Unsung Heroines - Biographies of Christchurch Women written to commemorate Women's Suffrage Year, 1993

Charlotte Knight

Charlotte Copp was born at Tiverton, Devon, on 26 September 1842. Her mother's Christian name was Amy or Amey and her surname Hymns, Eams or Emes. Her father was William Copp, a labourer. Charlotte married John Knight in July 1858, and five years later arrived in Lyttelton on the Accrington with her husband and three children.

Charlotte gave birth to 24 children and grieved to see several of them die. Fifteen survived their mother. In 1885 the 24th child was born. The exuberant birth notice erroneously claimed that all the little Knights had been born in the province, that all were thriving, and suggested that the fertility rate of local women was such that there was little need for the government to undertake policies aimed at boosting population. 'All doing well', said the notice. 'All born in Canterbury. Talk about emigration or the West Coast railway'.

By the 1880s the family was eking out a living as dairy farmers at Aranui between Bexley and Breezes Road. The land was 'cheap, though infertile' (and) 'apt to be water-logged in winter and a desert in summer'.

The Knights bought shares in and ceded land to the New Brighton Tramway Company which put a track from the Linwood Cemetery to the sea along what is now Pages Road. The company built the first bridge at Seaview Road, and in 1887 started a horse tram service from city to seaside. A dispute arose between the Knights and the company, the family claiming that the company had promised - and failed - to form a public roadway alongside the track and keep the drains clear.

A feud followed. Charlotte, her husband, and their sons, would climb into their cart and meander along the track to slow the trams. They smashed the gates which the company, to emphasise its rights, built at either end of its property and locked at night. Frank Thompson described how: 'One moonlight night with tram … held up, the warlike lady put gorse stick to shoulder so effectively that the outside tram passengers sought cover with haste … The Clerk of the Magistrate's Court dived headlong for the ditch, emerging later when quiet on the western front was restored, in a humorously bedraggled condition'. On another occasion, with the tram again delayed, a pimply youth used stern language against Charlotte. "Do you call youself a man?" asked the lady. The rash one made an inarticulate reply. Charlotte scorned him: "Well, you don't look like one". Charlotte could, and did, use other, more skilful means to get her message across. As a company shareholder, she was able to present her case at a succession of annual meetings. The company struck back, time after time taking the family to court and extracting fines they could not afford to pay. Once, when Charlotte was driving her horse and cart through town, the cart was seized by the court bailiff. Mrs Knight refused to move. 'Consequently the horse was taken out, and the cart … drawn round Oxford Terrace in the middle of the day … with Mrs Knight sitting in it. Thus Mrs Knight was subjected to being made the laughing stock of hundreds of people who witnessed the scene'. A runaway tramcar threatened to roll down upon John Knight. The farmer responded by attacking the offending company employee with a pitchfork. An understanding judge fined him one shilling but 'not … one farthing costs'. On yet another occasion the company ruled that the Knight children 'must not walk along the tram line to school any more'.

W A Taylor said that, in the 1890s, when he and other members of the Volunteer armed forces movement cycled through Aranui to a camp at New Brighton, they were allowed to go in peace. He commented: 'Public sympathy was with Mrs Knight'.

The newspapers described Charlotte as of 'imposing stature and formidable proportions … with a deerstalker hat … and amazonian tread'. W A Taylor commented: 'Mrs Knight was a burly woman, while Mr K was a 'squib' like me'. It is doubtful whether Charlotte ever received any satisfaction in her dispute, but she was not bitter. Frank Thompson said she 'chuckled greatly at her exploits'. He called her a 'warrior bold'. W J A Brittenden, quoting Gray's Elegy, described her as a 'village Hampden'. Even the patrician G R Macdonald conceded that 'she had become a famous character'.

Charlotte died in December 1907 of 'fatty degeneration of the heart' and was buried in the Linwood Cemetery.


Richard Greenaway: Interview with Glenys Towns, Lower Moutere, Nelson, January 1994

Other resources - Christchurch City Libraries