The tale of the Bilston Knight might be construed as originating from the age of chivalry and medieval jousting, of carrying a lady's favour into battle, and as legend will have it, slaying a beast to save a nation. But our story is of a more practical design, rooted in the 1930s and researched ten years ago by members of the Bilston-based Black Country Memories Club.
An investigation was ordered after a member of the club suggested the Bilston Knight was a fireside companion set, a medieval knight with three hooks on its back to hold a shovel, brush and tongs, and a hinged helmet giving access to a poker. As far as the BCMC is concerned, any story that has a possible link with Bilston is a highly prized objective, so the task to get to the bottom of the story was put in motion. A wide sweep of antiques markets was implemented and several knights were purchased.
Frank Sharman found one in Wolverhampton made out of cast iron with a distinctive brown, stove enamelled finish which the local dealer reckoned was made at Cannon Industries, although other companies had been known to make similar knights, including Harper's of Willenhall.
The club contacted John D.
Harper, the last Managing Director of John Harper & Co. of Willenhall, and he had no recollection of his company doing this kind of work.
However the name of William Harper & Co., Birmingham Street, Willenhall, was mentioned as a possible manufacturer.
Reg Aston said Cannon had made other fireside ornaments, including a cannon, an example of which he had at home, and although the evidence was beginning to build, proving the authenticity of the Bilston Knight remained difficult.
Then Reg made a breakthrough whilst flicking through an old Bilston Carnival programme for 1932.
He discovered an advert for ‘The Bilston Knight’, a continuous burning fire made by Bilston Foundries Ltd. of Highfields, Bilston. The advert read: "The Bilston ‘Knight’ is a luxury Continuous Burning Fire at a reasonable price.
The attractive fleur-de-lys fretted design harmonises with the most tasteful surrounds, and extends the use of this type of fire to lounges, dining-rooms, etc. Gives maximum heat from all types of fuel, and burns continuously and efficiently with little attention. In distinctive armorial and lustre finishes."
At last a fire place accessory called the Bilston Knight had been found, but not the medieval figure clad in armour that everybody wanted.
Several members of the club have kindly donated fireplace artefacts. But when Mrs Lilley presented her fire grate, the discovery of the Bilston Knight seemed to be close at hand. Reg described the most valuable find so far: "It had a portcullis type front with two knights either end. It may have been produced as a cheaper alternative to the Bilston Knight, either by Bilston Foundry or by a rival company."
Unfortunately with no maker's name, the mystery remains and the knight’s true identity may well turn out to be a collaboration between the free-standing knights of the hearth, and the Bilston-made continuous burning fire of 1932. The jury has yet to reach a unanimous decision!