Biographies of West Penwith's Antiquarians
Dr. William Borlase (1696-1772)
The Revd. Dr. William Borlase from the portrait by Allan Ramsay.
Reproduced by permission of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
WILLIAM BORLASE was born at Pendeen Manor on the 2nd February 1696, second son of John Borlase, the local squire who had sided with Royalists during the Civil War and whose house had subsequently been damaged by Parliamentarian forces as a reprisal. The family was of Norman descent and a junior branch had established themselves at Pendeen when William's great-grandfather bought the house and laid the foundations of the Borlase estate.
William had seven brothers, four of whom died in infancy, and three younger sisters; since the elder brother, Walter, would inherit the estate, William was obliged to earn his own living. As a child in Pendeen he would have become acquainted at an early age with the antiquities of the area – a fogou was in the back garden of the family home. After education in Penzance, Plymouth, Tiverton and Exeter College Oxford, he was ordained priest in 1720; two years later he became rector of Ludgvan near Penzance where he was to live all his life.
William married a vicar's daughter by whom he was to have six sons, only two outliving their parents. In 1732 he obtained a second living – the Vicarage of his native parish of St.Just that he held with Ludgvan until his death. This security of employment for life enabled him to develop interests in both natural and ancient history; he was much encouraged in this venture by various individual including Thomas Tonkin (1678-1742), the leading antiquary of the previous generation. After 1740 Borlase began a systematic collection of material for his Parochial Memoranda and, thirteen years later, this was transformed into a manuscript for his first great literary venture.
He went to Oxford in 1753 to supervise the printing of a massive work whose full title was to be Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall consisting of several essays on the first inhabitants, Druid superstition, customs, and remains of the most remote antiquity in Britain, and the British Isles, exemplified and proved by monuments now extant in Cornwall and the Scilly Islands, with a vocabulary of the Cornu-British language. The money for this task was raised by subscription, and a private press was chosen where he was to spend six months supervising the production of an edition of 500 copies. Its appearance elevated Borlase from the position of an obscure rural clergyman to that of an authority on Cornwall, the Druids and Antiquity, and he next produced a book on the Isles of Scilly that was soon followed by another huge work on the natural history of the county, once again requiring his presence in Oxford for half a year. Studies of a lifetime were eventually publicly rewarded by his being made a Doctor of Civil Law at Oxford University at the age of 70.
Seven years after publication of Antiquities Borlase managed to borrow a vast quantity of manuscript material collected by Tonkin over a 40 year period. Tonkin was born in Cornwall at St.Agnes, the eldest son of a wealthy and influential family – his father was Vice-Warden of the Stannaries and Sheriff of the County – and, after education at Oxford, he spent most of his adult years inquiring into the topography and genealogy of the County; in 1737 he had proposed that a history of the County should be published but financial troubles left this task to be undertaken by Borlase. Tonkin had himself seen earlier work complied by William Hals (1655-c.1737) for a parochial history of Cornwall: Hals spent fifty years collecting material but his complete manuscripts were never published due largely to “scurrilous details” inserted into his work – his family were fervent supporters of the Parliamentary cause during the Civil war.
Borlase probably used much of this earlier work to bring out a considerably revised and enlarged edition of Antiquities, 750 copies of which were printed in London only three years before his death.
Although some of Borlase's field work is not always as accurate as some of his admirers might have us believe, his record of sites that have been completely destroyed or partially ruined is invaluable, and his studies, carried out without the facilities of a public library or the benefit of much outdoor exploration, must rank as the genesis of local archaeology.
Richard Edmonds (1801-1886)
RICHARD EDMONDS was born in Penzance on the 18th September 1801, the eldest child of Richard Edmonds senior of St.Buryan who held the post of Town Clerk for Penzance from 1805 until his death in 1860. Richard junior was one of six brothers and one sister, and was educated at Penzance Grammar School until the age of 14 with a further year at Helston; he then trained to be a solicitor and later worked as a lawyer in Penzance and Redruth until moving to Plymouth in 1861.
