John Knill remembered

Many Cornish worthies are remembered principally for their contribution to the well being of our Cornwall. Opie as the artist, Trevithick for steam power, Boscawen the Admiral and Davy for the safety lamp, to name but a few. However, these men are remembered by their talents with which they were endowed, and are therefore remembered thus. The man, who is our subject, designed himself not to be forgotten, and so we will endeavour to portray, in a somewhat brief sketch of his life, how such should come about. John Knill was born at Callington, on the 1st of January, 1733. Little is known of his early years, but what schooling he had, held him in credit for the rest of his life. Having been born into a fairly well to do family, he was trained for the law. This apparently was pursued at Penzance, where he served his “clerkship” as an attorney; upon completing, he moved to London. Here he excelled in his intelligence, which brought him to be recommended to the Earl of Buckinghamshire, who at that time had strong political interest at St. Ives. So Knill became his local agent there. At the age of 29, in 1762, he was appointed the office of Collector of Customs at St. Ives. Performing the duties of this important office with great zeal and thoroughness, it enabled him to be recognised in 1773, for a special duty of inspecting all the ports around the island of Jamaica. From his journal we learn: Left the Downs in H.M.S. Portland on the 15th March 1773, reaching Jamaica on the 5th of May, and after spending more than twelve months on this tour of inspection, we reached England again on the 25th of May, 1774, in the mail packet Thynne, landing at Helford because the ship was unable to beat into Falmouth that day. The remuneration from this tour of inspection. enabled him to pay into the bank the sum of 1.500. time indeed, well spent. Upon returning to St. Ives. he continued as Collector of Customs, from the Custom House situated at the foot of Skidden Hill. This was but a few minutes walk from his residence which today is still affectionately known as Knill House, situated towards the far end of Fore Street. Prior to his departing for Jamaica, he had had the honour of being elected mayor of St. Ives on the 1st of November, 1767. During his year of office he exercised strictly the laws of those days, but also showed compassion. From the old corporation records the following entry gives witness to both, “Paid for a cart for whipping Lanyon, an imposter ls.” “Paid 3s. for lodging John White, a poor boy of St. Just, who was taken ill on the road.” 1767 was the year that the new pier, designed by Mr. John Smeaton, was completed. Still called Smeaton’s Pier, it must be here recalled that it was through the efforts of Mr. Knill, that this harbour improvement came about. The =nu – e near full length of Porthmeor Beach,  was also part of Smeaton’s plan to stabilise the wind born sand, from choking the new enlarged harbour, which the pier of his name so brought about. Much could be said about Mr. Knill’s life, journeys and other pursuits, but for now we will concentrate on his St. Ives connection, and how he still continues to be so affectionately remembered. Such was his love of this town, for which he had done so much, that he wished to be buried there. To be entombed in the parish church itself, he in fact stated. that it was an idea that he abhorred. To be interred outside in the church yard did not appeal to him either, as that was already very “overcrowded” to say the least. It was in 1782. the N ear that he ceased to be Collector of Customs in St. Ives. that he had a mausoleum erected on a neighbouring hill called Worvas. BeinL, in the swim, so to speak. with the local gentry through his position as Customs Collector. he knew who to ask. He succeeded in perpetuating from this a custom which he himself participated in the first ceremony. The mausoleum was designed by John Wood architect of Batheaton and can be described thus: In figure it is a triangular pyramid of granite, 50 feet high, containing within its base a cavity sufficient for a single interment, and rising in courses of hewn stone, diminishing to a point, which is capped with metal and provided with a lightning conductor. An arch constructed in the base gave admission to the cavity, but has always been, from its erection, walled up. A low guard wall of granite was added in 1829, to prevent injury to the foundations by removal of the surrounding stones. Worvas Hill, on which it stands, is some hundreds of feet above the sea, and this makes the pyramid a prominent object to vessels off the coast, which use it as a landmark. On one face of the pyramid the word “Resurgam” is carved high up, in bold relief upon the granite blocks of which it is built with the arms and the motto of the Knill family, viz: gales a lion rampant, surrounded by eleven crossed crosslets fitchy, or: motto, “Nil desperandum,” meaning “never despair,”; on the second face, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”; and on the third face, “Johannes Knill 1782” John Dennis, described as a joiner of Penzance was entrusted with the construction work, which amounted to £220 16s 6d. Purchase of the land from Henry, Lord Arundell amounted to five guineas, with the sum of sixpence to be paid annually to the freeholders of the Tregenna Estate (at the time belonging to Mr Davies Gilbert) for a right of way to the mausoleum. So this was built and left to mark the