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23 June 2023

A Tribute to Bill Knowles of Walpole

A Tribute to Bill Knowles of Walpole

A tribute to Bill Knowles of Walpole, great friend, supporter and tireless worker for Wisbech and Fenland Museum, who died on May 15, 2023, aged 92.

by Richard Barnwell, President of the Museum


William Ruston Knowles is first mentioned in the annual report of Wisbech Museum in 1956 when he joined the Committee, the same year Mr Wilfred Hanchant became curator. Bill paid his first annual subscription to the Museum of one guinea.


Other well-known Wisbech worthies on the Committee included W.S Elgood, Arthur Oldham, Giles Woodgate, Jack Bridger, A.O.Chesters, Mrs D.Munday, J.W.Payne and Walter Hunter-Rowe.


The next year Bill became one of two honorary secretaries to the Committee.


In 1960 Bill and Wilfred Hanchant represented Wisbech Museum at the Museums Federation meeting in Leicester, the first of many around the country.  He also assisted in the bicentenary commemorations of the birth of Thomas Clarkson in Wisbech in 1760.


In 1961 Bill was elected sole Secretary to the Museum Committee which he remained for 51 years, making his total time on the Committee 56 years of devoted and selfless service.


In those days the Secretary did all the work of running the Museum, organising day to day openings and all lectures, exhibitions and outings as well as paying all bills and arranging fabric maintenance.


During his first year as Secretary the Museum was in financial trouble and Bill submitted an important paper: The History, Work and Finances of the Museum, which directly led to Isle of Ely County Council agreeing to make an annual contribution of £1,750 to the work of the Museum. At the same time Wisbech Borough Council agreed to make an annual contribution of £250, roughly the equivalent of £60,000 in today's money – strangely the exact annual sum that Fenland District Council contributed until five years ago when they withdrew their entire annual grant.


In the 1960s Bill is recorded as arranging loans to Westminster Hall, London and the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as liaising with Anglia TV. He also arranged and spoke at a Teach-in Day on 'Damming The Wash' at the Isle College with a panel of experts.


Bill also gave a series of talks with Wifred Hanchant on The History of The Ancient Borough of Wisbech. In 1966 a special committee was formed under the chairmanship of Dr Peter Cave to arrange lectures, outings and exhibitions at Peckover House with the Wisbech Society with Bill acting as Secretary.


Bill was appointed West Norfolk County Coroner in 1970 and that year gave a talk on Treasure Trove at the Museum.


In 1973 Bill gave a talk on The History of the Crescent and in 1976 the Museum's extension now known as the Hudson wing was added. The following year, the Museum had a royal visit from HRH the Duchess of Gloucester to open the extension and appropriately an Exhibition on Fruit growing in the Fens with particular reference to Alan Hudson.


From left - Miss. J. Arthur, Bill Knowles,  Mr. M. Millward, Former Mayor, Mr. L. Sims and Miss. R. Hardiman.


In 1979 Wilfred Hanchant died and the Museum appointed its first female curator Rosalind Hardiman - Bill would go on to work with a further five curators.


In 1985 the Museum was 150 years old and the Committee agreed to recreate the opening Ceremony with Bill playing the part of Sir Harry Smith complete with plumed hat, a role he played with great aplomb.


Pictured right - Bill with his wife Nora


I attended the celebrations and was struck by the camaraderie of the participants so I decided to join the Museum Friends, then joined the Museum Committee two years later. I soon realised that Bill was the 'Go-to' person for all local knowledge of Wisbech history, both past and recent. He knew everyone and his knowledge of the Museum was unrivalled.


In 1989 The Museum welcomed another royal visitor – HRH Princess Beatrix, queen of the Netherlands and the day before she came the ceiling collapsed in the Townshend room setting off the alarm in the middle of the night. Several of us set to with Bill the next morning clearing up fallen plaster and cleaning the room. It was made respectable with only minutes to spare and it was at this visit that Bill declared to Princess Beatrix that he hoped the King Johns Treasure would be found during his term as county coroner.....sadly this was not to be.


Bill was a remarkable gentleman who carried out decades of enthusiastic Voluntary work for our Museum at some enormous financial cost to himself. I never saw him flustered or heard him make an unpleasant comment about anyone. His unrivalled contribution to the life of our town and Museum will be remembered for many years and we will all miss his wise counsel.

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