James Sheridan Knowles, Irish dramatist and actor, is born in Cork, County Cork, on May 12, 1784. A relative of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, he enjoys success writing plays for the leading West End theatres. Later in his career he also produces several novels.
Knowles’s father is the lexicographer James Knowles, cousin of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The family moves to London in 1793, and at the age of fourteen he publishes a ballad entitled The Welsh Harper, which, set to music, is very popular. His talents secure him the friendship of William Hazlitt, who introduces him to Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He serves for some time in the Wiltshire and afterwards in the Tower Hamlets militia, leaving the service to become a pupil of Dr. Robert Willan. He obtains the degree of M.D., and is appointed vaccinator to the Jennerian Society.
Although Dr. Willan offers him a share in his practice, Knowles decides to give up medicine for the stage, making his first appearance as an actor probably at Bath, and plays Hamlet at the Crow Street Theatre, Dublin. At Wexford he marries, in October 1809, Maria Charteris, an actress from the Edinburgh Theatre. In 1810, he writes Leo, a successful play in which Edmund Kean appears. Another play, Brian Boroihme, written for the Belfast Theatre in the next year, attracts crowds. Nevertheless, his earnings are so small that he is obliged to become assistant to his father at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. In 1817 he moves from Belfast to Glasgow, where, besides keeping a flourishing school, he continues to write for the stage.
Knowles first important success is Caius Gracchus, produced at the Belfast Theatre in 1815. His Virginius, written for William Charles Macready, is first performed in 1820 at Covent Garden. In William Tell (1825), he writes for Macready one of his favourite parts. His best-known play, The Hunchback, is produced at Covent Garden in 1832, and he wins praise acting in the work as Master Walter. The Wife is brought out at the same theatre in 1833. The Daughter, better known as The Wrecker’s Daughter, in 1836, and The Love Chase in 1837. His 1839 play Love is praised by Mary Shelley for its “inspiring situations founded on sentiment and passion.” His second wife is the actress Emma Knowles.
In his later years Knowles forsakes the stage for the pulpit and, as a Baptist preacher, attracts large audiences at Exeter Hall and elsewhere. He publishes two polemical works: the Rock of Rome and the Idol Demolished by Its Own Priests in both of which he combats the special doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. He is for some years in the receipt of an annual pension of £200, bestowed by Sir Robert Peel in 1849. In old age he befriends the young Edmund Gosse, whom he introduces to Shakespeare. He makes a happy appearance in Gosse’s Father and Son.
Knowles dies at Torquay on November 30, 1862. He is buried under a huge tomb at the summit of the Glasgow Necropolis.
A full list of the works of Knowles and of the various notices of him can be found in The Life of James Sheridan Knowles (1872), privately printed by his son, Richard Brinsley Knowles (1820–1882), who is well known as a journalist. It is translated into German.