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The guardian of Jonathan Swift House  

I am convinced the ghost of Jonathan Swift is chortling away in the draughty former Bowling Green Inn on its windy clifftop above the Georgian port of Whitehaven. He will be amused at the strong willed and outspoken character of 84 year old (in 2023) owner of the listed building, Edward Caley Knowles. As well as being eccentric guardian of the former inn that is now called Jonathan Swift House, Edward Knowles has still not completed a 50 year long battle with the English legal system. Along the way his stubborn belief that he has been wronged has led to victories at the appeal court in London and less auspiciously a spell inside Durham jail after he threatened to blow up the track beneath the Royal Mail train to Scotland and similar death threats to the Board of British Railways.Edward Caley Knowles at Jonathan Swift House

It was in 1987 soon after the building gained Listed status that it passed into Edward's ownership. The Listing records the building as built in the late 17th century and one of the oldest houses in Whitehaven. The view down on the port and rooftops of Whitehaven is 'Lilliputian' to many, including no doubt the young Swift.
Whitehaven was at the time the busiest port outside London with its sailing vessels among the first to make regular trade with Virginia and the infant US states. George Washington's grandmother is buried in Whitehaven and the fleet of ships dealing in both slaves and tobacco were frequently Whitehaven based and skippered. But it was the fact that Whitehaven coal pits supplied the coal for Dublin that generated the Swiftian links that are a key part of our narrative.
Biographer and Swiftian expert Bruce Arnold confirms that the house was visible in a print by Richard Parr 1668-1710 at the time the infant Swift came to Whitehaven. Jonathan Swift himself described how he was abandoned by his mother and taken by his wet nurse across the Irish Sea. Mr Arnold states: "the nurse became so fond of the infant that she stole away with him when she left for England to visit relations in Whitehaven and he remained with her in circumstances which are quite extraordinary. Swift tells us that she did this without permission, and moreover she seems to have been encouraged to keep him there." Mr Arnold speculates: "A more likely explanation is that the removal was a planned removal of the child, whose continued presence in the city of his birth may have been an embarrassment to his real father."
Edward expands on this: "I am sure John Ribton was Jonathan's true father. There was hanky panky…he knew the widow and an arm around her led to little Jonathan…Len Ribton worked for the Lowthers, the biggest land and mine owners at Whitehaven. They would have known Mrs Swift through working for the Lowthers in Ireland. Around 1639." Sadly historic records of the infant Swift's stay in Whitehaven are scant and other experts claim the child stayed in the town rather than at the clifftop inn.
Edward had been born in the Whitehaven workhouse 74 years ago. His CV ranges from dodging River Orinoco headhunters while in the Merchant Navy, work in the Whitehaven collieries and volunteer service as a staff officer during the Cyprus troubles. Known around the town as an 'individual' Edward has twice run as a Parliamentary candidate for UKIP, on the last occasion netting 994 votes.
The nub of his four decades legal struggle was what he describes as a provoked assault on the late Mr George Barton who Edward claims engineered a row to take Edward's job. Edward admits he struck out but forever feels wronged over the conviction. At one stage Edward's self image as the wronged man led him to change his name by deed poll to Edward Christ.

He says: "All I did was follow railway instructions…but as a consequence my life was destroyed…" He still claims the police and judiciary failed him and so battles on.
When I gently point out that; "maybe after 44 years you should end your legal battles?" He replies "Well John Quinn at Carlisle had been claiming a police set-up for 46 years before he won justice. And Betley got a posthumous pardon …"
Edward proudly shows me the court of appeal ruling from 2006 in which this 1972 conviction for assault was quashed."
I was told by a senior Whitehaven detective of the time Edward threatened to place a bomb on the railway this was taken so seriously Special Branch flew in by helicopter. They landed at the town's rugby field to interview and arrest Edward. This was understandable as around the time the IRA were conducting operations on the UK mainland. Edward says he had already been "into the cells a few times for disturbing the tranquility of the court system". But this 12 months jail term for the bomb threat does not seem to have caused him too much trauma as he says: "I was something of a celebrity and because my battle had been against the British Rail Board any mention of the railway on TV got a cheer from my fellow inmates."
But the financial pressures have reached the point where Edward says he is to sell the house next year. "Five or six years ago the National Trust considered the property but decided not to proceed."

Dave Siddall
Originally written in August 2011.

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