The Knapps were a large but close-knit family originating in Chilton, a village between Abingdon and Newbury, where many of them would return to be buried. Three Knapp lineages were active in Abingdon from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Two of them were of lawyers who were respectively town clerks and recorders. The third was of businessmen, originally grocers and later bankers.
A George Knapp, grocer, came to Abingdon in 1753, married, and leased from the Corporation the former Corner House at the north side of the Square (which was then the Sheep Market). The Corner House had previously been occupied by the Pleydell family, also grocers. He became active both in the Corporation and Christ’s Hospital, being several times mayor of the one and master of the other. It is his eldest son, also George, who is the main subject of this article.
The younger George Knapp, born in 1754, was educated at Abingdon School, as was his younger brother Henry. Some of the friendships they made there would be lifelong and important in their careers. The two brothers became grocers in their turn, with a shop in West St Helen Street. George entered local politics at an early age. He became a freeman of the town in 1780 – apparently at that time a formality – and almost immediately was elected a secondary burgess and then one of the two bailiffs. Further spells as bailiff and one as chamberlain followed; in 1791 he became a principal burgess and in the next year began the first of four terms as mayor. Brother Henry’s career followed a similar course a few years behind, with the difference that Henry, like his father, was active in Christ’s Hospital. George, remarkably, seems to have had no contact with that organisation.
One of George’s school friends was William Bagshaw Stevens who became headmaster of Repton School near Derby. Stevens kept a diary in which George appears frequently. We learn that he was an easy-going man but addicted to gambling. He lost large sums of money, and Stevens seems to have believed that he was being cheated. He moved between two homes, one in Abingdon and one in Kidlington which had been his mother’s. He never married, but his sister Anne kept house for him. From his will, we learn that he had two illegitimate daughters, Anne and Harriet, whom he brought up and provided for.
During the 1780s, George moved from the grocery business into banking. He associated himself with the brothers Joseph and William Tomkins in what became the Abingdon Bank. The venture seems to have gone well, and any continuing gambling losses do not seem to have been more than he could afford. About 1800 he made major alterations at his residence on The Square, putting up the building that now houses Barclays Bank.
The relationship with the Tomkins brothers carried into the social and political fields. They supported him in various initiatives, including a declaration of support for William Pitt at a time of political difficulty and the setting up of a local militia against a possible French invasion. After 1800, George decided to try to win the Abingdon seat from the current MP, Thomas Metcalfe. Metcalfe’s main interest was the East India Company, of which he was a director, and George could campaign as an independent who would have the town’s interests and no other at heart.
Through the Tomkins, who were Baptists, George could rely on the local dissenting vote. To ensure he won an election, he needed the help of his brother Henry, another old school friend Thomas Knight, and various fellow-members of the Corporation. It was necessary that one of these should be mayor and returning officer at the time of an election. Money was spent to keep the mayoralty within the group in as many years as possible. Metcalfe narrowly won the elections of 1802 and 1806, but in 1807, Knight, as mayor, disqualified nine voters and George won by a margin of seven.
In Parliament, George became a follower of the young radical Francis Burdett, whom he had probably met through William Bagshaw Stevens. He supported Burdett in an ill-timed and under-prepared attempt to push through a parliamentary reform which would give the vote to all householders. He also supported a trumped-up allegation of corruption that forced the resignation of the Duke of York as head of the army, an arguably irresponsible action during an all-out war.
But George Knapp’s parliamentary career was destined to be brief. He died in November 1809. There is some doubt about the circumstances. It was stated that he had fallen from his gig and sustained head injuries, but there are no details and no reports of an inquest. He had added a codicil to his will a few days earlier, increasing the provision for his daughters. It does seem that something was being covered up, possibly a duel since duels were remarkably prevalent at the time, but it is unlikely that any further information will now be forthcoming.
George joined his ancestors in the Chilton churchyard, while his brother Henry moved easily into his place at the Abingdon Bank and continued his own rather more conventional career. The daughters, whose ages are unknown, were still unmarried and living with their aunt Anne when she died in 1839.
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