The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall had been founded in Penzance in 1814 and Edmonds was inspired to begin geological observations in Mount's Bay. When the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society was set up 29 years later he began to contribute many articles to their annual publications; a collection of these papers was published in 1862 under the full title of The Land's End District: Its Antiquities, Natural History, Natural Phenomena and Scenery.
Edmonds’ interest in antiquities led him to accept the position of corresponding secretary for Cornwall of the Cambrian Archaeological Society based in Wales. He also had some ability as a poet and composed over forty hymns, although he is best remembered for the enormous number of articles written on antiquarian and geological subjects, including the first detailed description of the Carn Euny 'cave' and 'longitudinal' fogou at Chysauster.
Richard Edmonds was a modest and timid man who remained a bachelor until the end of his days; he has been described as a scientific writer who had no scientific training, and as a person who “collected many interesting facts, but was wanting in the critical faculty necessary for useful investigation”.
John Thomas Blight (1835-1911)
John Thomas Blight FSA. from a photograph by R.H.Preston, Penzance, c.1863-65.
Reproduced by permission of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
THE BLIGHT FAMILY originated from St.Germans in East Cornwall before moving to Redruth where John Thomas, the first son, was born on the 7th October 1835, to be followed 2 years later by his brother, Joseph. While the boys were still young the family moved to Penzance where their father had taken up the post of school master: his varied interests included local history, customs and antiquities, tastes that were inherited by his sons. John and Joseph spent many happy hours roaming the Penwith countryside with sketchbooks always at the ready; they became self-taught wood engravers and Joseph later earned his living as an illustrator, cutting blocks from his elder brother's drawings.
While in his late teens the elder boy could often be found 'sitting in' at the Penzance Library (founded in 1818 and now located in the Morrab Gardens); by the time he reached the age of 20 he already had a considerable local reputation for his knowledge and drawings of local antiquities. And, shortly after being taken by Henry Crozier to see the newly rediscovered ancient village at Chysauster, Blight was entrusted by the older man to look after his archaeological notes – good use was later made of this gift.
Crozier (c.1801-1875) was a practicing surgeon who spent much of his spare time exploring the wilds of West Penwith on his own, making notes on odd scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes; he took measurements of antiquities encountered, especially those sites now known as courtyard house settlements, many of which he recorded for he first time.
Blight's first book, Ancient Crosses and Other Antiquities in the West of Cornwall, was published in 1856 and followed two years later by a volume covering the east of the County. Although his reputation was growing all the time – A Week at the Land's End was printed in 1861 – his great output of work was almost entirely without financial reward whereas his fellow antiquaries tended to be gentlemen of means – archaeology was not then a paid profession.
Offers to illustrate books on the locality were turned down by successive publishers so that he was later compelled to leave his rooms in Penzance and take up lodgings at Mullion on the Lizard. Although he did a certain amount of travelling within Britain he began to suffer from severe bouts of alternate elation and depression – excitement about archaeological interests but despair at his insecure financial situation. Blight's conduct became increasingly erratic. In the winter of 1868 he suffered a nervous breakdown and was looked after in Penzance for two years by his loving family; his friends and former patrons deserted him as “poverty, loneliness, neglect, overwork and frustrated ambition” eventually drove him into madness; his uncontrollable behaviour culminated in violent threats being made to a young woman he believed to be his wife. In May 1871 he was committed to Bodmin Asylum as a private patient.
An appeal for funds was administered by Copeland Borlase [see below]. These ran out seven years later but enough money was again raised to provide for Blight's upkeep until the end of 1882 when there was a real threat that he would be transferred to the paupers’ lunatic asylum. Fortunately this was averted by another appeal, this time by William Bolitho. The whole sad affair was later brought to a public conclusion by the announcement of Blight's death two years later.
It was not until 1977 that the truth was revealed. A chance discovery by Peter Pool of a brief report by the Reverend William Iago (then Chaplain of the Asylum) in the 1912 issue of the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall revealed that John Thomas Blight had died on the 23rd January 1911, aged 75 – he had been looked after in secret for half of his life, victim of a sad conspiracy of silence by former friends and colleagues. But Blight's lasting memorial is his painstaking illustrative and written work that recorded many sites that have since become totally destroyed – known today only through his drawings, plans and writings.
