Dogged determination sees Lassie author come home at last

Eric Knight
Eric Knight
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Forgotten for 50 years, Sarah Freeman reports on how one man’s mission to remember author Eric Knight has finally reached a happy ending.

When Greg Christie was left paralysed from the waist down almost 20 years ago, he understandably wondered whether it was the end of his life as he knew it.

In fact, it proved to be the start of a whole new chapter. Confined to bed for almost two years following an injury playing football, Christie sought escape through reading and one of the books which caught his interest was a dog-eared copy of Sam Small – The Flying Yorkshireman written by Eric Knight.

“I’d never heard of Eric Knight, but the adventures of Sam Small really captured my imagination, partly I think because they were written so knowledgably in the Yorkshire dialect,” says Christie, who lives in Malton. “There was a casual note on the dust jacket, which said Eric had also written Lassie Come Home and This Above All. I was astonished. I’d watched the Lassie movies and all the TV episodes as a child and I remembered an old war film called This Above All starring Tyrone Power and Joan Fontaine. What I couldn’t understand was how the same man who had inspired an all-American television series and a Hollywood film could have also created Sam Small.”

As Christie slowly began to recover from his injuries, his interest in the mysterious Eric Knight deepened. While a trawl of his local library and countless internet searches drew a blank, Greg’s persistence finally paid off.

After years of painstaking research, he discovered that Knight was in fact a Yorkshireman, who had grown up in Menston before emigrating to America as a teenager. The move meant he had been largely forgotten at home and Christie became determined to put the author and his work back on the map. This weekend he will finally be able to rest easy, when a Yorkshire Rose plaque is unveiled at Menston library, close to the writer’s childhood home.

“I left school without any qualifications and the teachers told me I would never amount to anything,” says Christie. “Researching the story of Eric Knight gave me the chance to lay those old ghosts to rest. After four years of piecing together his life and times, I was accepted on to an English Literature degree course at York St John University. The year I graduated I won the coveted Winston Churchill Memorial Trust literature fellowship, which allowed me to spend the summer researching his life across America from Connecticut to California.”

Knight was born in Menston in 1897, but his diamond merchant father soon abandoned the family and plunged them into poverty. His mother, who had previously worked for the Russian royal family, went to St Petersburg to be governess to the children of Princess Xenia. By the time he was 10, Eric, who was being looked after by relatives in Leeds, was working in a factory. But when his mother remarried and moved to Boston, it proved a turning point.

Reunited with his mother in America, Knight got a job as a copy boy at the Philadelphia Press newspaper until he was called up to serve in the First World War. It was on his return to the US that his literary career took off, but he never forgot his roots on the other side of the Atlantic.

“As well as being a most prolific author producing a number of novels which outsold the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway and Woodhouse, Eric led a very eventful life,” says Peter Barber, of the Yorkshire Society, which has commissioned the new plaque. “He served in both the First and Second World Wars and after becoming an American citizen worked alongside Frank Capra on wartime propaganda films.

“However, he once said, ‘it matters not what it says on my passport, this above all I am a Yorkshireman’ and his legacy deserves to be remembered. We launched the Yorkshire Rose plaques in 1986 to commemorate those who have not been previously honoured.

“We have unveiled 17 in the last 25 or so years and Eric will be joining the likes of cat’s eyes inventor Percy Shaw so he will be in very good company.”

For Christie, the event this weekend will be the completion of his own personal mission, but he also hopes it will see Knight earn a place on Yorkshire’s tourist trail.

“Americans flock to see the Brontë house, not knowing the dog they grew up with from 600 television episodes has her beginnings just a few miles down the road,” he says. “The most special thing about Eric was that he didn’t think he was anything special, but this plaque will hopefully be our way of paying tribute to a truly great Yorkshireman.”

The unveiling ceremony will take place at Menston library this Saturday at 12pm.