A true Nelsonian
Florence Knight died in Nelson in 1973. In this affectionate tribute her great nephew Robin Knight, an international journalist for more than 30 years, describes her life.
In Marsden Valley cemetery there is a plain headstone, one of a number laid out in parallel lines in the ground on a grassy hillside flanked by trees overlooking countryside in the distance. A few words are carved on the marble grey slab: “In Memory Of Florence Minnie Knight, Died 20th January 1973. Aged 90 years.”
What a remarkable life is concealed by these unremarkable words! Florence was actually 91 when she died and, in the previous nine decades, she had travelled the world, experienced natural disasters and man-made hells, witnessed the best and worst of humanity, supported others and always paid her own way. She never married, worked for 60 years, spoke four languages, was feisty and resilient and never stopped thinking that the glass was half full. She deserves to be remembered.
Florence was born in 1881 in Acton, west London, the eldest of nine children. Her father, Thomas Crosby Knight, was a successful barrister’s clerk in a leading London chambers. In 1899, at the age of 54, he drowned in a ferry accident on the river Thames. Florence was 18 at the time and her life changed for ever.
Educated privately at a large girls’ school in Acton she had learned “excellent French” (her words) and now resolved to stand on her own two feet – quite a decision for a young woman to take in the early 1900's. By 1903 she was a governess employed by “families of good standing,” first in Buckinghamshire and later in Yorkshire. Then, in 1911, she branched out, taking a similar job in Paris. “At the end of two years, smartly dressed with the deportment and witty conversation, I hope, of a Frenchwoman, and speaking the language fluently and grammatically, I was sometimes taken for a Parisienne,” she informed her great niece years later. “This was indeed a high compliment.”
Paris proved to be the start of an adventure that would take her all over the world. Her next stop may have been Canada, but by 1915 she was living in Japan. Later that year she returned to England and saw her mother Mary Ann for the last time; she was fatally injured by a bus in London’s Hammersmith Broadway in 1916. Florence’s youngest brother Cyril had been killed in action in France in 1915 aged just 19. A second brother, John, was killed on the Somme in 1918. The house in Acton was sold, the family dispersed and Florence was only to return to England three times during the rest of her life.
Back in Japan she worked as a secretary and learned the language. In late August, 1923, she was en route to San Francisco on holiday when the ship she was sailing in called at Yokohama for a four day stopover. Florence disembarked and booked in to the Kamakura hotel. Around noon on September 1st a huge earthquake – among the worst in the 20th century – devastated Yokohama and Toyko. About 140,000 people were killed.
A letter written six days later vividly describes her miraculous escape. “The hotel began to rock violently. I rushed along a glass passage to get out and had just opened a door when I was thrown to the ground, fortunately in an angle of the walls, where I crouched with debris falling on me. I really thought my last moment had come and just resigned myself to my fate. Then the quake stopped.”
For the next five days, overseen by the “splendid” Japanese manager, Florence camped in the hotel grounds with other survivors. “I quite enjoyed this and helped look after babies,” she recounted – not for the last time revelling in adversity. Eventually, along with 3,000 others, she was taken to the SS Empress of Australia which had come through the quake in Yokohama port unscathed. She possessed only the clothes she stood up in and had lost many friends. “I am wondering why I should have been saved,” she wrote, after insisting on inspecting the ruins of the city. Typically, she spied a silver lining: “I am feeling fitter than ever, the sea air and camping out having done me so much good, and my nerves are A1.”
Three years later in 1926 Florence moved to China and immediately set about mastering the language, demonstrating her independence by outperforming all the other (male) participants in her class. She was to remain in the country until after the communist takeover in 1949-50, working as a secretary at the Asiatic Petroleum Company and living in Peking (Beijing) and Tientsin (Tianjin).
