On this Day 20th November 1839

A New Feather in the Penzance Cap

On 20th November 1839 a public meeting was held at The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall's room for the purpose of creating a further learned society and museum in Penzance. Under the chairmanship of Joseph Carne resolutions were moved to bring the proposal for a Penzance Institution of Natural History and Antiquities to fruition and a subscription list was opened. Those present included Mr Carne, Rev. C.V. Le Grice, W.J. Henwood, Rev. Henry Batten, Rev. H. Penneck, Edward Hearle Rodd, William Bolitho, W.T. Praed, and Rev. J Buller.

Penzance could already boast a library (now the Morrab) established in 1817 and the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall established in 1814, so a society for natural history and antiquities was an obvious next step for a thrusting self-confident borough.

Is this the magnificent snowy owl donated by John Batten in 1839 (courtesy of Penlee House and Gallery)On Monday 23rd December 1839 a second meeting was held, also at the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. By now rules had been drawn up and these were read by W.J. Henwood, one of new institution's secretaries. Mr Paynter presented a list of those proposed for the various officerships of the organisation and there are no surprises: vice-presidents - W.T. Praed and Joseph Carne; treasurer - Pidwell Batten; secretaries and curators – Edward Hearle Rodd, Rev. Henry Penneck, John Millett and W.J. Henwood. The mayor, also present, said that he would be delighted to lay before the council a request for the society to be accommodated in the new Market House and Joseph Carne proposed that Davies Gilbert be requested to accept the position of patron of the new institution.

A white tailed sea eagle, perhaps the one donated by John Millett (courtesy of Penlee House and Gallery)Financial donations and specimens had already been received for the museum and a list was read out. The list reflects the Victorian passion for collecting stuffed birds and some, if not all, of these specimens can now be found in Penlee House and Gallery which now has custody of the museum collection. Mayor John Batten donated a a magnificent snowy owl, William Bolitho presented several specimens including a bittern and John Millett's offerings included two eagles, a pelican, four kingfishers, four woodpeckers, two parakeets, two ringdoves, a wild duck, two hummingbirds, two pigeons and two golden orioles. The illustrations accompanying this article are taken from the catalogue of Penlee House and may be the items donated back in 1839.

The bittern donated by William Bolitho? (courtesy of Penlee House and Gallery)By the time of the 1841 annual meeting, held 17th September 1841, the organisation was being referred to in the Royal Cornwall Gazette as the Penzance Natural History Society but at that meeting it was resolved that the title of the society should be altered to The Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This remained the name until the society ceased to function in the 1960s when its museum became the property of the Corporation of Penzance.






Royal Cornwall Gazette 22nd November 1839, 27th December 1839 and 24th September 1841.

For a discussion of the role and makeup of the institutions and societies in Cornwall during the 19th century see:

Simon Naylor, Regionalising Science: Placing Knowledge in Victorian England, Pickering and Chatto, 2010.

Bernard Deacon, The Reformulation of Territorial Identity: Cornwall in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, chapter 5, Institutionalising Cornwall: The Role of a Social Elite available here.

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