On this Day 5th February 1818

Founding of the Cornwall Literary and Philosophical Institution

On 5 February 1818, 79 years after William Borlase wrote to George Allanson bemoaning the lack of libraries and centres of learning in Cornwall, the Cornwall Literary and Philosophical Institution was founded in Truro. Early meetings were held in the County Library in Truro, which had been founded in 1792, and the Institution became the Royal Institution of Cornwall in 1821.

The Institution was one of seven such bodies founded in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the first being the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society which was founded in 1781. The Manchester society had many medical men among its early members and appears to have also had non-conformist associations. The Newcastle Lit and Phil was founded in 1792 and over the years saw numerous significant demonstrations, not least in 1879 when Joseph Swan demonstrated his electric light and made the Lit and Phil the first building in the world to be so illuminated.

These institutions were part of what has been referred to as “networks of improvement”. They are part of the shift of influence away from the country houses of the gentry to the town dwelling professionals and at the same time we see, in Cornwall, the founding of other bodies such as the Cornwall Agricultural Society (1792 in Bodmin), Royal Geological Society of Cornwall in 1814 (see 11 February 1815) and Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1832. The same period saw the founding of the Royal Cornwall Gazette (1800) and the West Briton (1810).

While these new institutions provided a contact network for business and technical men, in Cornwall the gentry continued to play a greater role than in the northern societies, possibly due to their intimate connection with the principal industry, mining, through their ownership of land.

To return to the subject of the Cornwall Literary and Philosophical Institution: what were its objectives? To promote natural science and general literature and to provide a library for its members. The first list of books to be acquired included “all Borlase's works”.


P.A.S. Pool, William Borlase, RIC, 1986

Bernard Deacon, The reformulation of territorial identity: Cornwall in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries  - see Chapter 5, The Institutionalising of Cornwall

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