Recently a good client asked if I could photograph the funeral ceremony of her late grandfather. Originally from Jamaica, Ugent Robert Knight settled in Hackney opening a Barbers shop and went on to cut hair for stars of the day including Muhammud Ali and Marvin Gaye.
Here are a selection of the images and his inspiring life story as told by his granddaughter Nadine to Hackney Today.
When my grandfather came to the UK from Jamaica he was 19, alone, with a single bag and pair of threequarter length trousers,” says Nadine Knight. “He was aboard the SS Conti Biancamano for three weeks. People’s hair began to get too long, and that’s how he first became a barber,” she adds. Ugent Robert Knight was still to be found cutting hair at the age of 83, but by then he was far from alone. He had three children, nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
He was a well-known and well-respected figure, not only throughout Hackney but far further afield too. “When Marvin Gaye and Mohammed Ali visited London, granddad would be called to their hotels to cut their hair. He cut the hair of loads of famous soul singers. But he never boasted about it, we just saw the photos of them all framed in his house,”says Nadine. Born in Jamaica in 1929, Ugent trained as a sheep shearer before taking a ship to the UK. In London, he shared a flat with three other young men, at a rate of three shillings a week.
He found a job in a factory and began cutting hair in his then house in Hackney. Nadine explains: “Afro Caribbean barbers were few and far between. It was back when signs stating ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ were a common sight. “Ugent made friends in the Orthodox Jewish community. They taught him how to get into property. And he saved his pennies till he could afford his own barber shop, on Sandringham Road.” Ugent’s business went from strength to strength, ‘even though he was never taught to read’. “But the man knew figures. You couldn’t rob him of 50p!” laughs Nadine.
He was also famed for his sharp dressing in the mod style or ‘a 70s look’. Life, however, was not always kind. Ten years after bringing his wife from Jamaica to join him, she passed away, leaving Ugent with two young children. “My mum was very young when her mum died, and though he married again, twice, he was always the primary carer,” says Nadine. Ugent was also a father figure to many in the Afro Caribbean community. Nadine says: “He survived so many challenges with so much determination and good spirit. He gave so many people their first starts in his shop.” Ugent Robert Knight died on 16 February of lung cancer. He passed away surrounded by his family at St Joseph’s Hospice.