Tributes for 'Comrade' Dick from old friends
Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of Sir Richard Knowles yesterday. Emma Brady joined the congregation to celebrate the former council leader's life.
On the outside, everything about Sir Richard Knowles' funeral appeared to be steeped in tradition. An undertaker walked ahead of the funeral cortege to St Michael and All Angels Church in Bartley Green, where the former Lord Mayor regularly attended services with his second wife, Lady Anne.
The wreath was an artistic arrangement of traditional lilies, roses and gerberas - but they were red instead of white.
Unsurprisingly it was standing room only as more than 200 friends, relatives and colleagues packed the pews, but when Reverend Colin Mansey greeted them as "Comrades", there was a gentle ripple of laughter.
Considering the reddish complexion of a congregation which included former Birmingham Sparkbrook MP Roy Hattersley, now Lord Hattersley, it was clear his political legacy set the service's tone.
Rev Mansey explained how Sir Richard, known to all as Dick, had discussed this day with him "four years ago, to the day he died", to decide which hymns to include.
Again, to the untrained eye, the choices may have appeared obtuse but Magnificent Now was perhaps better known as the melody to Labour's anthem Keep The Red Flag Flying - and the theme tune to Citizen Smith.
However, it was evident Sir Richard had given a great deal of thought to his final farewell as he battled bladder cancer, before he died on February 17. He was 90.
He is survived by his second wife Lady Anne, his only son Bill, grandson Richard, step-granddaughter Joanna, two great-granddaughters Amber and Rosie.
Rev Mansey, addressing the congregation, said: "I've no doubt that a memorial service for Sir Richard will be held in the city centre, probably at the cathedral, but I'm honoured he chose to have his funeral here. It showed his humility and rootedness in his local community.
"He chose the hymns and wanted this service to follow the traditional prayer book, so there was at least one area in his life where his traditions were conservative.
"There could be no doubt however that in the firmament over Birmingham, Dick's life has shone with all the glory of a superstar."
He also paid tribute to Sir Richard's civic legacy, as the man credited with leading the city out of its failing industrial past, and urged the public to see Centenary Square as "a monument to Sir Richard".
"Between 1984 and 1993, when he was leader of the council, he was a major influence on Birmingham's redevelopment and renaissance, transforming the industrial blight of Gas Street Basin and creating the urban attractiveness of Symphony Hall and the International Convention Centre," said Rev Mansey.
"In so many ways he influenced the development of this city for good and the people of Birmingham owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
"There is a plaque at St Paul's Cathedral dedicated to Sir Christopher Wren, which says if you wish to see a monument to his life then look around you. If the people of Birmingham wish to see a monument to Sir Richard they should go to Centenary Square and look at Symphony Hall. He was a truly remarkable man and an inspiration to us all."
Sir Richard's coffin was carried out of the church by six pallbearers, followed by a procession of mourners who shared their memories in the churchyard, before following the family to Lodge Hill Crematorium.
Lord Hattersley also paid tribute to Sir Richard, who acted as his agent during two general elections and had known for over 50 years, describing him as "an excellent agent".
Speaking after the service, he said: "I've known Richard Knowles for over 50 years, we first met in 1961/62 when he was an agent in Leeds and I was chairman of Sheffield's housing committee.
"We next met at the famous Orpington byelection, and we've been colleagues and friends ever since. As my agent in the run-up to the 1987 and 1992 general elections, he ran my campaign in Sparkbrook, and there was a big swing to Labour on both occasions, so, when asked why, Dick explained it was because the candidate had been away, and he wasn't joking."
Coun Randal Brew (Con, Northfield), Lord Mayor of Birmingham, fondly remembered Sir Richard's talent for storytelling.
He said: "In a letter of condolence I sent to Lady Anne, I told her how I was very sorry I would not hear his favourite tale about a delivery of ten tons of toilet tissue to T. White, because he was a great raconteur."
One of five children, Sir Richard was born in the village of Plaxtol, Kent, in 1917 and embarked on a career in the building industry after leaving school at 14. In 1950 his passion for politics became serious as he became a trade union organiser, before representing local politicians in Sevenoaks, Dover and Leeds.
He moved to Birmingham and in 1971 became the national organiser of the Cooperative Party and was elected to the city council the following year, and later appointed chair of the planning committee. Sir Richard took over from Sir Neville Bosworth, to deliver many of projects which reshaped the city in 1984 and was knighted five years later. He stood down from the leadership in 1993 and was elected Lord Mayor the following year.
Sir Albert Bore, said: "I've so many memories of him that it's difficult to put them in a single sentence or paragraph. For me Dick was someone who had vision and the skills of leadership to bring about the changes to Birmingham we can see all around us."