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4150 Colour Sergeant Thomas Knightley
“Unique in Power of Expression”

Thomas Knightley served in the Dorsetshire Regiment from 1894-1912. He also saw service in the Northamptonshire Regiment and possibly in the Devonshire and Worcestershire Regiments as well. He was known for his singing, dancing and his way with words – talents that have been handed down to his Grandson, Steve Knightley, lead singer with folk group ‘Show of Hands’.

Early Life

Thomas James Knightley was born in 1875, in the Poplar Registration District of London.  He was the son of Thomas John Knightley and his wife, Selina. Thomas John Knightley had married Selina Beardsley on 27th July 1874 in Cripplegate, London.

In the 1881 census the family were living at 15 Whitfield Street, Shoreditch, London.  Thomas senior was a Carman aged 26, born in Mitcham, Surrey and Selina was a laundress, aged 25 and born in St Georges Surrey.  Thomas James was their eldest son, but they also had Frederick aged 3 and Philip aged 1.  The family cannot be found in the 1891 census but by 1901 Thomas Senior was a Carman living in Shoreditch with his son, Philip, now 21 and also a Carman, and Jane, Philip’s wife, aged 20 and an artificial florist.

Thomas Knightley’s Career with the Dorsetshire Regiment

He does not appear in the 1891 census so we suspect that he was serving in India. At this time the theory was that every Regiment had two battalions in peacetime, one based in the UK (including Ireland); the other based in India. Therefore at any one time half the British Army were serving in India.  We do not know why he joined the Northamptonshire Regiment, but despite the County Regiment system being introduced in 1881, all Regiments recruited widely in specified geographical areas and had recruiting officers in London.

In 1894 he transferred to the Dorsetshire Regiment. .  He was one of a number of men from the Northamptonshire Regiment who were transferred to the Dorsetshire Regiment at that time.

“Transfer to India involved an increase in establishment, to 2013 of all ranks, but when the Malabar , which was to take the Battalion to India, reached Alexandria in September 1893, she only brought out 75 men from the 2nd Battalion and 138 transfers had to be obtained from the 2nd Battalion the Northamptonshire Regiment, the 2nd Battalion the Dorsetshire Regiment being unable to produce enough men qualified for service in India.” (History of the Dorsetshire Regiment, Vol 1, C T Atkinson)



Thomas spent much of his Army career in India. In 1897/98 he took part in the Tirah Campaign, being awarded the India General Service Medal with the Tirah and Punjab Frontier Clasps. The Tirah Campaign involved the re-taking of the Khyber Pass. It had been protected on behalf of the British Government by local Indian Regiment called The Afridi, but local tribesmen revolted and captured the British Forts. The Tirah campaign was the fight to win these frontier bases back. During the Tirah Campaign, Dorsetshire Regiment soldier, Private Samuel Vickery won the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Dargai, part of the Tirah Campaign, in October 1897. There is a memorial to those who died in the Tirah Campaign in the Borough Garden in the centre of Dorchester.

The Regiment remained in India until 1906.  In December 1906 they returned to England, disembarking in Gosport.   They were based in Portsmouth in 1908, and then posted to Victoria Barracks, Portsmouth in 1910, then Blackdown Barracks, Deepcut near Aldershot in 1911.  We have Colour Sergeant Knightley in a list of Sergeants posted there.  The posting to Blackdown was not popular.  It was a new barracks, in the middle of nowhere, between Aldershot and Camberley.  It was nicknamed ‘Bleakdown’ by the men.  It’s proximity to London was useful however. Much of 1911 was spent preparing for the Coronation of George V, with local ceremonies and duties. 50 men also lined the processional route in Westminster Bridge Road.  Otherwise they spent most of their home-based time in training – interrupted by the strikes of August 1911 when men from the Battalion were deployed to Chalk Farm, Willesden Junction and Broad Street (all London) and also to Nuneaton, to break up strikes.  In 1912 the Regiment returned to routine training in the areas around Hindhead, Newmarket and Cambridge – although still based at Blackdown.

Thomas received a number of promotions during his career:

Lance Corporal April 1898
Corporal April 1901
Lance Sergeant October 1906
Sergeant January 1908
Colour Sergeant December 1909

In 1912 he was Battalion Pay Sergeant. 

In the spring of 1910 Thomas married Gladys Jane Adamson in the Portsmouth Registration District.  In the 1911 census Thomas and Gladys were living in Alma Barracks, Blackdown.  Thomas gave his age as 37.  Gladys was just 23. The couple had just one son at that time. Victor Thomas James Knightley who was less than a month old. Gladys said on the census form that she was a ‘Scotch Resident’ but was  actually born in Ballymena, Ireland.

Thomas was discharged having served his time (21 years) in November 1912. He should have received a Long Service Good Conduct Medal after 15 years service but there is no record of this.  .

Extracts From the Regimental Journal

Thomas features several time in the first ever Regimental Journal of 1912. The journal was often written in a fairly informal style and contained many in-jokes, the meaning of which are now sadly lost.

In July 1912 he took part in the Veterans Race during Regimental Sports Day.  The D Company Report reads:

“Joey Rawles (D Coy)  was third in the Veterans Race and would have been 1st if Colour Sergeant Knightley and Private Lane had not beaten him......."He (Private Lane) was hunted home by Colour Sergeant Knightley, who later shewed his field a clean pair of heels in tne Sergeant's Race"

In ‘Sergeants’ Mess News’  for August 1912:

“On the evening of the 16th members were given a great treat in the shape of a combination of clog, sword and hornpipe dancing by Colour Sergeants Knightley, Ricketts and Sergeant Dean.  Selected music was provided by Mr Archer and the whole affair was a great success, the dancers dancing till they could dance no more.  Before these veterans retire we are looking forward to a further repetition of these delightful exhibitions of talent.”

