Oh Charles, where art thou?

Early life

Charles Knaeps is born on Thursday January 2, 1851 at 5pm in the first district of Geel (Belgium) as Maria Carolus Lambertus Knaeps. He is the third child for Casemirus and Joanna Catharina Angelina Vergouwen, both beer brewers in the 1840s and grocers from 1850 onwards. His elder two siblings are both girls: Maria Elisabetha (°1844) and Maria Theresia – or “aunt Trees” (°1847). On his father’s side, Charles is a direct descendant of the wealthy Knaeps cloth merchant family from Geel. Jacques Moortgat, mayor of Geel, was his uncle (married to Rosalia Knaeps, Casemirus’ sister). Charles’ mother is a descendant of the Vergouwen brewers family from Hoogstraten; her great-grandfather, Henricus Van Bedaff, was mayor of that city.

On July 9, 1854, his father Casemirus dies at the age of 32; little Charles is only 3 years old then. In 1863, Charles oldest sister moves to Antwerp. His youngest sister will eventually also move to Antwerp, but it’s not yet clear when exactly she left Geel. In 1865, Charles’ mother returns, without 15-year old Charles however, to Hoogstraten to live with her mother, Maria Elisabeth Van Pelt (widow Vergouwen), in de Groote Straat, nr. 15. (For portraits of Charles’ great-grandparents Willem Van Pelt and Maria Keysers from the late 18th century, see the website of Peter Eyckerman, alias de Spoorzoeker.) Charles stays in Geel and lives at De Grote Markt in the city centre of Geel at the same address of his aunt, Charlotte Josepha Knaeps, and his uncle and priest Maria Theodorus Knaeps; their house is known as “De Bijl”. In 1868 Charles’ aunt and uncle officially move to Lier. Charles is deleted from the Geel census, December 31, 1876. At that time, he already lives in Antwerp for at least four years. This is the first, but not the last time (as we will see later on) that Charles is removed from a census ex-officio. Thus, apparently, Charles never officially notified the Geel administration of him moving to Antwerp. Charles’ soon-to-be future wife, Carolina Rosalia Josephina Binnemans, and who’s also from Geel, does notify the Geel administration of her leaving to Antwerp in the fall of 1870.

Antwerp period

From 1872 (maybe already from 1870) to 1903 Charles lives in the Antwerp district “Borgerhout”, as a student pharmacist first (with pharmacist Carolus Guillielmus Wouters, i.e. the uncle of his future wife), and later as self-employed entrepreneur (owner of sewing machine store “La Concordia”, first in the Offerandestraat; later, around 1890, at De Dageraadplaats, nr. 3, in the Zurenborg quarter, see Illustration 1 below). He switches addresses quite frequently (with a short passage in Duffel from 1873 to 1875 – where his mother now is registered at the same address as Charles and his family), and possibly in Vorst near Brussels around 1898). His last official address in Antwerp is Wetstraat 85.


Illustration 1. Postcard (from my personal collection) with a picture of de Dageraadplaats (or ‘Place de l’Aurore’) in Antwerp around 1900. Charles’ house, nr. 3, is the house next to the chapel. The card was edited by RAES-ROSENVELD (see left bottom corner), who owned a shop at the Dageraadplaats (nr. 33, orange-tinted house with ‘kaarsen en bougies’ marked on the shop’s facade). The editors of this card, Vital Raes and Juliana Rosenveld are also great-great-grandparents of mine. One of their sons, Benoit, will marry Charles’ daughter, Maria, in 1898. Benoit and Maria, my great-grandparent, thus, most likely met and fell in love with each other at de Dageraadplaats.

On December 18, 1872 Charles marries at age 21, Carolina Rosalia Josephina Binnemans. Three months after his marriage, his only child and daughter, Maria – my great-grandmother, is born on February 28, 1873. On April 23 1892, Charles’ mother dies in Borgerhout, which indeed suggests that she lived (close to or) with Charles at that time. On September 28, 1898, Charles’ daughter, Maria marries Benoit Raes in Vorst (Brussels) (see Illustration 2 below).


Illustration 2. Maria Knaeps (Charles’ daughter) and her husband, Benoit Raes (family archive Raes).

