Most of us have to wait until after we die before somebody builds us a monument – and even then, who knows, they may not get around to it. The solution, of course, is to build your own. The pharaohs of Ancient Egypt knew that and so did the slightly eccentric John Knill, who lived between 1733 and 1811. I am indebted to Angela Humby for bringing this oddball to my attention. This is what she has to say about the excellent John Knill:
“For those who delight (as I do) in reading and learning about what the English like to called “eccentrics”, the 18th century is a goldmine of such people. England has always (proudly I feel!) abounded in eccentrics.
One such delightful character was John Knill born in 1733 at Collington in east Cornwall. A portrait of him by Opie painted in 1779 shows a pleasant looking gentleman in a plain suit of blue, with frilled shirt and ruffles. Beneath this “ordinary” gentleman’s attire however resided a less than ordinary man, with a desire to be remembered long after his lifetime.
On a hill near St.Ives in Cornwall stands a granite obelisk, which vessels use as a landmark whilst off the coast. It was Knill who erected this 50 foot obelisk which has a mausoleum below it, in 1782. During this year he had ceased to act as a Collector of Customs in St Ives. Why did he build it? His will of 1809 tells us exactly why:
“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 major, 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 to succeed in almost every endeavour I used for that purpose, particularly in respect to the building of their wall or pier, and in some other beneficial undertakings; and it was my wish to have further served the place by effecting other public works, which I propose, and 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 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 me to erect a mausoleum, and to institute certain periodical returns of a ceremony which will be found in a deed bearing the date 29th May, 1797”.
Knill hated the idea of a church burial. However, he had to give up the idea of being laid to rest in his preferred place of his mausoleum (now called Knill’s Monument)) due to “difficulties which stood in the way of consecration” of it. Instead he was buried at St Andrew’s, Holborn when he died at his Chambers at Gray’s Inn Square London in 1811 where his work and official appointments had taken him.
This is not the end of the story though and its continuation could involve you gentle reader if you so wish! Knill left monies for the maintenance of his mausoleum – and specific amounts for other purposes including a ceremony:
£25 to be used as follows – at the end of every 5 years :
£10 for a dinner for the trustees (the mayor, the vicar and the customs officer) and six guests, this to take place at the George and Dragon Inn, Market Place, St Ives,
£5 equally amongst 10 maidens, of ten years old at most, children of seamen, fishermen, or tinners, who dance once round the mausoleum,
£1 for the fiddler,
£2 to two widows chosen from the same classes as the children, to accompany them;
£1 for white ribbons for breast knots;
£1 for clerk, and a new account book when needed;
the remaining £5 to the married parents, of the like classes, who have brought up the largest family to the age of ten, without aid from the poor rate or from property”.
The very first ceremony was on the 25th July 1801 and was attended by John Knill himself. It included amongst other jollities, two of the trustees (the vicar and the mayor waltzing around the upper step of the monument hand-in-hand with the ten young girls!) The next ceremony is just a year away on the 25th July 2021! So if the current situation with Covid-19 allows and you want to join the link and ceremony from John Knill to yourself, it may be a good idea to reserve your hotel room or holiday cottage in the St Ives, Cornwall area shortly! Reports from previous recent ceremonies say that it was still held in exactly the way Knill intended.”
Thanks Angela! I think I will try and dig up some more Georgian eccentrics for future blogs – goodness knows there were plenty of them. But it may only be the perspective of time which gives them eccentricity. Angela reminds me of the very apposite quote by John Stuart Mill, born just five years before Knill died:
“The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time”
How true of our own era…
Post script: I see that there is a short film on YouTube made at the time of the memorial festivities held in 2011, made by Tony Mason. Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUFk1Yto5E4