Thomas Foster Knowles- club history

Non-Hampton & Richmond Borough related posts.
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Joined: Thu Jan 21, 2021 8:57 pm

A bit more background on the club's first President. A very long and interesting life ( NB photos have not been replicated)
Thomas Foster Knowles (1852-1945)

For those following the recent “Hampton Heroes” series written by Rob Overfield will know that Thomas Foster Knowles was the first President of Hampton FC when founded in 1921. He was a well-known benefactor in the local area supporting many sports clubs and societies and contributing sizeable funds to worthy causes. As part of some wider research into the background of local football teams before 1921, I have been looking into the backstory of Thomas Foster Knowles which reveals a most fascinating life and family background. Whilst not all of this is directly relevant to Hampton FC, it does shed some light on how society functioned before World War 1 and how the wealthier people saw it as their duty to give something back to the societies they lived in.

First of all, let’s clarify that the correct surname here is Knowles, not Foster-Knowles. His middle name was Foster and it seems clear that he was named after one of his father cousins, Thomas Foster, who died just a few months before our Thomas was born in April 1852. The Foster name is very important to our story as Thomas Foster and his brothers set up a small merchant bank and international commodities trading business, Foster Bros, in 1828, having moved to London from their home in Stainforth, Yorkshire during the early years of the 19th Century. This became the source of immense wealth for the brothers and wider family.

If I may, I’ll take a short diversion into the history of Foster Bros which is a remarkable story in its own right. Thomas Foster, whose father was a farmer in Stainforth, left home at 16 in 1791 to travel to London on his own to find his fortune in classic self-made man style. It is not clear why he decided to leave his family home when presumably he could have inherited some or all of the family farming business. There is no known connection with London so it was a bold decision for Thomas foster to take. The eldest of eight children, he flourished in the capital and over the years his other brothers were encouraged to join him going into business trading commodities and in a dry salting business ( dry salting being the them means of preserving foodstuffs before refrigeration was invented). One of his brothers, William, found work at the Bank of England, and another, George Holgate Foster, the youngest of the family, joined a counting house, James Burn & Co, working his way up to becoming a partner. A counting house is best described as an early version of an accountancy firm which also probably got involved with providing finance. When the partnership of James Burn & Co was dissolved on the death of its founder, the Foster brothers joined together to create the aptly named Foster Bros. This probably started as a mix of importing foodstuff commodities and then branched out into financing similar importers and traders which was the beginning of many merchant banks at this time. Although small by modern standards, the bank flourished and came to specialise in financing trade between the UK, Portugal, Cyprus and South and Latin America and raised finance for many notable governmental bodies and infrastructure projects.

George Holgate Foster was also the founder, shareholder and later Chairman of the London Joint Stock Bank which was eventually merged into the Midland Bank in 1918, and which is now part of the HSBC Banking group. When George died in 1858 his will was valued at around £400,000 which at today’s value is equivalent to hundreds of millions of pounds. He was probably one of the wealthiest people in Britain at the time. Thomas Foster Knowles’ father, John, who also hailed from similar farming stock in Horton in Ribblesdale, not far from Stainforth, later joined the bank as a director and its name was changed to Knowles and Foster in 1853.

Turning back to our main subject, Thomas Foster Knowles has previously been described as a tea merchant and whilst tea trading may have been part of the early Foster Bros business, there is no evidence that Knowles himself was directly involved in the trade. He was born in Highbury, London in 1852 and the family then moved to large house in Herne Hill, near Brixton, sometime in the 1850s with the family banking business based at Moorgate in the City of London. Thomas followed his father into the family business and was eventually made a partner of the firm in 1878. He remained a partner until 1939, a total of 61 years. His father died in 1877 with an estate valued at £350,000, again a very substantial sum for the times. He had acquired several properties both in London and Yorkshire and some of these were bequeathed to his son. During the latter half of the 19th Century Thomas Foster Knowles built up a portfolio of properties in and around Stainforth and travelled there frequently for summer vacations and to entertain family and friends at shooting parties.

Thomas Foster Knowles, together with his father’s cousin Richard Foster, took over running of the bank and travelled to South America every couple of years to develop contacts and business. He also became a founding director of the English Bank of Rio de Janeiro and the London and River Plate Bank. Amongst his clients were the Portuguese Royal Family and Brazilian Emperor. His banking career gave him the wealth to lead a very comfortable life but like many of this Foster relations he never married. A history of the bank written in 1948 describes Knowles thus:

“He was never unjust, never unreasonable. He treated staff and customers with consideration…….His standards of business ethics were very high, and he would never sanction anything which today might be termed ‘smart’ or ‘clever.”

Whilst clearly very successful in his role, the history tells us that he turned down the chance to secure the exclusive UK rights to new American invention, the phonograph, which he described as having “a horrible screeching noise….I am not interested,” he said. He was very typical of his time in not allowing women to work in the office until forced to do so in 1916 when the war created a male labour shortage. Nor was he keen on introducing new fangled business machines like typewriters or adding machines, although the bank did eventually have to join the 20th Century. Nonetheless he was a very generous employer, setting up a pension scheme for employees and making regular ex-gratia gifts. Paternalism at its Victorian best.

