St Ives

The Knill Ceremony is one of Cornwall’s strangest customs. It celebrates John Knill: a tax collector and famously eccentric Mayor of St Ives.

Knill Ceremony in St Ives in 1986
The Mayor, officers, violin player and dancers (1986) involved in the Knill Ceremony, held every five years in St Ives Reproduced courtesy of Andrew Besley as featured on cornishmemory.com
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Before his death, he commissioned his own memorial: an obelisk on the nearby Worvas Hill. The monument is around 15 metres tall and is sometimes known as “Knill's Steeple”. The obelisk has several inscriptions on its side, including “Nil Desperandum”, which in Latin means “never despair”, and “Johannes Knill 1782, Resurgam”; in English, “John Knill shall arise”. There is also the English inscription “I know that my redeemer liveth”, which is a quote from the biblical Book of Job. 

Knills Steeple in St Ives
Knills Steeple in St Ives, 1900s
Reproduced courtesy of Mac Waters as featured on cornishmemory.com

The Knill Ceremony is held every five years and follows the requests John Knill made before he died. Ten young girls dressed in white process from the Market House to the steeple, accompanied by musicians and others from the town. When they arrive, the young girls dance while Psalm 100 is sung. John Knill’s will contains specific instructions about this ceremony, including giving money to pay for the upkeep of the monument, a celebration dinner after the event and a violinist. Most strangely, he also left money for the St Ives family that had the greatest number of children born in marriage. The £25 that John Knill provided for the celebration would actually be worth thousands of pounds in today’s money. The first Knill Ceremony occurred in 1801; bizarrely, John Knill was still alive and attended it himself.



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