John Knight was born in Yorkshire in 1763 but as a young man moved to the Manchester area. After serving his apprenticeship he became a handloom weaver in the village of Saddleworth. Knight developed a successful business but felt angry about his lack of political rights. Strongly influenced by the ideas of Tom Paine, John Knight's views on parliamentary reform brought him to the attention of the local magistrates and in 1794 he was arrested and sent to prison for two years for making a seditious speech at Royton.
John Knight, like most handloom weavers, found it difficult to compete with the new textile factories. In June 1812 John Knight organised a meeting for weavers at a public house in Manchester. As the meeting was coming to an end Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, arrived and arrested Knight and thirty-seven other weavers. Knight was charged with "administering oaths to weavers pledging them to destroy steam looms" and they were accused of attending a seditious meeting. At their subsequent trial all thirty-eight were acquitted.
Later that year Knight had to accept defeat and ceased work as a handloom weaver. Knight now became a schoolmaster in Oldham. He also became involved in journalism and in 1816 began editing the Manchester Political Register and secretary of the Manchester Constitutional Society.
In 1812 Major John Cartwright founded Britain's first Hampden Club in London. Four years later, John Knight founded the first Hampden Club in Lancashire. In 1818 John Knight became co-ordinator of Lancashire's Hampden Clubs and was now known as the 'Cartwright of the North'. It was Knight's idea to ask Major John Cartwright to speak at the St. Peter's Field meeting on 16th August, 1819. Cartwright, who was seventy-nine at the time, was unable to attend, and Henry Orator Hunt, became the main speaker instead.
At the meeting at St. Peter's Field on 16th August, John Knight led the Oldham contingent. It included two hundred women dressed in white and according to John Tyas, the Oldham banner's were "by far the most elegant displayed during the day. They were inscribed 'Major Cartwright's Bill, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot'. Knight was on the platform during the meeting and was named by William Hulton as one of the four men to be arrested.
Knight and the other men were charged with "assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of inciting discontent". Henry Orator Hunt was found guilty and received two years and six months, whereas Samuel Bamford, Joseph Johnson and Joseph Healey were each sentenced to one year in Lincoln Prison. John Knight was acquitted of the Peterloo charge but found guilty and received two years imprisonment for his attendance at a meeting in Burnley on November 15th 1819.
After his release from prison John Knight concentrated on trade union activities. In 1830 he became an organiser for the National Spinners Union and three years later for the Ten Hour Association. Just before his death in 1838, John Knight was appointed to the salaried position as treasurer of the Oldham Poor Relief Fund.