summit of a hill that can be detected so much the better for its supposedly intended resting place of the originator, John Knill. However things do not always work out the way one plans, and subsequently upon Knill’s death, in 1811, he was interred at St. Andrew’s, Holborn, London. Perhaps this was always really in his mind, to be buried there. It has been said, and one must add, it is still thought, that Mr. Knill led a somewhat double life. Strict law abiding customs collector on the one hand, but was he in league with smugglers and freebooters on the other hand? This too is not a subject that we will pursue further here, but concentrate on the subsequent usage that the mausoleum would have. The design of Mr Knill’s remembrance came about as his “will” of 1809 reveals, beginning by referring to the motive of vanity, which he thinks mankind would probably charge against him, for building a “mausoleum,” and then proceeds: During a residence of upwards of 20 years at St Ives, where I was Collector of the Customs, and served all offices within the borough, from Constable to Mayor it was my unremitting endeavour to render all possible service to the town in general, and to every individual inhabitant, and I was so fortunate as to succeed in almost every endeavour I used for fortunate as to succeed in almost every endeavour I used for that propose, particularly in respect to the building of their wall and pier and in some other beneficial undertakings: and it was Illy wish to have further served the place by effecting other public works, which will, I dare say, in time be carried into execution. It is natural to love those whom you have had opportunities of serving, and I confess I have a real affection for St Ives and its inhabitants. in whose memory I have an ardent desire to continue a little longer than the usual time those do of whom there is no ostensible memorial. To that end my vanity prompted returns of a ceremony which will be found in a deed bearing the date 29th May 1797, which hath been duly enroled in His Majesty’s High Court of Chancery, and now remains in a strong oaken box, placed in the Custom House at St Ives, and an attested copy of which deed I shall leave for my executors hereinafter named. From this Trust Deed of 1797 we gather the procedure to be: 1st – That at the end of every five years on the feast day of St James the Apostle, £25 shall be expended as follows, viz: £10 in a dinner for the Mayor Collector of Customs, and Lecturer (as the officiating minister was then called) of St Ives, and two friends to be invited by each of them, to dine at some tavern in the Borough. £5 yearly for repairs if needed, the other £5 to accumulate and to be used as follows, at the end of every five years viz.: £5 equally amongst ten maidens, natives of the Borough, and daughters of seamen, fishermen or tinners, each not exceeding ten years of age, who shall, between ten and twelve o’clock in the forenoon of that day, dance for a quarter of an hour at least on the ground adjoining the mausoleum: and after the dance sing the 100th Psalm of the old version to “the fine old tune” to which the same was sung in St Ives Church. £1 to a fiddler who shall play to the maidens. £2 to two widows, 64 years old or upwards, who shall accompany the dancing and singing of the maidens and certify to the Trustees that the ceremonies have been duly performed. £1 for white ribbons for the maidens and widows, and a cockade for the fiddler to be worn on that day and on the Sunday following. £1 for an account book, and for keeping the accounts. £5 to a man and wife, widower or widow, 60 years of age or upwards, the man being an inhabitant of St. Ives, who shall have bred to the age of ten or upwards the greatest number of legitimate children, without parochial assistance. 2nd – When a certain sum of money shall have accumulated in the chest beyond the above-named payments, it is directed that £50 shall be distributed in addition to the £25, in the following manner: – £10 to be given as a marriage portion to the woman between 26 and 36 years old, being a native of St Ives, who shall have been married to a seaman, fisherman, tinner or labourer residing in the Borough, between the 31st of December previously, and the day following the said feast, that shall appear to the Trustees to be most worthy, regard being had to her duty and kindness to her parents, or to her friends who shall have brought her up. £5 to the woman who shall be the best knitter of the fishing nets. £5 to the woman deemed to be the best curer and packer of pilchards for exportation. IS to the two followers – boys judged to have best conducted themselves of all the followers – boys in the preceding fishing season. The balance to be divided among all the Friendly Societies in the Borough, or if there be no such Society then among ten poor persons, 64 years of age or upwards, who have never received parochial relief This year of 1996, will be the fortieth occasion that the quaint ceremony will once again take place on Worvas Hill. Although social security payments today have made a number of the bequests obsolete, and that fishing from our port has much diminished, as indeed have mariners and miners, a sufficient number of Mr. Knill’s wishes will be enacted. All who attend, on the 25th of July, can most certainly relive a part of the history of St Ives, by Remembering Mr. John Knill yet again. His Memory Lives On

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