William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899)
William Copeland Borlase from a photograph by Elliott & Fry, London;
found with a letter from Borlase dated 1871.
Reproduced by permission of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
WILLIAM COPELAND BORLASE was born at the family home of Castle Horneck, Penzance, on the 5th April 1848, the third son of Samuel Borlase and only child by his father's second wife: Copeland was the great-great-grandson of Dr. William Borlase and has been described as the most notable, but also the most unfortunate, of William’s descendants.
He was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Oxford, but seems to have developed a childhood curiosity in local antiquities which he is known to have visited during his early teens; the fact that his ancestor's manuscripts had been bought in 1856 by Samuel may well have helped stimulate this interest. Copeland made his archaeological mark in 1863 while supervising excavations at the rediscovered prehistoric settlement and fogou at Carn Euny; Blight was commissioned to produce engravings and plans to accompany Borlase's report of the work done – a look at Borlase's drawings show he was no draughtsman.
Samuel died in 1866 just after completion of the excavations and four years later Copeland married the eldest daughter of a clergyman from 'up-country'.
Blight's father gave Copeland his son's unpublished work after John Thomas had been committed to Bodmin; these included Crozier's notes and drawings, many of which were later pasted into a volume entitled Miscellaneous Drawings, Extracts and Prints (now held at the Library in Morrab Gardens, Penzance). In addition to the Doctor's manuscripts young Borlase was to make good use of all this valuable material in later publications and exploratory work; he also acquired two volumes of Thomas Tonkin's Alphabetical Account of all the Parishes of Cornwall (down to the letter 'O').
He initiated an enormous number of excavations, particularly around standing stones and in barrows, and had the spectacular achievement of discovering and excavating the great stone barrow of Bollowall on the edge of cliffs below St.Just; he is also known to have 'explored' fogous at Boscaswell, Pendeen, Higher Bodinar and Chysauster. In 1872 he produced Naenia Cornubiae, A Descriptive Essay, Illustrative of the Sepulchres and Funereal Customs of the Early Inhabitants of the County of Cornwall, and, in the same year, was made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries – the year after he became President of the Royal Institution of Cornwall at the age of only 29.
In 1880 he was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for East Cornwall and thereafter spent a considerable amount of time in the capital, although still managing to continue archaeological work by providing much of the material used in Prehistoric Stone Monuments of Cornwall published in 1885. This volume was produced by William Collings Lukis, Rector of Wath in Yorkshire, and was intended to be part of a series covering the whole of the British Isles; it was printed for the Society of Antiquaries in London as part of their campaign to persuade the Government to recognise the importance and value of ancient monuments, many of which were then being deliberately destroyed or had suffered severe damage from the effects of weather.
In 1886 Copeland was made Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board. But disaster struck the following year. All his remarkable political and antiquarian achievements were to be lost in a moral and financial scandal exposed by his Portuguese ex-mistress. With debts of over £40,000 (at a time when the average wage of a Cornish miner was about £4 a month) he was called upon to undergo public examination at the London Bankruptcy Court during which he admitted being troubled by financial worries ever since going to the House of Commons. These problems were largely caused by living way beyond his means and giving a large number of extravagant dinner parties. His ruin was total. Bankruptcy was followed by many months of sordid publicity.
His seat in Parliament and all his offices and dignities were lost (he had been a Barrister-at-Law, Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries and ex-President of the Royal Institution of Cornwall); his library and archaeological records were auctioned off at Sotheby's – the Doctor's manuscripts fortunately being bought back by the Borlase family who later gave them to the Royal Institution of Cornwall and the Penzance library (Morrab).
The rest of Copeland's disgraced life was spent in poverty. Disowned by his wealthy family, he earned a meagre living as a remittance man in Ireland and also as manager of tin mines in Spain and Portugal. Yet, from this exile, he nevertheless managed to successfully produce a three volume work entitled The Dolmens of Ireland but died in London two years later at the age of only 51. His fate has been seen as a tragedy “in both human and scholarly terms” and Copeland Borlase should be remembered, not for the improprieties of his later years, but the wealth of interesting archaeological publications and manuscripts that began with the accounts by a little boy at Carn Euny.
