William Knox was born in Dublin on the 14th June 1762 and was the fourth son of Thomas, Ist Viscount Northland (later Earl of Ranfurly). Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Knox graduated B.A. in 1781 and began his ecclesiastical career as a Curate in Limerick city. Shortly afterwards he was appointed Chaplain to the Irish House of Commons. His subsequent preferments included Rector of Kilmore (Diocese of Meath), 1784-6; Rector of Pomeroy (Diocese of Armagh), 1786-94; Rector of Callan (Diocese of Ossory), 1787-94. He distinguished himself in the last appointment by building a poor school in the parish. On the 21st September 1794 Knox became Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora. There he continued to pursue an interest in education and social welfare. In particular he was an active member of a society formed "for promoting the comforts of the poor" and published a paper on "the utility and management of Dispensaries, Poor Schools, and Schools of industry". His support for the government in voting for the Act of Union of 1800 earned Knox the promise of promotion to a more lucrative See. In September 1803 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, The Earl of Hardwicke, honoured the promise by translating William Knox to the See of Derry.
|Philip Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke KG, PC, FRS|
"As a bishop,he was very much beloved by his clergy, for though he never compromised the duties of his high office, he yet governed with a mild and paternal hand. He encouraged zeal- fostered piety- rewarded talent"
Although William Knox resided only four months of the year in Londonderry, while spending the rest mostly in London, his episcopate was far removed from the scandalous excesses of his predecessor. Knox had no wish to emulate the travelling habits of the Earl-Bishop, still less his eccentric behaviour. Instead, he adopted a much more consistent and conscientious approach to fulfilling his episcopal duties. Such a direction can in part be ascribed to the increasing influence of the evangelical movement which took root in the late eighteenth century, but which rose to prominence during the nineteenth. It's influence led to exactly the sort of activities which characterizes Knox's episcopate. The growing concern for higher standards of clerical conduct, the building of churches and glebe houses, the importance of education provision, and the support of various charitable causes were all exhibited in Knox's time in Derry.
Among charities Knox was influential in the foundation of the Mendicity Association, and the establishment of a Charitable Loan which lent small sums of money to the city's poor enabling them to buy fuel during winter. Further afield, famine conditions in the south and west of Ireland in 1822 led the bishop to advocate at a town meeting that clothes made from linen "the staple manufacture of the north" be sent to relieve the destitute of those regions. Knox stated that clothes would help preserve them form infection while giving employment to the weaver and seamstress at home. The bishop contributed £500 as well as providing two hundred shirts and two hundred shifts.
Knox's interest in education provision could also be clearly seen. He liberally donated £100 to the building of Foyle College and a further £100 per annum for its endowment. Similarly, £400 was given to the building of a poor school with an endowment of £20 per annum. In these endeavours the bishop was merely continuing the work already begun in previous appointments only now they were on a greater scale.
Within the church, Knox sought to ensure that his clergy faithfully carried out their ministry. In his visitation of 1824, for example, the bishop told his clergy that he intended to enforce recent legislation attacking the problem of non-residency in the church.Rising criticism against the church's established position during the 1820s also led Knox to demand higher pastoral requirements. As a response to these attacks, he appealed to his clergy "to endeavour, by attention to the duties of their scared office, and by strict and exemplary lives, to refute the calumnies of their enemies". Raising the standard of pastoral service in parishes, however, was only part of the drive for greater ecclesiastical efficiency. The building of churches and glebe houses remained equally important. Helped financially by recent legislation, Knox was able to increase the number of ecclesiastical buildings in the diocese. In fact, he personally contributed not only to to the building of churches of his own denomination such as Christ Church, Londonderry, but also the erection of a number of Roman Catholic churches. However, it was his contribution to improving St. Columb's Cathedral which was most significant. On his arrival to the diocese the shock he expressed by it's state of disrepair had led him to immediately contribute £1000 towards its restitution. Yet further repair work to the building in the early 1820s caused heated controversy and ironically led to fierce criticism of the bishop.
In March 1822 an inspection of St. Columb's Cathedral reported that the roof timber was in so ruinous a state as to be totally incapable of repair. Against the opinion of Bishop Knox, a contract was issued by the parishioners to a local firm for it's repair, which according to Knox entailed much greater expense than was necessary. In 1823 the lead roof was replaced with a slate on, but the slating was found to be defective. It was therefore stripped again with the result that for some time the cathedral lay roofless before it was eventually re-slated. In the process, the interior of the building suffered considerable damage. During this period worship continued in the nearby Presbyterian church.
The dilapidated appearance of the cathedral and the time taken to restore it naturally gave rise to criticism of those who were responsible for its repairs. Traditionally repairs to the cathedral were financed out of an economy fund. In Derry's case, however, there did not appear to be any such fund as all previous repairs seemed to have been carried out by parochial assessment. As the sum needed to "repair" the cathedral on this occasion was more than the parishioners themselves could afford (approx. £4000), parliament was approached in May 1824 to help in financing the immediate work and establishing an economy fund for future repairs. The parliamentary bill to enable such a scheme was defeated, however, as it was alleged that such a fund already existed . Parliamentary scrutiny therefore turned the spotlight on Bishop Knox, criticizing him for allowing the cathedral to fall into such a state of disrepair and accusing him of failing to expend money on its upkeep. Knox also came under attack from radicals in the press. The Dublin Evening Post of 1 May 1824, in particular, launched a stinging attack on the bishop under the title "The Rich Church and the Ruined Cathedral". However, the offending article, denigrating the bishop's character, produced an impressive and heartfelt display of local support for Knox. An address presented to the bishop, and later published, was signed by a cross-section of the community, that included the Roman Catholic bishop of Derry and the local Presbyterian minister. The address provided evidence of the bishop's financial contributions to numerous beneficial causes in the community.
Bishop Knox clearly felt that a section of opinion had been misinformed concerning his responsibilities over the cathedral's repairs. He was therefore forced to publish a pamphlet entitled "A statement and Refutation of the Charge against the Bishop of Derry" (1824). The bishop's defence rested on a point of principle by denying himself of his successors legally responsible for the cathedral's repairs. In no instance argued Knox had the law required that cathedrals should be repaired from the private purses of bishops, deans or chapters. the pamphlet aimed to show that the bishop had not been at fault concerning the repairs to the cathedral roof. At the same time time, his argument did not preclude him from contributing to improvements on the building. The cathedral reopened in January 1826.
Bishop Knox died in London on the 10th July 1831.