Focus on fascinating tale of Chorley’s ‘fairy godmother’ Susannah Knight

Compiler of the famous 'Golden Books' Susannah Knight, photograph courtesy of the Walmsley family

Compiler of the famous 'Golden Books' Susannah Knight, photograph courtesy of the Walmsley family

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For the women of World War One, life on the home front meant a complete change of pace from being housewives to becoming employed workers.

In Lancashire, women were called upon to take up a range of laborious work, from munitions and coal mines to working in an army biscuit factory, creating one of the staple rations for the soldiers.

The volumes are at Astley Hall in Astley Park

The volumes are at Astley Hall in Astley Park

Lancashire County Council’s Community Heritage Team has been visiting libraries across the county to share the incredible stories of some of the ladies from the area who went above and beyond to help the war effort.

Fiona McIntyre, community heritage manager, said: “The women who lived through the First World War made great sacrifices and certainly rose to the challenges they faced.

“It was a time when women defied both cultural and social barriers and made some incredible achievements.

“Many women were employed for the first time, taking over jobs traditionally thought of as being suitable only for men.”

“It was a time when women defied both cultural and social barriers and made some incredible achievements”

Fiona McIntyre, Lancashire County Council’s community heritage manager

Other roles which became attainable for women during the Great War years included police officers, known as Women’s Patrols, who maintained discipline amongst the factory work forces and members of the public.

Females also took on responsibilities in transport, as bus drivers and conductors, and some even went to France as part of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Here, Lancashire’s Community Heritage Team gives an insight into one of the most note-worthy personal tales from Chorley:

Susannah Knight was a dedicated Roman Catholic teacher at Weld Bank School in Chorley, who spent the greater part of her life in charitable work.

The proprietor of the Chorley Guardian signed the books

The proprietor of the Chorley Guardian signed the books

During the war she was tireless in her efforts to support the families of servicemen.

But it is what she achieved after the war which makes her story so special.

Susannah decided to compile what became known as the Golden Books, in memory of soldiers from the town who had sacrificed their lives in the war.

For the next 15 years, she travelled thousands of miles to collect signatures from the great and good.

The opening pages of the books

The opening pages of the books

Colourful pre-printed pages were prepared for Pope Benedict XV, European monarchs, and the presidents of France and the USA.

The earliest dated signature is that of Douglas Haig, and the Prince of Wales even gave his signature on a visit to Chorley in July 1921.

She also obtained the signatures of members of the American and British cabinets, and at one time, Winston Churchill, before he became Prime minister.

Susannah had many adventures including meeting the crews of the three American aircraft which were the first to circumnavigate the globe, when they touched down at Croydon Aerodrome in July 1924.

For many years afterwards the album was neglected and almost lost, and it wasn’t until 1948 that Chorley Council displayed the volumes.

The only copy of the Golden Books is on display in Astley Hall, Chorley; the hall and surrounding park were given to Chorley Council by the owner, Reginald Tatton, in 1922 to serve as the town’s war memorial.

Susannah was said to have ‘burnt herself out in the service of others’.

Dedicated to the end, she gave her last public words: “I hate to feel that I am not doing my share”.

She died aged 81 in hospital in Liverpool, sadly described by one reporter who met her there as ‘a lonely old lady’ who would ‘hardly be recognised by her friends in Chorley’.

But the report, published in November 1949 when Miss Knight was aged 79, also described her as a ‘fairy godmother’ who raised money for, and taught French to the men of the North Lancashire Regiment between 1914 and 1918.

It was during this interview that Susannah revealed herself as being the ‘anonymous’ compiler of the Golden Books, which at the time were stored at Astley Hall, having been placed there by the Chorley Corporation for inspection.

She was also said to have ‘scorned her dignity’ as a teacher at St Gregory’s Roman Catholic School by being seen after school hours ‘trundling a handcart over Chorley’s cobbles collecting scrap iron for shells’.

- The next ‘Women in the War’ talk will be held on Thursday, October 1, at Euxton Library, St Mary’s Gate, Euxton, at 10am. Call 0300 123 6703 to book a place.

- Themes supplied by Lancashire County Council’s Community Heritage Team.

To find out more about researching your own heritage or the history of your local community, contact the team at CH.Enquries@lancashire.gov.uk.