Frederick Christian Hirst (1874-1938)
FREDERICK CHRISTIAN HIRST was born in India on Christmas Eve 1874, one of four brothers and four sisters who later changed their surname from Shirt to Hirst. Frederick was educated in Britain, and attended the Military Academy at Sandhurst before returning at the end of the century to India to work on the survey of the sub-continent. He retired from the army in 1924 with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and went to live in Zennor, probably later the same year.
Hirst's Indian background of work in ancient history and ethnography began to dominate his retirement as he scoured the landscape for prehistoric sites and all kinds of collectable domestic and agricultural items from the past. He later remarked that “ordinary farmers and others will gladly give any help they can, and the only real difficulty is to persuade some of them that the enquirer is normal”!
In 1931, a young American Undergraduate, Hugh O'Neill Hencken, who had travelled extensively throughout southwest Britain assembling material on local Bronze and Iron Ages for his university thesis, was asked by the Ministry of Works to excavate at Chysauster settlement and Colonel Hirst's offer of help was accepted. Hencken's work was to form the basis for his Archaeology of Cornwall and Scilly, published in 1932, and considered to be a landmark in that it brought together material assembled from personal fieldwork and research, from periodicals, museums and private collections; it was the first attempt to systematically collate earlier work and use it to deepen and expand knowledge of Cornish prehistory. It set new standards for research that inspired a whole generation of up and coming archaeologists.
The Cornwall Excavations Committee was set up and Hirst proposed that the recently rediscovered settlement at Porthmeor should be excavated. Work began there in 1933 and the site was visited by a large number of people – Hirst's work was recognised by his being made a Cornish Bard with the name of Seeker from Afar. Two years later, due largely to a decline in support from sponsors as well as a lack of any new initiatives and a failure to recruit new diggers, he resigned as Honorary Director of Excavations at the end of the third year of work at Porthmeor. “Panic and dismay” ensued and a Field Club was hastily assembled by the remaining hard core of excavators.
Hirst was offered the post of President and Director and accepted; the first annual general meeting was held in the old chapel at Higher Porthmeor not far from the Iron Age settlement. Only two years later Hirst fell sick and was taken to St.Mary's Hospital in London, where he died shortly afterwards on 20th May 1938. His passion for collecting everyday objects from the past led to the creation of the Wayside Museum in Zennor – still open to the public today during the tourist season.
Hirst compiled comprehensive details of the courtyard house villages and fogous of West Penwith and wrote many articles on all aspects of life in Zennor Parish – his manuscripts are now held at the library of the Royal Institution of Cornwall in Truro – and his obituary highlighted his ground breaking revival of local and practical interest in ancient Cornwall; that his memorial was the unveiling of Porthmeor settlement in 1933.
Charles Henderson (1900-1933)
Charles Henderson, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from a photograph taken on 12th June 1928.
Reproduced by permission of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
CHARLES HENDERSON was brought back to England from Jamaica the year after his birth – both his father and mother had been born and bred in Cornwall, the Hendersons being an old and well-known Truro family. As a child, Charles was fascinated by maps and place-names although his main delights were music and outdoor pursuits. On reaching the age of ten the gift of a camera led him to seek out interesting places to photograph, churches and antiquities in particular. He soon exhausted this activity and began to record local history, delving into various aspects of country life that his elders took for granted.
In the summer holidays of 1912 he started to collect material for his first scrap book on antiquities and “people up and down Cornwall began to recognise the figure of Charles Henderson perched on a ledge to draw old church towers, or bent to scrutinize a granite slab for traces of its early use”. He was sent to Preparatory School at Oakhampton before going on to Wellington College but illness compelled him to return home before he was 15. However this unfortunate episode had its beneficial side as it allowed him to follow his own ways – formal education was continued by private tutors. In 1917 Charles wrote how he had ransacked the Public Record Office and seen many treasures in the British Museum. During the First World War he looked at numerous family archives and solicitors’ offices in a quest for historical material; he was responsible for saving hundreds of documents from destruction. Charles made contact with Henry Jenner, the first Grand Bard of Cornwall, who was well acquainted with local antiquities; also with the vicar of St.Just-in-Penwith with whom he spent many hours “tramping around old stones”.
