Who was Harriet Knatchbull?

In an earlier post I put the question who Harriet Knatchbull was, the little girl, or so it seemed to me, who had been given a copy by Lowth himself of his grammar. This grammar is now in Chawton House Library.

Checking the Knatchbull family tree in Burrows and Dunhill (2002:1126), however, did not produce a girl of that name. The only Harriet Knatchbull found was the wife of Wadham Knatchbull, fellow prebendary of Lowth at Durham. This Mrs Knatchbull, née Parry, died in 1760, according to the index to the book.

Mrs Knatchbull occurs twice in Lowth’s correspondence, once in a letter Lowth wrote to James Harris (1709-1780) to consult him about a problem he had encountered when writing his grammar (“P.S. Dr. & Mrs. Knatchbull have been for some time in London”, Durham, 28 April 1760) (Tieken-Boon van Ostade forthcoming), and the second time in a letter to Joseph Spence (1699-1768), also a fellow prebendary from Durham, dated Durham, 29 September 1761 (“Mrs. Knatchbull is just got into your house, & desires her humble Service & thanks to You.”). Wadham had died the year before, so Mrs Knatchbull was by this time a widow, and presumably in need of accommodation. Spence mostly lived in Byfleet, Surrey, though according to the entry for Spence in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he did spend “more than the minimum of three weeks’ residence annually atDurham”.

The Knatchbulls had two children, according to the family tree in Burrows and Dunhill, Wyndham and Catherine. Only Catherine’s year of birth is given, as c. 1753, but from the brief mention of the Knatchbull family by Le Faye in her edition of Jane Austen’s letters we know that Wyndham was born in 1750. Le Faye also mentions another son, Charles, born in 1747 (Le Faye 1995:540-541).

All this suggests two things: Harriet Knatchbull, Wyndham’s wife, did not die in 1760. Secondly, if she was indeed the only Harriet Knatchbull, she may have been the one who had been given a personal copy of Lowth’s grammar. The inscription “Hart Knatchbull her Book the/ Gift of Dr Lowth Fuaby ye 11 1762″ may therefore have been hers. Lowth may have presented her with a copy to use when she would be teaching her children grammar, as had been his original purpose for his grammar to begin with. If all this is true, Harriet Knatchbull cannothave been a very experienced writer, as the handwriting itself suggests but also the misspelling for “February”. The use of a periphrastic genitive (“Hart Knatchbull her Book”) rather than the more standard apostrophe s construction (“Hart Knatchbull‘s Book”) suggests non-standard usage for the period. Lowth, in any case, corrected the construction in his grammar.

The Chawton copy of the grammar, however, doesn’t show much signs of use: Harriet Knatchbull may never have got that far into the book, nor does she appear to have used it for the purpose for which Lowth may have presented it to her. But it is, ironically, thanks to the fact that she didn’t that the copy still exists today.


Burrows, Donald & Rosemary Dunhill. 2002. Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The family papers of James Harris, 17321780.Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press.

Le Faye, Deirdre (1995). Jane Austen’s Letters (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (forthcoming). “My imperfect attempt towards an English Grammar”: Lowth’s indebtedness to James Harris in revising his grammar. Historiographia Linguistica 39:1/2 (2012).



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2 Responses to Who was Harriet Knatchbull?

  1. A. Taylor says:

    This link shows that Harriet Knatchbull was the eldest daughter of Rev. Wadham Knatchbull, and that she died at only 19, in 1767.

  2. There were two Harriets – mother and daughter. Harriet Parry (1712-1794) married Wadham Knatchbull in 1743. Their daughter Harriet was born in 1748 and as A Taylor has said, she died aged 19 in 1767. I imagine the book was given to the daughter at age 14?

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