Papers of the Knowles family, including J W Knowles & Sons, stained glass painters

Scope and Content

This collection primarily includes papers of John Ward Knowles and his son John Alder Knowles, both of whom were York glass painters. The papers form a research collection predominantly on churches (including York Minster), glass manufacture and stained glass, as well as original designs (KNO/1-24). The collection also includes a small number of business papers relating to the glass painting business they founded and managed - J W Knowles & Sons (KNO/23). In addition to the research collection are personal papers relating to both John Ward Knowles and John Alder Knowles (KNO/25 and 26), as well as items relating to their relative Christopher Milward (KNO/27), a former Lord Mayor of York. Some of the items can be attributed to the family as a whole but not individual family members, and these items are listed as a separate series (KNO/28).

Administrative / Biographical History

J W Knowles & Sons

J W Knowles and Sons were a family firm of glass painters, restorers and church decorators based in Stonegate, York. The business was founded by John Ward Knowles (1838-1931) in around 1861. He was later joined in the business by his two sons, John Alder Knowles (1881-1961) and Milward Knowles. The business continued until the 1970s, after which time it was wound up.

John Ward Knowles

John Ward Knowles was born in 1838. He left school at the age of 12.

Following a visit to the Great Exhibition in London with his father in 1851, Knowles enrolled at the newly opened School of Design in York. He continued there as a pupil until 1854, winning prizes for his stained glass work in 1852 and 1854. In around 1858, Knowles moved to London for a year to work for Heaton and Butler, where he developed an interest in photography and architecture.

In 1863, following his return to York, Knowles began to undertake conservation work on the 'Fifteen Last Days of the World' window in All Saints Church. Three years later he was a member of the committee for the 1866 Great Exhibition at Bootham, York.

In 1869 Knowles moved his stained glass business from Goodramgate to Stonegate. Five years later he married Jane Annakin, with whom he had two sons, John Alder and Milward, and four daughters. Both sons would follow him into the family business of J W Knowles & Sons. In 1874 he also bought and began to restore 23 Stonegate (now number 35).

During the 1880s and 1890s Knowles undertook extensive conservation work on the St Cuthbert and St William windows at York Minster, during which process he photographed all the panels before their restoration and rearrangement. He also spent some time working on the stately home Nostell Priory.

John Ward Knowles died on 17 August 1931 at the age of 93.

John Alder Knowles

John Alder Knowles was born in 1881, the eldest son of stained glass painter and restorer John Ward Knowles.

In 1903, Knowles travelled to Toronto, Canada, and then to Minneapolis, where he spent the next nine years working at the Ford Brothers stained glass works. On his return to England in 1912 he began to assist his father with his York stained glass business.

Knowles' career was interrupted by his service in both the First World War and the Second World War.

John Alder Knowles was granted an Honorary Master of Arts from the University of Hull in 1957 for his scholarly monograph on the York School of Glass Painting (published in 1936 and illustrated with his own sketches and photographs). During his career he wrote more than 60 articles on the history of stained glass.

Knowles died on 25 November 1961, aged 80.

Conditions Governing Access

Material is available subject to the usual terms and conditions of access to Archives and Local History collections.

Other Finding Aids

More detailed finding aids for this collection can be found online by searching the Explore website (

Archivist's Note

Compiled by Laura Yeoman, Archives and Local History Public Services Manager, April 2015.

Conditions Governing Use

Images are supplied for private research only at the Archivist's discretion. Please note that material may be unsuitable for copying on conservation grounds. Researchers who wish to publish material must seek copyright permission from the copyright owner.

Geographical Names