In 1919 he attended New College Oxford for three years and obtained a First Class Honours Degree in History. But his holiday periods were still devoted to Cornish interests, the main object being collection of material for a projected parochial history of the four most westerly Hundreds of the County; he amassed an enormous number of recorded details on churches, manors, farms, villages and all manner of antiquity.
After Oxford his historical horizons were considerably broadened by a year spent travelling in Italy and he later became Lecturer at the University of the South West at Exeter, giving talks under the auspices of the Workers' Educational Association. As a member of the Council of the Royal Institution of Cornwall he contributed many articles to their journals yet remained essentially a field-worker rather than an academic.
The last five years of his short life were spent at Oxford as Fellow and tutor of Corpus Christi where he absorbed himself in the whole range of European history. Foreign travel took him away more and more often from the West Country but, in June 1933, he returned home to marry Mary Isabel Munro, the eldest daughter of the Rector of Lincoln College Oxford. Despite Charles having been troubled with acute pains in the chest, the newly-wed couple left on honeymoon for the south of Italy; shortly afterwards a severe attack led to pleurisy and he died in Rome on the 24th September, being buried there in the Protestant Cemetery.
Charles Henderson has been described as “one of the most brilliant scholars Cornwall has ever produced” and the “most distinguished historian of Cornwall” responsible for uncovering and recording so much of the County's heritage – a veritable one man records office and “a most loveable man, gentle of manner and unassuming in his bearing”. His heritage of 16,000 documents bequeathed to the Royal Institution represents an invaluable source of reference material; the foremost legacy of a remarkable man whose work is still consulted almost every day.
Vivien Russell (1904-1992)
VIVIEN RUSSELL was born in Bristol where her father was a teacher at Clifton College; the family regularly travelled to Sennen on holiday. She was educated at Clifton High School and, later, at Oxford. She obviously loved the Sennen area and bought a house there where she spent much of her life. Vivien joined the West Cornwall Field Club and took part in excavation work at Maen Castle close to her home – her introduction to this skill. Her studies were interrupted by the Second World War (her brother had lost his life during the 1914-1919 war; his memorial is in Sennen church) that she spent serving with the WAAF, involved in the specialised work of interpreting aerial photographs for which she was highly praised.
After the end of the war she returned to Sennen and took part in annual ‘digs’ with the Field Club; work that led her to what was to become her most important contribution to local archaeology – an archaeological gazetteer of the district. But the necessity of earning a living compelled her to become a professional archaeologist working on projects arranged by the Ancient Monuments Inspectorate and, later, the Ministry of Works. Although she was able to take part in the important excavations at Carn Euny Iron Age Settlement, the majority of work was outside the county, although she took part in work on the Isles of Scilly between 1970 and 1973.
The archaeological check lists for Cornwall were initiated by Russell in 1958 through, at first, the West Cornwall Field Club and, subsequently, the Cornwall Archaeological Society – the first parish to be published was that of St.Just in the Proceedings of the West Cornwall Field Club (1959). Her planned gazetteer was intended to record all sites on the ground with their existing remains, as well as to reference previously published and manuscript material relating to them. Her perfectionist attitude meant that progress was slow but she was eventually persuaded by colleagues that the results, however incomplete, should be printed. The outcome was published in 1971 as the West Penwith Survey that covered prehistoric and early Christian antiquities of all descriptions. As Peter Pool wrote in her obituary: “It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this book to students of the area: it meant, simply, that the antiquities of West Penwith were better recorded than those of anywhere else in the country”. A later similar work for the Isles of Scilly was published in 1980.
Towards the end of her life she became increasingly ill and underwent a series of major operations. She was obliged to move into a home for the elderly in Sennen Parish where she died. Vivien Russell has been described as a shy and gentle person who shunned the limelight, yet was always willing to share her learning with others who appreciated the uniqueness of West Penwith.