His main sporting interests were swimming, fly fishing and sailing, and perhaps the latter led him to buy a large Georgian property, Riverdale, at 1 Hight Street, Hampton in 1891, around the time that his mother died. Newspaper reports as early as 1881 show him giving prizes at the Thames Valley Sailing club so it seems he must have got to know the area well. The house itself fronts on to the river and was enlarged and modernised by Knowles. In 1901 the census shows him living here with four servants, a butler, two housekeepers and another servant. By 1911 this had reduced to a just a housekeeper and a cook. At some point he is known to have owned a Rolls Royce and it is said was responsible for knocking over and killing a lady in Yorkshire when reversing! It is not clear if this was a pure accident or if Knowles was actually driving at the time.

He was an active member of the Thames Valley Sailing Club taking part in races in his two boats, Mona and Ulva. Quite by chance a photograph of Ulva survives. He also imported a native fishing boat, a ”Jaganda” from Pernambuco in Northern Brazil – no doubt seen on his business travels – and sailed this on the Thames also much to local amusement. He became Rear-Admiral of the Sailing Club.

Knowles would undoubtedly have been the richest man in Hampton and was naturally sought out to become the patron of many good causes. He became President of the Hampton Philanthropic Society, a charity dedicated to supporting the local poor and paid for the building and upkeep of St Mary’s hospital (now rebuilt as Hampton Care Home) in 1912 at the coast of £4,000. He moved as was typical of the period in a small circle of “gentlemen” including the local vicars, doctors, lawyers and M.Ps, who raised funds for the less well off, a time when there was no welfare state to alleviate poverty and suffering. Although not active in politics, he seems to have been a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party whose MPs were traditionally elected in the area.

In 1893, Knowles was interviewed by the South Bucks Standard newspaper regarding his sailing exploits following victory in a competition at Bourne End. He is described in the rather fawning style of the time as
“comparatively speaking a young man [he was 41], with well-knit frame and most unassuming and cordial manners.

“No I don’t care about publicity; but have some coffee and put on a cigar -,”
he told the reporter, who viewed the room “to survey the wealth of rare proof and other choice engravings that adorned and literally covered the walls.” He clearly was a convivial character and like his partners at the bank ready to be generous with his wealth.

Playing organised sport was seen very much as a way of improving oneself and the later decades of the 19th Century saw an explosion of sports clubs in the area, with football, rugby, cricket, hockey, rowing and athletics all being prominent. Association and rugby football was played in schools and as boys left many wanted to form clubs so they could carry on playing. Local leagues and cup competitions were established across London and clubs sprang up in Hampton, Hampton Hill and Teddington where there was easy access to pitches in Bushy Park. The most prominent team in the Hampton area at this time was Hampton Hill FC formed around 1893 although others had existed before then. From 1898 Hampton Hill rented their own ground at Wellington Road, a field owned by a local dairy farmer, a Mr Deacon Howe, and this allowed them to take “a gate” and play at a slightly higher level than other teams. However, increased travelling costs in the 1900-01 season saw the club make a deficit of £18 causing something of a financial crisis. At the AGM Thomas Foster Knowles donated £5 towards reducing the deficit hoping that others would follow his lead. Hampton Hill survived but dropped back down to a more local league to reduce costs.

The following year, Knowles agreed to become President of a newly formed team, Old Hamptonians, which came about after a falling-out between Hampton Hill and Hampton locals over whether the Hampton parish was providing enough support for the Hampton Hill team. Old Hamptonians changed their name after a few seasons to Hampton Utd and played in red and blue halves, quite probably the origin of Hampton F.C.’s colours when formed in 1921. United were moderately successful playing in local leagues and cups but seem to have folded around 1911 for reasons not immediately clear but likely to have been due to lack of funds or people to fulfil the administrative roles. Some of their promoters were to appear again after WW1 as founders of the new Hampton F.C. in 1921. It was a natural step to invite Thomas Foster Knowles to become President of the new club. It is hard to tell how actively involved Knowles was in the club but it is most likely that he performed a largely ceremonial function, attending dinners and AGMs and such like. He remained President well into the 1930s as his name is recorded as such on the one and only programme from the 1935/36 season that we have from that period. The role of President has been carried down over the years with the latest incumbent being Graham Wood who succeeded Alan Simpson.

By 1921 Knowles was 67 years old but he remained active in his banking busines travelling frequently to South America during the early 1920s. He also spent time at his Yorkshire properties and was equally involved in philanthropic activity in Stainforth, donating properties to the local church and funding social events. It seems by no means coincidental that he retired from Knowles and Foster and moved north to Stainforth House around the time of the outbreak of WW2 but it is not clear whether he sold his Hampton house at that time. His will makes no reference to it so perhaps it had already been sold.

As can be seen, Stainforth House was a substantial property and he lived there with some of his elderly relatives. He died in early 1945 at the ripe old age of 93 so before football resumed at Hampton in the post war period. His estate was valued at just under £88,000.

Knowles and Foster continued to trade but failed in 1964 following pressure brought about by a fraud and the collapse of the pound in the early 1960s, the first City bank to fail for over 30 years.
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Joined: Thu Jun 24, 2021 3:59 pm

Excellent research, Tony.
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