Snobs and knuts; class aspiration in First World War Wales

The August 1917 issue of The Welsh Outlook contained an article entitled ‘A School for Snobs’:



What immediately catches the eye here is the use of the word ‘snob’. Blackie’s Standard Dictionary (1925) defines ‘snob’ as ‘a shoemaker; one who apes gentility; a would-be aristocrat’; while H C Wyld’s The Universal English Dictionary (1936) gives ‘the original sense, cobbler’s mate or boy’, and then ‘1. (archaic or obsolete) a a person belonging to the so-called vulgar or lower classes; person of no breeding or social position; in Phr a snob or a nob; b (obs university slang) townsman. 2 a A person who pretends, from vulgar ostentation, to be better than he is; one who pretends to belong to, or be familiar with people of high social standing or of great wealth or reputation; one who puts an exaggerated and vulgar estimate on rank, wealth, fashionable society or distinction and endeavours to conceal his own supposed inferior position or connexions; b also applied to persons who adopt a similar attitude in intellectual or artistic spheres. 3 A cobbler.

It is tempting to read the last entry as a call to the previously described characters to stop being silly.

John Camden, several decades earlier, in A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1865), defined a snob as ‘a low, vulgar or affected person. Supposed to be from the nick-name applied to Crispin, a maker of shoes;’ Camden goes on to give a few possible etymologies from Latin abbreviations varying on the idea of sine nobilitate (without nobility) or fil. nob. (son of nobility) producing quasi-nobs ‘“like a nob”, which by a process of contraction would be shortened to si-nob, and then ‘snob’, one who pretends to be what he is not, and apes his betters. The short and expressive terms which many think fitly represent the three great estates of the realm, Nob, Snob and Mob, were all originally slang words.’

While The Welsh Outlook was worried about snobs in the Rhondda valley, at Pontypridd, where the Rhondda joins the Taff, on 7 November 1914 the local paper was pointing out that a new regiment, presumably of men from Pontypridd, should be called the ‘Broadway Knuts’, the Broadway being the main road from Pontypridd to Treforest, and ‘knuts’ being the young men about town who affected evening dress and monocles, or at the very least dressed as fashionably as they could. Were young men like this ever seen in Pontypridd, a town with 15 coalmines, known familiarly as ‘the Wild West’? Perhaps the Rhondda Educational Authority was eyeing the opportunity for a bit of gentrification based on the idea of a regiment of knuts parading up and down the Broadway, though it seems unlikely. Given the wear expected of miners’ boots a regiment of snobs would be more probable; cobblers, that is.


According to the OED the knuts fell away during the war; the last citation given is from The Listener of 6 September 1973 –  ‘The ‘silly asses’, the ‘knuts’ who were wiped out on the Somme’.  Partridge states that the term was extended to VIPs crossing to France during the war, and was further extended to the Dover Patrol itself. A ‘knut among knuts’ might be a ‘filbert’; Partridge dates this term to 1900-1920, and states it was popularised by the song ‘I’m Gilbert the Filbert, Colonel of the Knuts’, from the revue ‘The Passing Show of 1914’. The song was made famous by Basil Hallam, whose death, falling from an observation balloon at the Somme in August 1916, perhaps indeed marked the end of the knuts.

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