W.H. Knowles: Excavator of Corbridge Roman Settlement

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A biography of the architect and archaeologist

W.H. Knowles was an architect and archaeologist based in Newcastle upon Tyne.  As well as designing numerous buildings throughout the North of England, he initiated the excavation of many of the region's major historical sites.

William Henry Knowles was born in Newcastle on 14 May 1857 to W. Pety Knowles of Yorkshire. After a private education he was articled to W.L. Newcombe from 1872-6. He served as an assistant to M.G. Cornell and Joseph Hall Morton (1850-1923) before rejoining Newcombe as a managing assistant. He commenced independent practice in Gateshead in 1884; then operated in partnership with Newcombe from 1885-6. A partnership with John Lamb and Charles F. Armstrong lasted from 1889 to 1893. The firm continued as Armstrong and Knowles from 1894-9. In 1914 he was joined by N.E. Leeson and George Dale Oliver, practising as Knowles, Oliver and Leeson. R. Burns Dick and William Tweedy were assistants in the firm at various times. Knowles was proposed for FRIBA on 2 March 1891 by E.J. Hansom, J.H. Morton and E. Shewbrooks. After the death of R.J. Johnson, Knowles was appointed to complete Armstrong College in 1903. He served on the Arts Council of the College. He also served on the Council of the Northern Architectural Association. He produced illustrated publications, including Vestiges of Old Newcastle and Gateshead (1890); he also exhibited drawings in Newcastle and at the Royal Academy.

Newcastle Keep

In 1890 he married Jessie Benson (d.1925), daughter of Councillor John Benson, and they had one son. A freemason, he served as Master of the Northumberland Lodge and Provincial Grand Warden in 1913. He was a churchwarden at St. Gabriel’s Church, Heaton. He was a keen sportsman. He was an officer in the First Northumberland Volunteer Artillery and during World War I he served in the Northumberland Artillery until 1916. Probably better known for his antiquarian activities than for his architecture, Knowles excavated Roman remains and medieval buildings. His most important excavations were Corbridge (1907-14), Tynemouth Priory, Alnwick Castle, Sockburn and Castle Rushen, Isle of Man. He was elected a member of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries on 29 October 1884. He served on the Council from 1891-1913 and was Vice President in 1913. At his suggestion the upper room in the Black Gate was used as the Society’s library and he provided the cases and furniture at his own expense. By the time of his death he was regarded as the ‘father’ of the society. He also joined the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland. As a Committee member of the Victoria County History of Northumberland, he produced plans and architectural descriptions of medieval buildings such as Belsay Castle. He was also involved with the Central Council for the Care of Churches. He was elected FSA in 1899 and FSAScot in 1906. He was active in many national archaeological organisations. He was a Corresponding Member of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Beauty and was also involved with the Royal Archaeological Institute. He retired to Wells Close, Lansdown Parade, Cheltenham in 1922 and became Chairman of Cheltenham Civic Society. He later moved to a house named Chesfield in Malvern and devoted his time to antiquarian pursuits, supervising excavations on Roman sites at Bath and Gloucester. He joined the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society and served as Chairman in 1928 and President in 1930. He was a member of the Bishop of Worcesershire’s Advisory Committee for the care of churches. He died at Malvern on 18 January 1943, aged 86.

Corbridge Roman Site

Tynemouth Priory


Boyle, J.R. and Knowles, W.H. (1890) Vestiges of Old Newcastle and Gateshead. Illustrations by W.H. Knowles. Newcastle: A. Reid and Sons.

'Architecture of Old and Modern Newcastle', in Richardson, G.B. and Tomlinson, W.W. (1916) The Official Handbook to Newcastle and District. British Association, pp180-4.

‘Priory Church of Saints Mary and Oswin, Tynemouth’ in Archaeological Journal, vol.67, 1910, pp7-12.

This article is based on the author's PhD thesis and draws on research conducted by Graham Potts.

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