25 July: The Knill Ceremony at St Ives

As I was going to St Ives

I met a man with seven wives

Each wife had seven sacks

Each sack had seven cats

Each cat had seven kits

Kits, cats, sacks, wives

How many were going to St Ives?

Traditional English Nursery Rhyme

Observant visitors to St Ives will soon spot a conspicuous fifty-foot granite obelisk on the summit of Worvas Hill behind the town. Those prepared to make the stiffish climb to the top will see that it is a memorial to one John Knill (1733-1811) a former Mayor of St Ives. Knill built the steeple to be his mausoleum but failing to have the ground properly consecrated, he gave his body to be dissected instead, and what remains of him is actually buried in London.

As well are erecting the steeple in his lifetime, Knill used his meticulous lawyer’s training to establish a charity to benefit St Ives and to ensure his life was remembered. He dictated that once every five years, a portion of his gift should be distributed between the Mayor of St Ives for a dinner for himself and Knill’s trustees, ten maidens – the daughters of seamen, fishermen or tinners, two widows of the same, the family with the largest number of legitimate children under the age of ten and one musician. These people were then required to proceed to the memorial and perform a ceremony of remembrance.

The money ran out long ago but the ceremony is still performed every five years. The chosen persons and the civic dignitaries process to the memorial following the fiddler who leads them playing the tune of the Furry Dance. Once there the children dance, hymns are sung and Knill is remembered as he intended. So in the interests of blog authenticity I'll be up there today!

John Knill was an extraordinary character. He was obviously a man of considerable ability. A lawyer and a Customs Official, he was a patron of the arts, a collector, a treasure hunter and a dabbler in politics and he was responsible for the building of Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives harbour. Knill was chosen by the British government to travel to Jamaica where he devised a plan to prevent the smuggling of coffee. The planters of the island treated him with such lavish hospitality he was able to bank £1500 on his return from the island and there was speculation at the time as to the source of his wealth. The erection of the steeple too caused raised eyebrows, was Knill putting up such a prominent day-marker to help the smugglers who he was ostensibly trying to catch? Who knows?

Anyway Knill’s plan to arm small private vessels to catch smugglers seems to have backfired rather and led to tales of wrongful imprisonment and gross mistreatment. Knill then spent two years of his life obsessively searching for Captain Amery’s treasure. Amery was a notorious smuggler and pirate who reputedly stashed his loot in a cave on the Lizard peninsula. The search was only called off when it transpired that the Captain had died poverty stricken in Barnstable, something that presumably wouldn’t have happened if he had been able to access his own private hole in the cliff somewhere. Knill went off to end his days in ‘Lunnon’ although he did return to the town for his own memorial service in 1801.

The people of St Ives are referred to locally as ‘St Ives Hakes’ and hake with onions is a very traditional Cornish treat when this delicious fish is available.

Paper ‘pasties’ with hake and onions.

For four.

4 hake steaks

3 white onions

100ml cider, white wine or fish stock.

100g butter chopped into four slices

Cornish Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Baking parchment

Oven 200c

A small handful of chopped herbs, I used tarragon but fennel, dill or just parsley would be just as good.

Finely slice the onions and sauté gently in three quarters of the butter until a light gold colour, add the cider and simmer until almost all of the liquid is evaporated.

Set aside. Prepare your paper cases by cutting four heart shapes out of baking parchment – as big as you can make them given the width of the parchment. . Divide the onion mixture into four and place on one side of each piece of parchment. Top with the fish and the herbs and season. Now fold over the parchment, match up the edges and start to fold and crimp the edge just as if you were making a Cornish pasty. Make sure the parcels are tightly sealed and put onto a baking tray. Melt the rest of the butter and brush the paper cases.

Lay your parcels on a baking tray and bake for 7-8 minutes in a hot oven. The paper should brown nicely. Take each parcel to the table on its own plate so that your diners get the benefit of the lovely smells as they open their paper ‘pasties’. Serve with new potatoes and a green vegetable.

The more traditional way to cook hake in Cornwall is to substitute milk for the wine and serve with mashed potatoes - but that's a bit invalidish for me.

The brute weight

Of the living sea wrought us, yet the boat sleeked lean

Into it, upheld by the whole sea-brunt heaved,

And hung on the swivelling tops. The tiller raised

The siding tide to wrench us and took a good

Ready hand to hold it. Yet we made a seaway

And minded all the gear was fast, and took

Our spell at steering. And we went keeled over

The streaming sea.

From 'The Nightfishing' by W.S. Graham (1918-1986)


Eggs on the Roof said...

What a great story - I love St Ives, but had no idea about this aspect of its history. Great picture too...

Grazing Kate said...

Any excuse for a Furry Dance, these Cornish! P.S Barnstaple?

Karen S Booth said...

A WONDERFUL blog covering subjects close to my heart ~ feasts and festivals!