Also from ‘Sergeants’ Mess News’  for August 1912:

“On Wednesday 16th August a rifle meeting took place on No.1 Range to decide the winners of the Cup and Spoon.  The efforts of the members seemed directed towards preventing each other from winning the spoon and no-one appeared particularly anxious to win the cup. However, at the wind-up, Sergeant England was the cup winner; his name was drawn in the sweepstake by Sergeant Breadmore who thus became the recipient of 14s 6d.  Colour Sergeant Knightley was awarded the honour of having his name inscribed in brass on the spoon! His name was drawn by Lance Sergeant Stehr who received 7s 6d.”

From ‘C’ Company Notes for November 1912

“Well! Our old Colour Sergeant is about to leave us after 21 years of hard work and study with the old 39th(The Dorsetshire Regiment had been the 39th Regiment of Foot until 1881 when it became the 1st Battalion the Dorsetshire Regiment –but even in 1912 they still thought of themselves as the 39th)  He went through the Tirah Campaign and received a medal with two clasps.  He ought to have received two medals but unfortunately one is hung behind the Orderly Room Door.  He is a lively old Bhoy (Bhoy was Dorset dialect for boy)  for his service and we are very sorry to lose him and we can only say we wish him the best of luck on his retirement. I can assure you he must not practice deep sea diving.  Sergeant Dolman has taken over as pay Sergeant from Colour Sergeant Knightley.”

From the ‘Sergeant’s Mess News ‘ of  December 1912:

“Colour Sergeant Knightley – henceforth to be known as Tom K Esq. – has gone on furlough.  Tom was honoured under this heading last month, he having gained notoriety in being bottom dog in the shoot-off for the Sergeant’s Challenge Trophy – the one blot on an otherwise brilliant and meteoric career.  We wish him luck in his new “line of departure”, and trust he’ll develop the ability to bank coins with greater success than he “banked” the shots that won for him the unenviable title of “holder of the wooden spoon”.  It goes without saying that his rich vocabulary will go a long way towards his becoming lexicographer-in-chief to the Harmsworth Publishing Company.  Who is William the (Motor) Conqueror?”

And finally, also from the ‘Sergeant’s Mess News ‘ of  December 1912:

“A very well-known and popular figure leaves us this month in the person of Colour Sergeant Knightley.  Always merry and bright and absolutely unique in power of expression, his place will be hard to fill.  We wish Colour Sergeant Knightley and his family all possible success and prosperity in civil life and still hope to see something of them in the future.”


The name is consistently spelt Knightley in the census and civil registration indexes but varies in the Army records, being found as Knightly in some official records including the Tirah Medal Roll. This may be due to a clerical error when Thomas Knightly enlisted. Mis-spellings of names are common.

World War 1 Service

It is possible that Thomas Knightley served in World War 1. His daughter recalls him talking about this and wearing his medals on Remembrance Day.  After serving 21 years he would not have been expected to join the Army Reserve – but when war broke out, many experienced veterans volunteered their services.  The maximum age for former soldiers to enlist was 40 in 1915 but we do not believe that the Army would turn anyone away for the sake of a year or so.

There is no record of a Thomas Knightley re-enlisting in the Dorsetshire Regiment but we do have a 19256 Colour Sergeant Thomas J Knightley re-enlisting with the Devonshire Regiment. We think this number indicates that he re-enlisted in 1915 and that he may have served with the 8th Battalion as other men in this number block were posted to the 8th.  We have no reference to another Thomas Knightley serving in the Devonshire Regiment, and to hold the rank of Colour Sergeant we would expect to see considerable pre war service. Thus we think the two Thomas J Knightleys may be the same man. If Thomas Knightley did indeed serve in the 8th Battalion, he may have gone to fight on the Western Front on 27th September 1915, just after the Battle of Loos where the 8th Battalion suffered a huge number of casualties and needed urgent reinforcements. He may have been involved in the run up to the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and possibly the infamous action of 1st July 1916 when so many brave men lost their lives.  At some point he was promoted to Company Quarter Master Sergeant. It is possible that he then transferred to the Worcestershire Regiment with the rank of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant and was discharged in 1919. Unfortunately neither we nor the Worcesteshire Regiment Museum can prove that the two Thomas J Knightley’s are the same man.  We do not have any further information about his World War 1 service; 70% of World War 1 service were destroyed in the blitz and there were no copies. Regrettably Thomas’s records have not survived.  Thus his possible World War 1 service is based on speculation.

Thomas died in Southampton in the autumn of 1946 aged 71



The Keep Military Museum traced Thomas Knightley's India Medal with Tirah and Punjab clasps to a medal dealer's site.  Tom's grand-daughter, Babs purchased the medal and gave it to her son Tom for his 21st Birthday. They had a big family party and presented Tom with the medal, plus a framed picture showing the research the Keep had done.



Tom Knightley Short with his Grandfather's India Genera Service Medal




The Knightley family with Tom, the medal and the framed research picture.



The Dorsetshire Regiment Vol.2 by C T Atkinson 1946

The Dorsetshire Regiment Journals 1912

The Bloody 11th Vol.3 – The History of the Devonshire Regiment 1915-1969 by W Aggett

The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918 by C T Atkinson

Medal Index Cards –

The Photographic Archive of the Keep Military Museum

Ref:  DORMM:T/1988/66/107 “An collection of portrait photographs, of Officers and Non Commissioned Officers, who served in the 39th Regiment of Foot/1st Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment, 1870 - 1950.”

Worcestershire Regiment Museum