Custom survived: The Knillian Ceremony, St Ives, Cornwall

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The John Knill Ceremony often called the Knillian is perhaps because of the combination of its bizarre stipulations, quincentarian nature and picturesque nature of the custom and its associated seaside town, is the archetypical calendar custom.

Basically a glorified dole with specific conditions. Of course being every five years means that all eyes are focused on the town on the Feast of James, that is 25th July. Being so rarely done it is a time that anyone and everyone interested in customs or indeed connected to the custom will try to make.

In many ways, John Knill, the founder, both customs collector (exercise and customs that is) and Mayor of St. Ives in 1767, is a personal role model, a man determined to establish the most bizarre custom so that he could long be remembered. This campaign to be remembered begun in 1782 when he instructed the building of a fifty foot triangular pyramidical folly – subsequently called Knill’s steeple – as jointly a sea mark for shipping, his mausoleum and subsequently the foci of the custom. Ironically due to reasons over consecration he was not interred there but at St. Andrew’s Holborn some 281 miles – a bit too far for a procession and not as picturesque for a custom! So the mausoleum became a real folly!

His Will stipulated that the custom should involve 15 minute dancing by ten young girls, each under the age of ten, traditionally daughters of either fishermen, tinners or seamen, two widows, the Mayor, the Customs Officer and a Master of Ceremonies. Originally it appears that the tune was the Old Hundred, but now is the very jolly perennial Cornish favourite the ‘floral or furry dance’ tune is played. John left money for the upkeep of his monument and also £25 for celebrations to take place.  An account of the 1886 Knill ceremony neatly sums it up:

“The widows were Elizabeth Trevorrow, seventy-six, and Nancy Stoneman, seventy-four. These ancient crones, with their very much younger sisters, managed, at the end of their shambling, to quaver out the  ‘Old Hundredth,’ and a ‘ fine old tune ‘ they made of it. During the afternoon the money was paid to the recipients at the office of Mr. Hicks; and the sum of £5, for the man who had brought up the largest family of children up to ten years of age, was awarded to Andrew Noall, seventy-one, who had had sixteen children, nine of them being under the specified age. The fiddler received £1”

Over time it appears that the custom grew as illustrated by an account by Sabine Baring-Gould states in his Cornish Characters and curious events and first seemed a veritable party:

“Early in the morning the roads from Helston, Truro, and Penzance, were lined with horses and vehicles of every description. These were seen midst clouds of dust pouring down the sides of the mountains, while thousands of travellers on foot chose the more pleasant route through the winding passages of the valleys. At noon the assembly was formed. The wrestlers entered the ring; the troop of virgins, dressed all in white, advanced with solemn step, which was regulated by the notes of harmony. The spectators ranged themselves along the hills which enclose the extensive Bay, while the pyramid on the summit seemed pointing to the sun, who appeared in all the majesty of light, rejoicing at the scene. At length the Mayor of St. Ives appeared in his robes of state. The signal was given. The flags were displayed in waving splendour from the towers of the Castle.

Here the wrestlers exerted their sinewy strength; there the rowers, in their various dresses of blue, white, and red, urged the gilded prows of their boats through the sparkling waves of the ocean; while the hills echoed to the mingled shouts of the victors, the dashing of the oars, the songs of the virgins, and the repeated plaudits of the admiring crowd, who stood so thick upon the crescent which is formed by the surrounding mountains as to appear one living amphitheatre.”

Knill points

Knill was very particular in his Will and stipulated the following stipulated points in the use of the £25 pounds he invested. Firstly:

“£10 for a dinner for the Trustees who are the mayor, Vicar and Customs Officer plus two guests each. This dinner was to take place at the George and Dragon Inn, Market Place.

£5 to ten young girls who have to be the daughters of either fishermen, tinners or seamen.

£1 to the fiddler.

£2 to two widows.”

Such a feast does go on, privately, but I doubt that the original £25 covers it – not even fish and chips. It is probably nowhere as grandiose as that described by Baring Gould in his Cornish characters and strange events:

“The ladies and gentlemen of Penzance returned to an elegant dinner, which they had ordered to be prepared at the Union Hotel, and a splendid ball concluded the entertainment of the evening.”

Some stipulations and doles have subsequently died out as times has changed:

“£5 to the man and wife, widower or widow, who shall raise the greatest family of legitimate children who have reached the age

of ten years (without parochial assistance).

