
The most recent biography of Knight is Valerie Gray, Charles Knight: Educator, Publisher, Writer (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006). Prior to that Knight's granddaughter, Alice A. Clowes, published Charles Knight: A Sketch (London: Richard Bentley, 1892).
Brigitte Mitchell with members of the Windsor Local History Group, Windsor and Eton Express 1812-1830: The Charles Knight Years (2012).