A Knight’s Tale (9: Before The Coming Revolution)

Mabel Knight, the most widely travelled of the siblings, followed the early career pattern of her elder sister, Ethel. Aged sixteen she attended a boarding school as a pupil/teacher in return for board and lodging. As usual there was no salary. This would come the next year as a teacher in a small school in Cornwall. For an annual salary of £10 per annum she was required to teach from 9 a.m. to 12 and from 2 p.m. to 4; to take boarders for daily walks from 4 to 5; to dust the drawing-room and schoolroom; and to make her own bed.

Further teaching posts in England were to follow before moving to Germany in 1905, and taking up positions of varying periods and satisfaction as nursery governesses. Her happiest engagement included charge of the three younger children of the Blumenthals who had made their fortune at Hopetown during the South African War.

A brief summer assignment in Pomerania, on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea was followed by a nursery post in Davos, Switzerland. This came to an end when her skating charge ran off and and fell on the ice – a minor accident for which Mabel was dismissed. Discipline of an employed domestic staff member in those days was harsh. She returned to England and spent two years on various teaching posts.

Between 1904 and 1907 my great aunt enjoyed a mostly long distance relationship with Dutch engineer, André Schmidt who was working in Tokyo. She was apparently devastated by his death in a tragic accident while showing a group of Japanese students round an electrical works in Hamburg.

The following year, having recovered enough from her loss, Mabel took a position teaching English in Batoum, Georgia. Initially, four children were her pupils. This expanded to include students from the school run by her employers; the son of the Commandant of the town; its chief chemist; the Governor’s only son, and others, such as the manager of

tea plantations in Chakra.

There, she was befriended by The Consul, Mr Stevens, and his family. For several years she enjoyed a very active social life – a “great life”.

After four more years Mabel moved to St Petersburg as governess to the children of the Professor Ott, Court Doctor there. Shortly before Christmas 1912, because the family were moving to Nice, she took rooms in the centre of the city, teaching many private students. Ethel was teaching and living elsewhere in the Tsarist capital. Before the coming revolution the two sisters met frequently, going to dances and parties together. “St Petersburg was a wonderful city to live in before WW1. At night the streets were filled with almost as much traffic as in the day and it was quite safe to come home late at night after a dance (2 and 3 in the morning).”

A Knight’s Tale (8: From The Good Life To Refugee Status)

My paternal grandfather, John Francis Cecil (Jack), and his siblings were part of the seventh generation descended from John Knight, first appearing in the seventeenth century. His three sisters Ethel, Mabel, and Evelyn, governesses to the aristocracy during the twentieth century, between them lived through all the major upheavals of that period.  In 1917 Ethel and Mabel fled the Russian Revolution; Evelyn was in Ireland during the crisis of 1926; and Mabel observed the Spanish Civil War at close hand ten years later.

With the aid of Mabel and Evelyn’s diaries, my brother Chris produced a lecture and slide presentation on these fascinating lives.

The dates shown on Chris’s header are those of the women’s births. Mabel died in 1962; Ethel on 8th February 1951; and Evelyn in 1975. Between those dates these three women travelled all over the world during a time when ladies rarely travelled unaccompanied.

I was nine when Ethel died, and have no recollection of ever having met her. She had, however, until her death, been joint owner with Mabel of

18 Bernard Gardens, Wimbledon, SW19, which the surviving sister left to my father in 1960.

As was a common pattern, Ethel began as a pupil/teacher without pay. She went on to a teaching post in St Austell, and then to St Petersburg, returning to England, two weeks before the armistice in 1918, via Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Aberdeen.

She found secretarial work at London’s Grand Hotel before returning to teaching and tutoring, and then caring for her own mother who died in 1936, aged 94, from a fall downstairs.

Ethel never fully recovered from the privations of months of semi-starvation in the St Petersburg of 1918.

The story of the descent from the good life in Tsarist Russia to refugee status post-revolution in the company of her younger sister will be revealed in extracts from Mabel’s diary.