Wednesday, 24 July 2019

A Tribute to My Great Uncle George. 1920-2005.

This is a brief tribute to my Great-Uncle, George Knight, who died when I was 16. He was one of the male role-models of my childhood, and this is based on the address at his funeral, written up from memory shortly afterwards. I discovered it again recently and with help from my Dad tidied it up.  This is a testament to an extra-ordinary life, from the aftermath of the First World War to the dawn of smartphones, one of the remarkable generation who lived right through the heart of the 20th Century, and saw their world change more than we can imagine.

My Fathers Uncle, my Grandma Florence's brother, a good and cheerful man to everyone he met: George Knight was born on the 9th January 1920 in South London.  His father died when he was young, he had been scarred by injuries from the Great War and couldn’t work, couldn’t operate, and then, in the late 1920s, sadly died.  George was part of a large family who would struggle to look after him at home, and so through a scholarship he was sent away to a boarding school. The experience was hard like the discipline. He used to say, 'when a cane wore out I was sent to buy another one'. But it taught him respect for elders, hard work, obedience and discipline. It also gave him a deep trust in God, that would last him his whole life.

As a child, a small lost boy from a poor family, he developed three dreams. To get into Oxford University, to become an officer in the Royal Navy and to become a Vicar in the Church of England. At the age of 17, he gained entry into London University and then at 19, with the help of a scholarship, he was granted entry to Oxford. His first impossible dream fulfilled. He was there from 1939-1942 and while there became chairman of the Oxford Conservative association and Captain of his college's Boat team. This taught him the skills of operating as part of a team and swiftly giving orders to react to situations that faced him. He did not ignore his studies either, gaining the best theology degree of his entire year.

After graduating from Oxford he joined the Royal Navy in 1942 as an Ordinary Seaman, the lowest rung on the ladder, and on his first day was put in charge of a work party of 40 men.  He was soon promoted to Able Seaman and then after completing training at the Britannia Royal Naval College commissioned as a sub-Lieutenant.  His second ambition achieved.  He was later promoted to full Lieutenant, and commanded one of the second wave of ships that landed troops on Sword Beach on D-Day. One of his favourite stories from the War was when he was sailing in the Adriatic in 1945 shortly before the end of the War, he was in charge of the bridge on his ship and suddenly several vessels came speeding into view towards him. They were German boats and they had white sheets hung on their towers. They were trying to surrender, and George suddenly had this vision of all these enemy ships personally surrendering to little old him and escorting them back into harbour. Think of the glory! So, he called his Captain to the bridge as soon as possible and asked him whether he should escort the ships back to harbour. The captain said no, let them go on their way, so they did and George continued on to Yugoslavia, glory sadly missed.

After the war George resigned his commission and entered the seminary, from which he was ordained as an Anglican priest. His last great ambition, fulfilled. He returned to the Navy as the Chaplain for the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, at that time the 2nd most senior religious post in the Royal Navy. There one day in 1951 he met a pretty blonde Swedish tourist on holiday. 18 months later they were married, and it was the start of 54 years of happy marriage that only ended with his sad death on the 7th December 2005. He was happy in his job too and was very lucky one day after a service at the College, which as chaplain he was leading, to end up dancing with a certain Princess Elizabeth, now the Queen. He said, 'Who was I, to be cavorting with princesses?'

He later also met the late Queen Mother at a reception where as chaplain he was required to say Grace before the meal and, as was Naval custom, afterwards thank God for the good things he had provided. Later he was honoured to have a long private conversation with the Queen Mother, then still Queen Elizabeth. He was also honoured to be appointed chaplain on the Vanguard, Britain’s last ever battleship, when it carried King George VI and Princess Elizabeth on a state visit to South Africa in 1947.

George served in the Royal Navy for 30 years, and he was thoroughly involved with all sorts of Naval developments. On one occasion he was asked to join a Naval commission to improve the prestige of the Fleet Air Arm. After many hours of discussion and various proposals, George suggested that Fleet Air Arm officers be granted the right to wear bicorne, Nelsonian hats when coming aboard ships, as that would do the job of marking them out as distinct as well as anything else mentioned and for considerably less money.

He retired from the Navy in 1975 and became a parish priest, at which time he was also awarded an OBE for his services in the College. His life was unfortunately mired by a tragedy as well during this time, as his only son, Christopher, died of Cancer at a young age. In 1990 after over 40 years as a Church of England priest he resigned in protest over the decision that year to ordain women as priests, and after that in his old age joined the Philadelphia Church of God, a small, distinct Protestant church to which his wife already belonged. He continued his life happily though, always cheery, always active and luckily healthy right up until he was struck down by a stroke three weeks before his death.  Indeed on the very morning on which his stroke occurred he was out in the garden planting tubers. He was a good man.

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