Quinquennial Knill Dance,, CornwallThe life of John Knill was one lived to the full, with many achievements in public office and the amassing it seems of quite a fortune in the process. But Knill, who lived from 1733 to 1811, would not be recalled even by historians were it not for the provisions he made to ensure his memory would live on in the town he loved.
Knill was of humble origin, but was of obvious intelligence and drive. Starting his career as an articled clerk to a solicitor he became a magistrate, was called to the Bar, served for 20 years as Customs Collector for St Ives , and even became mayor of that town at the tender age of 34. As a Customs Inspector he worked in London and even the West Indies (rumoured to have been where he made his money).
St Ives was dear to Knill's heart, and he wished to remain a part of the place even after his death. He hit upon two linked schemes to guarantee this. Firstly, build a monument there named for him; secondly, fund a ceremony at that monument that would be a social event for the town, and thus keep his name alive. HIs ideas have both worked brilliantly.
The monument is a 50 feet high granite pyramid; steep sided to the extent that locals refer to it as 'the Steeple', designed by architect John Wood. This stands on Worvas Hill above the town, visible for miles out to sea (giving rise to the belief that it was intended to help his personal smuggling operations, though nothing substantiates that slur). The three sides bear his motto 'Nil desperandum'; his (latinised) name 'Johannes Knill' and the date 1782, and the other the pious words 'I know that my redeemer liveth'.
The pyramid was intended as his mausoleum, but he died at Greys Inn in London and was buried in Holborn .
The ceremony keeping his memory fresh is held every five years, the period between the events a clever way of making them special. There are several elements to the day, and it is perhaps this variety that has kept the thing going, in spite of the £25 provided from his legacy being of far less value in relative terms than it was 200 years ago and more. When the bequest was made one element was £10 to pay for a dinner at the George and Dragon on the Market Place for the Mayor, Vicar, and Customs Officer, ex-officio trustees of the Knill legacy, plus two guests each. When the first event took place, in 1801 £10 would have done them very well, but today perhaps less so.
The day begins at 10.30 on July 25, St James's Day, with three trustees, each with a key for one of the three locks, opening a chest at the Town Hall. A procession of civic dignitaries and certain beneficiaries of the bequest then proceeds to the monument. Two widows, dressed suitably in old-fashioned black widows' weeds (earning £1 each), a fiddler playing traditional Cornish tunes including the Furry Dance (another £1), 10 (or more usually 11) girls of no more than 10 years of age (sharing £5 between them), all join the proceedings. Eleven girls are chosen to ensure 10 are present if one falls ill, but there is great cachet locally in being one of the dancers, so normally all 11 make it.
At the monument at noon the girls, all in white and wearing the white ribbons also funded by the legacy, join hands and dance round the monument to tunes played by the fiddler, who also plays rather more solemnly the Hundredth Psalm when a quarter of an hour of dancing has been completed.
One final element of the legacy equally hit by inflation is the provision of £5 to the St Ives couple who have reared the most legitimate children alive beyond the age of 10.
The next Knill ceremony is due in 2011, and should draw the same large crowds, and if things follow the usual pattern, Knills from far and wide, including some American guests.
More British Folk Customs?