On this Day 13th December 1846

Electric Fluid in Penzance

Following yesterday’s water spout and whirlwind – or possibly Fire and Cloudy Pillar – the atmospheric marvels continue…

The sun is rising over Polmennor, near Penzance. It is a Sunday morning – nothing stirring. Snow has fallen to a “considerable depth”, adding to the quiet. And if you could join me in an “uninhabited” house – perhaps the occupants are away from home, or perhaps something more sinister has befallen them – I could show you strange and alarming changes.

The electric fluid has struck the house! Through three rooms it ran, along the “copper bell-wires and iron cranks”. And here’s the marvel: although the wires are completely burnt out, there is no break in the plaster “except on reaching and quitting the two extremities”.

One of the wires could be seen, until today, running a limed wall, fastened by “iron staples”. The wire? All burnt away. The staples? Preserved “uninjured in their places”. But to each side, upon the wall, marks of burning now extend to more than 18 inches in places, with the appearance of “the leaves on the opposite sides of a fern stalk”. And these “irregular rays”, as if the result of a “double tier of flames issuing from the wire horizontally”, are vividly coloured with “deep purple” and “pure yellow”.

Coming to a ceiling near you? The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius by Pierre-Jacques Volaire (Wikimedia)

Coming to a ceiling near you? The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius by Pierre-Jacques Volaire (Wikimedia)

But glance to the ceiling, and there is more to be seen. For those who have partaken of the Grand Tour, and stood in awe of Vesuvius, it will seem as nothing other than a “spirited picture of a volcano in eruption”. And should you pass into the next room, into which the wires ran, the effect is yet more marvellous. For here our volcano extends a full seven feet, and it is by no means fanciful to perceive “masses of rock… shot up from the crater”; “bright flames of yellow, green, red and brown”; and high above them a “cloud of smoke”.

Such is the peculiar quality of the electric fluid.


The Celtic and Other Antiquities of the Land’s End District, Richard Edmonds, 1862, pp 137-138

There are no references to this event in the Royal Cornwall Gazette, although there are several to the “electric telegraph”, with some mention of “electric fluid” in this connection. With Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the heyday of its popularity and the second volume of Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity recently published, the power and qualities of this new force were clearly among the topics of the day.

The source states that John Moyle painted the effect in oils, and presented his work to the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Researches into the possible survival and whereabouts of this painting will be the untiring task of the On This Day team over the festive season, 2017. We hope to update you shortly.

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Penwith Local History Group
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Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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Sally Corbet

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