Brussels period

From 1903 (but possibly earlier than that) to 1914 Charles lives in Brussels (municipalities of Anderlecht, Saint-Gilles, and possibly also Vorst), as an accountant (“comptable”), café/cabaret owner (“cabaretier”; Café du Commerce, Boulevard d’Anderlecht, nr. 48, now Boulevard Poincaré), wine merchant (“négociant”) and as a self-employed owner of lightning store “La Comète”. “La Comète” is on the Boulevard du Hainaut (now Boulevard Maurice Lemonnier). Again, he switches addresses frequently.


Illustration 3. Postcard (from my personal collection) with a picture of the Boulevard du Hainaut (now Boulevard Maurice Lemonnier). From the Almanacs of Brussels we learn that Charles’ lightning store “La Comète” was at nr. 95 (from 1887-1900) and at nr. 141 (from 1899-1901). Nr. 95 (left side of the road) is just across the Palais du Midi (see Postcard; right side of the road).

Whereas Charles officially leaves Antwerp for Brussels only in 1903, he is already active in Brussels from 1897 onwards. From the Almanacs of Brussels, it becomes clear that Charles (sometimes under the name of “Knaeps et Cie“, or “Knaps” instead of Knaeps) resides in Brussels (e.g., Boulevard du Hainaut 95 and 141, Boulevard d’Anspach 182) from 1897 to 1905. After 1905, there is no trace of Charles in the Almanacs of Brussels. But also after that date, we know that Charles (stil) lives in Brussels, according to the census until 1914 (see below).

Charles Knaeps

Illustration 4. Photo of Charles (family archive Raes). Dated 1895-1905 by Peter Eyckerman. 

From 1897 to 1900 Charles registered several patents in different European countries for inventions related to the optimisation of gas burners (as lightning system). See Illustration 5 below for one of these patents.



Illustration 5. British patent of Charles’ “economizer”.

He sells lamps with globes improved based on his invention in his shop “La Comète” in Brussels. Below is a newspaper advert for a commercial demonstration of his optimized lightning system (see Illustration 6).


Illustration 6. Newspaper advert in Gazet van Antwerpen from November 17 1899 for a commercial demonstration of Charles’ optimized lightning system.  (© Gazet Van Antwerpen)

As their last residence in Brussels, Charles and his spouse are registered in Anderlecht on April 8 in 1910 in the Hoedstraat. They are removed again from the census, ex-officio, September 2 1914 (see Illustration 7 below). At that time, the Germans enter and occupy Brussels. In the census it is noted on Charles’ line (not for his wife): “parti le 9-6-1914” or “left June 9, 1914”.


Illustration 7. Charles Knaeps and his spouse are removed from the Anderlecht (Brussels) census, September 2, 1914 (“radié/rayé d’office”; “schrapping van ambstwege”). His wife ‘moves’ to Cappellen (now spelled Kapellen)on September 16, 1915. 

No trace…

…of Charles and his spouse from September 2 1914 until September 16 1915. Charles is “administratively dead” since September 2 1914, but he is not officially dead (there is no official death certificate). His spouse (Illustration 8 below) re-appears in Kapellen (“Cappellen”, see Illustration above) one year later, September 16, 1915. That’s were her daughter and son in law, my great-grandparents live.


Illustration 8. Photo of Charles’ wife, Carolina Rosalia Josephina Binnemans (family archive Raes). Dated 1900-1905 by Peter Eyckerman. 

Charles’ wife dies on December 11, 1918, in Kapellen. In her death certificate (Illustration 9) Charles is mentioned with “no defined or established residence”. Meaning: In 1918 Charles is still not (officially) dead but his relatives don’t know where he is either or don’t want it to be known.


Illustration 9. Death certificate of Charles’ spouse. 

And so the question remains…when, where and how did Charles come to his end? Was the war in some way involved? Refugee? Money issues? Debts? Did he run off? The family story goes that he appeared one day with two female Latin-American dancers at his daughter’s place…  The last picture we have of Charles in our family archive was taken in 1911 when my grandfather Jef Raes, son of Benoit and Maria Knaeps and grandson of Charles, was born (see Illustration 10 below). Charles’ wife was still alive at that time, but she’s not on the picture…


Illustration 10. Picture (family archive Raes) taken in 1911 at the occasion of the christening of my grandfather Jef Raes (baby in the arms of Maria Knaeps, Charles’ daughter). Charles is standing central in the family picture (red oval). 


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