The man behind the steeple and its unique ceremony
The most noticeable feature when approaching the Nature Reserve from any direction is the 50 foot high granite pyramid which crowns the summit of Cock hill.
Knill’s Steeple, as the monument is known locally, was intended to be a mausoleum for customs officer and one-time St Ives Mayor, John (Johannes) Knill who lived from 1733 to 1811 and it is around this structure that a unique ceremony takes place every 5 years.
Born in Callington, John Knill came to work for a firm of solicitors in Penzance and then became the Collector of Customs in St Ives in 1762. He held this position for 20 years and grew to love the town, becoming Mayor in 1767 aged 34. John Knill bought Worvas Hill, which the Nature Reserve now occupies, in 1782 and paid £226 to have his mausoleum built on the summit. It bears inscriptions on each of its three sides: on one is ‘Resurgam’, with the Coat of Arms and motto ‘Nil Desperandum’; ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ on another and ‘Johannes Knill 1782’ on the remaining side.
He drew up instructions to carry out a ceremony around his final resting place, although the quinquennial event does in fact take place around an empty mausoleum as the sarcophagus housed within does not contain the body of the customs officer. John Knill’s wishes were that every 5 years on the Feast of St James the Apostle, July 25th, 10 girls aged under 10, the daughters of St Ives tinners, fishermen and seamen, should dance around the monument dressed in white, along with two widows of the aforementioned tradesmen. Also in attendance should be the town mayor, vicar, customs officer and a fiddler.
With the demise of tin mining and fishing the qualifying credentials of the girls have been stretched in recent years and the finances left by John Knill no longer cover the ceremony, so certain more obscure aspects of his bequest have been dropped. The customs officer now comes across from Penzance as there is no longer one at St Ives.
But despite changing times and necessary amendments to the proceedings, every 5 years since July 25th 1801 (at which John Knill was present) his wishes have been carried out and hundreds of people swarm around the monument to witness, usually in perfect weather, this ceremony unique to St Ives which ends with the singing of the 100th Psalm ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell’.
What became of John Knill? Highly regarded by the legal profession he became a member of Gray’s Inn in 1782, whereupon he left St Ives for London. He was called to the Bar in 1787 and died at Gray’s Inn in 1811 aged 78. He was buried at Holborn.
For more information on John Knill visit St Ives Museum, Wheal Dream, St Ives which has a section dedicated to him.
Source: John Knill Celebration Souvenir Programme published by St Ives Printing & Publishing Co.
Portrait of John Knill courtesy of St Ives Museum
Photos of ceremony: Tobi Carver