£1 for white ribbon for breast knots.”

I doubt these are still given out…so too the money for the best followers after the fishing boats…they themselves gone!

As for the other stipulations these are still done and the monies are handed out in silk purses from his ancient chest on the steps of the town’s Guildhall but now the Fiddler gets £25 – well he does do a fair bit of work and in 2016 he came from Padstow!

Interestingly there was some controversy regarding the children chosen..some of which were apparently not descended from these processions and too young, when older ones could have attended!! I like a bit of local intrigue!

Knill and void

Sadly some of the aspects described in these first Knillians have gone. The wrestlers have gone for example.  So too had gone the song sung by the minstrel adorned in ribbons for the virgins to dance to…as indeed the use of the word virgin…. The song sung is recorded as follows:

“Shun the bustle of the bay,

Hasten, virgins, come away;

Hasten to the mountain’s brow,

Leave, O leave, S. Ives below.

Haste to breathe a purer air,

Virgins fair, and pure as fair;

Fly S. Ives and all her treasures,

Fly her soft voluptuous pleasures;

Fly her sons and all their wiles,

Lushing in their wanton smiles;

Fly the splendid midnight halls;

Fly the revels of her balls;

Fly, O fly the chosen seat,

Where vanity and fashion meet.

Hither hasten from the ring,

Round the tomb in chorus sing,

And on the lofty mountain’s brow, aptly dight,

Just as we should be, all in white,

Leave all our troubles and our cares below.”

Knill down

Around 10 a large crowd had begun to assemble outside the Guidhall, where the stipulations of his Will and the story of the custom was related. The large metal chest inscribed with “Knill’s Chest 1797” was temporarily removed from the museum and put on the table at the foot of the steps. With some humming and ahhing, the table was removed for a better one, more befitting and the chest placed upon this – nobody noticed! Remember they have had five years to organise this! Soon the Mayor, Vicar and Custom officer appeared. These are pivotal characters for each hold a key to the chest and as such all three keys need to be used to open it. Although to save embarrassment it appeared someone had already opened it and discretely propped it open with a piece of old wood. The Master of Ceremonies welcomed everybody, or rather those at the front as the mic did not work – remember five years planning! The Mayor introduced the custom and soon all three keys were in the lock and the chest was ceremonially open to cheers. Then all three hands went to distribute in white purses the monies owed as stipulated.

Just as the ceremony was about to proceed to the dancing a furious squall arrived drenching everyone ‘shall we hold off?’ I heard cry ‘no it’ll pass over’…and with such faith in the transient British weather they were off.

The children then proceed to dance around the town, weaving through the back streets to an awaiting transport – a minibus. Apparently, this was established early on as it is reported that:

“In former years the custom had been for the dancers to walk in procession from the town to the mausoleum. But in 1881 the weather was so unfavourable that the old practice was departed from, and the actors were driven up in a waggonette.”

Indeed the walk to the monument is quite a long one and all along it were people making this five yearly pilgrimage – I jumped into a taxi! By the time I reached the top there was already a throng of people being entertained by a Cornish music and dancing group.

Not late for his funeral!

Interestingly, unlike many benefactors of curious dole customs John Knill was able to witness the first of his established custom in 1801. It is not recorded whether he attended the 1806 event but he was barred from attending the 1811 event as he died on 29th March 1811!

Knilly there!

Soon the fiddler could be heard and the party flowed through the crowd and made their way into the mausoleum’s enclosure. The girls assembled along the long wall around the Steeple and the others in the party beneath as the Master of Ceremonies once again explained the story and everyone readied themselves as the Fiddler led the girls, widows, Mayor, Vicar and Custom master around the monument. The girls were understandably more enthusiastic in their dancing around, spinning and skipping, the widows a little less, but the glint in their eyes suggested they dearly wanted to and giggled at the oddness of it.

Then the Master of Ceremonies called all those assembled to sing the Old Hundreth – the words helpfully in the commemorative booklet. The sounds of the crowds singing could no doubt be heard for miles around. Then another dance was called for around the monument and after a few thank yous, the Vicar was called to give his blessing to the crowd..at this moment a heavy storm appeared again and fitting the wind and rain and ‘making it as brief as possible’ he blessed us on our onward journey and it was over for another five years!

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2 responses »

  1. Sadly, John Knill died in London and was buried there! His grave in St Andrews Church, Holborn Circus, was probably lost in the Blitz.

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