By: Chloe Chard
Margaret Knox was a writer who lived in diverse parts of the world and threw herself into both research and local life. Her versatility and intellectual curiosity are evident from her writings, which range from Voyage of Faith: The Story of the Catholic Church in Fiji: The First Century (Archdiocese of Suva, 1997) to an account of the cheese known as 'Suffolk Bang or Thump' - 'said to be "so hard that pigs would grunt at it, and dogs bark at it and none dare bite it"' (Suffolk Cheese; Beccles Museum Books, 2002). Fittingly, Margaret was generally known as Rillus - the name of an exotic seashell.
Rillus was born Margaret Barbara Allen on 23 January 1925, in the village of Southrepps in north-east Norfolk. Her father, a postmaster, came from farming stock. She excelled in English and natural sciences at school, and became friendly with the artists Claughton Pellew and Ketchie Tennant, who lived nearby. Margaret was the first young woman in Norfolk to win county and state scholarships to university, but had to defer these to take up war work in Cambridge, at the University's pest control laboratories; she lodged in the cultivated household of the publisher Frank Kendon and his wife, Celia. In 1946 she finally went to Leeds University to read English. It was about this time that she converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, probably as a result of her interest in the French philosopher Jacques Maritain.
Sadly, a complicated romance drove Rillus to abandon her studies. She found work back in Norfolk as a cub reporter for the Eastern Daily Press, and, on an assignment for the paper, met Andrew Knox, who came from an old Irish Catholic family. (He was distantly related to Mgr Ronald Knox.) They married in 1951. A son, Andrew Dominic, was born in 1952 and a daughter, Christina, a year later.
In 1957, Andrew got a job in Zaria in Northern Nigeria, setting up the University of Ahmadu Bello; Rillus and the children joined him in 1958. Four more children were born, the twins, Julian and Timothy, in 1958, who died in infancy, Angela in 1961, and, during a two-year secondment to Tanzania, Timothy in 1962. Rillus set up the first primary school in Zaria, open to locals and expatriates alike. During the Civil War, both she and her husband worked bravely to rescue people of the minority Igbo tribe; Andrew's role was recognised by an OBE.
In 1967, the family moved to Suva, Fiji, where Andrew had been appointed Bursar of the newly established University of the South Pacific. Rillus was employed by the Fiji Board of Education, and wrote the first English-language textbooks aimed at an island audience; Fiji the Land and the People (1970), and Pacific Island Neighbours (1971) - still widely used throughout the South Pacific - as well as The Green Book for Fiji (World Wildlife Fund, 1978). She taught at two teacher training colleges, and her work enabled her to travel widely and intrepidly.
The couple returned to England in 1979. In Beccles, Norfolk, Rillus and colleagues revitalised the local museum; her writings here included Lost Windmills, and Norfolk: A Shire County Guide (1994). Soon after Andrew's death in 2003, she moved to Grassington in North Yorkshire, to be near her daughter Tina, and continued to publish and to involve herself in museum work. Her later years were saddened by the death of her daughter Angela in 2015, but she took great pride in her remaining children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Rillus died, peacefully and in her sleep, on Easter Sunday, 1 April 2018.
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