The Japanese invaded northern China in 1931 and Tientsin fell to them in 1937. For some years after the foreign trading concession areas in the city were respected by Tokyo but in 1941-42 Allied civilians began to be rounded up and interned. Sometime in 1942 it was Florence’s turn. She ended up in a prison camp called Wei Hsien, about 350 miles from Peking in Shandong province. It was to be her “home,” along with 1,800 others, until it was liberated by US troops in August, 1945.
Formerly a hutted American Presbyterian mission, the Wei Hsien site covered 24 acres and was surrounded by guard towers, dogs, high walls and an electrified wire fence. Life inside seems to have been a mix of extreme hardship and boredom offset by the efforts of inmates like Florence to make the best of a bad job. A school and hospital were established and live entertainment laid on occasionally. “When camp life was specially hard, I always reminded myself that at least we were safe, protected by the enemy, while our friends at home (in the UK) were experiencing the horror of air raids,” she recalled after the war.
Characteristically, she kept busy cleaning the kitchens and latrines, serving food from pails, washing up for hundreds of people, mending shabby clothes, fetching water and even making fuel – “coal balls,” a mixture of earth and coal dust. Florence also “controlled” (her word) “the very large and lovely garden of our dormitory compound,” getting up at 5.00 am in the summer to sweep it. Winters, could be “a bit of a nightmare.” For four months in 1944-45 the thermometer never rose above zero. Icy winds, snow storms and frozen rain pounded the camp. Relationships frayed and those who grumbled “did a lot of harm.”
The one “luxury” the Wei Hsien inmates enjoyed was a hot shower most days. “I had to shed the last shred of my shyness to do this,” Florence admitted years later. “These shower baths were like clubs. There were perhaps 20 naked women gossiping and bathing in one large room at a time.”
The extraordinary thing about this whole miserable experience is that Florence found positives in it. In mid-October, 1945, after her release, she noted that “the last three summers have been some of the most amusing, interesting and enjoyable of my whole life.” She seems not to have held grudges against the Japanese and, indeed, worked for better understanding with them in her later years. “It’s a rule of my life, and an excellent one,” she said once “never to have a real quarrel. Cruel words written and spoken cannot be withdrawn. Silence is better.”
Florence was 64 on her liberation from Wei Hsien and went straight back to work at her old job after just a single day’s holiday. She had lost most of her savings, had no pension of any sort and still supported her youngest sister in England. Six years later, in 1951, she was forced out of China by the communists. Soon after she arrived in New Zealand, a country she had visited for a holiday in 1933, to begin a new existence.
Exactly what she did for the next five years is unclear but in 1956, aged 75, she took a job as “sole charge housekeeper” with a bachelor sheep farmer in his late-40s. This lasted until 1963 and her “semi-retirement” at the age of 82. Then she rented rooms at 155 Nile Street and began yet another phase of her life, writing occasional articles for the Nelson Evening Mail, inspecting public rubbish bins early on Sunday mornings (and reporting the results to the City Council), keeping shrubs on the street and in parks “in order” and removing litter everywhere she found it. “This is quite the happiest time of my life,” she remarked in a letter in 1970. “All that I do is done for love, not lucre.”
Florence Knight was not a great politician or artist or musician. But she was a great personality with a resolute, questioning and self-reliant character, strong opinions and boundless resourcefulness. “I am deeply thankful for all my mercies” she wrote after surviving the Yokohama earthquake. She remained so to the end.
Early in 1973 she died. Her will stipulated that she not be cremated and that there be no funeral service and no flowers. She left her clothes and “adornments” to local charities, her papers to my father and the funds in her bank accounts (NZ$5,168 or about NZ$45,000 in today’s money) to Nelson City Council “for ornamental shrubs and plants of lasting qualities, together with a small notice to be placed in the beds to say that they have been placed there in memory of Florence Knight ‘who loved Nelson’.”
[With thanks to Nelson Public Libraries, Nelson City Council, Archives NZ and Florence’s great niece Tessa Adams in England without whose help this article could not have been written]
2010. Updated 2020