John Knill loved St Ives. And more than 2oo years after his death St Ives is still remembering him.
This rather eccentric philanthropist (sometimes smuggler) wanted to provide for the people he had grown so fond of. And to also guarantee that his name would be remembered for all time in the town that he made his home. So he devised a ceremony to do just that.
Every 5 years on St James’ Day, the 25th July, the locals and hangers-on like myself, march up to the 15m high pyramid he built on Worvas hill above St Ives.
There is music, dancing and singing. And at the end of it all the Master of Ceremonies asks the 3 trustees if they believe that all has been done as John Knill requested. If they all agree then the crowd disperses. Job done for another few years! I have never attended the ceremony before as it is only held every 5 years. This is the first year that I have been able to (or indeed remembered) to go. But I have to say I am really happy that I did. It may not be as famous as the Padstow Obby Oss or as colourful as Helston Flora Day but I loved it.
It all starts in the town centre outside the Guildhall. Here the trustees – the vicar, customs officer and mayor- put their 3 keys into the locks on the chest that Knill gave the town. They then hand out the money that he provided in perpetuity for the day.
Remaining faithful to Knill’s specific instructions they choose 10 girls under the age of ten. They must all be the daughters of seamen, tinners or miners. And two elderly widows who must be the widows of seamen, tinners or miners. Finally there must be a fiddler to accompany the dancing. Then they, along with the trustees and other notables, all proceed up hill to the Knill Steeple (these days by bus!).
The Steeple was built by Knill in 1782 and was intended to be his final resting place. Sadly he died in London in 1811 so his wishes in that regard were not fulfilled. His mausoleum is however a land mark for miles around. It can also be seen far out to sea leading to tenuous rumours that he built it as a marker for his pirate friends.
Born in Callington in 1733 Knill was an important and respected man in St Ives. He was the Collector of Taxes, the Customs Officer and the mayor. But it must be said that there are hints that the small fleet of privateers vessels that he formed to combat smuggling was, in fact, a front to cover up a rather lucrative trade in contraband goods. No wonder the town loved him!
The first ceremony at the Steeple took place in 1801 with John Knill present to supervise that all was done as he envisioned. It has continued in the same way ever since.
The huge granite pyramid has Knill’s coat of arms on one side and his motto, ‘Resurgam’, on the other. The motto translates to ‘I shall rise again’ and in a way John Knill does. He comes alive in our lives and in our minds every 5 years. Or indeed every time we visit his monument and breath in the beautiful views.