Category Archives: Research Blog

The Curious Case of the ‘Mud-Inguana’

Stephanie Holt

Recently I have been tagging the letters in British Museum manuscript MS5318, a series of 32 documents sent to Thomas Pennant; this includes 30 of the original letters from Gilbert White which were later altered and adapted for his book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. HTML tagging involves taking the transcribed documents and setting them up for publication on the Curious Travellers Project website, whilst cataloguing various elements to make them searchable, including the names of people, places, and things (such as art works). Coming to this from the perspective of a scientist, I suggested we also tagged species—I think this was a popular decision with the team, even if it means more work! But in order to do so, each species mentioned in the document needs to be tied to a modern species name. Taxonomy and nomenclature in the late eighteenth century were still very much in flux, so this can sometimes be a very difficult task. It has turned out to be one of the most time-consuming—though completely fascinating—elements of the project. Particularly when species are from abroad or less well known, you find yourself having to do some serious sleuthing!

Fortunately for me, as I work at the Natural History Museum, I have excellent colleagues that I can call on when I get really stuck, such as in the case of the ‘Mud-Inguana’. In document 7, written on 17th June 1768, White is writing to Pennant on a number of subjects. Mid-way through the letter he asks of Pennant:

Mr Ellis F:R:S: (the coraline Ellis) in a letter to the Royal society dated June 5:1766. is his account of the mud-inguana.an amphibious biper from S: Carolina, — he says that the water-eft or neut is only the larva of the land-eft, as tadpoles are of frogs. Least I should be suspected to misunderstand his meaning. I shall give it you in his own words. Speaking of the opercula or coverings to the gills of the mud-inguana, he proceeds to say, “That the form of these pennated coverings approach very near to what I have some time ago observed in the larva or aquatic state of our English lacerta, known by the mane of eft or neut; which serve them for coverings to their gills, & for fins to swim with while in this state; & which they lose, as well as the fins of their tails when they change their state, & become land animals; as I have observed by keeping them alive for some time myself.”

The species, proving if not impossible, certainly very hard to locate from that name and description, I turned to my colleague Jeff Streicher (Senior Curator in Charge of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Natural History Museum) for help. Having not heard of the ‘mud-inguana’ either, Jeff went back to the original paper by Ellis in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,  which can be found here. The paper An account of an amphibious bipes; by John Ellis Esq; F. R. S. To the Royal Society (published 1st January 1766), gives a detailed description of two specimens that Ellis had acquired from South Carolina via Dr Garden. He gives the name ‘Mud-Inguana’ as ‘the name the natives call it’ and then continued to give both a detailed description and illustrations of the two specimens. From this description, Jeff was able to identify the species, and confirmed that it is the aquatic salamander, Siren lacertina. The illustration in the paper also refers to the Siren of Linneaus, so this corroborates this identification.

I had my species name, but Jeff had one more surprise for me. Having seen that the paper was based on the description of two specimens, at least one of which had been preserved in spirits, presented to the Royal Society, Jeff headed for the collection. Lo and behold, we have a specimen labelled as follows:

This specimen was sent by Dr Alexander Garden of Charles Farm South Caroline to John Ellis, who presented it to the British Museum ‘Sire, so called by Linneaus on 26 August 1768 (see B.M. Benefactors Book for that date). Garden also sent specimens to Linnaeus via John Ellis.

The preserved ‘Mud Iguana’ from 1768

The specimen matches the description of the specimen in the paper, and consequently it is highly likely that this is the specimen that Ellis describes. Dating from 1768, it is also one of the oldest, if not the oldest alcohol-preserved specimen in the Natural History Museums collection.

And with that, our mystery of the ‘Mud-Inguana’ is solved!

Sea Pies and Tom Noddies: Thomas Pennant on the Farne Islands

Alex Deans

Thomas Pennant’s Tour In Scotland 1769 presents a few obstacles to the unsuspecting reader. In the first edition of 1771, it takes a healthy 39 pages to arrive on the Banks of the Tweed (omitting Pennant’s dedication to his friend and neighbour Sir Roger Mostyn). The itinerary is hardly direct, striking almost due east so that Pennant can linger in the natural-history-rich Lincolnshire Fens, before heading north up the coast, with some notable excursions on the way. I’ll admit that in the past I haven’t given the English opening leg of Pennant’s Tour the attention it deserves, instead hastening on to see what he had to say about Scotland. Now that I’m editing the text, such selective reading isn’t really an option, and since relocating to the north east of England a few years ago, these materials have become more interesting to me, for the simple reason that they describe places close to me. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve begun to appreciate how valuable some of Pennant’s descriptions of England are from the perspective of natural history.

In the peat wetlands of the Lincolnshire Fens, Pennant gives a rich account of a landscape regarded at the time as a featureless waste, but which is now recognised for its huge environmental importance as a carbon sink and wildlife habitat, lost when the Fens were drained over the subsequent decades. Of the Fens, Pennant wrote: ‘I never met with a finer field for the Zoologist to range in.’[1] Efforts are now underway to preserve and restore some parts of the English Fens, now seen as a key part of the planetary biosphere, comparable to equatorial rainforest.

Further north, Pennant takes to the sea for an excursion around the seabird colonies of Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, followed by a trip to the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast on 15th July. Pennant made his journey to the islands on a coble: ‘a safe but seemingly hazardous species of boat, long, narrow and flat-bottomed, which is capable of going thro’ a high sea, dancing like a cork on the summits of the waves.’[2]

A black and white print entitled 'Eider Duck and Drake', showing two ducks swimming in water near a grassy piece of shore in the foreground.
An illustration of Eider ducks from Pennant’s tour.

As in the Lincolnshire Fens and at Flamborough Head, it is the exhilarating abundance of birdlife on the Farne Islands that captures Pennant’s attention, producing some of the most dense and colourful natural description of the whole tour. Pennant’s paratactical description of the nest of an Eider Duck captures his naturalist’s delight at being able to observe the animals and their behaviours up close:

Landed at a small island, where we found the female Eider ducks at that time sitting: the lower part of their nests was made of sea plants; the upper part was formed of the down which they pull off their own breasts, in which the eggs were surrounded and warmly bedded: in some were three, in others five eggs, of a large size and pale olive color, as smooth and glossy as if varnished over.[3]

Even the purely denominative takes on a lyrical quality in these moments, with Pennant giving the evocative names of features in the seascape (the Pinnacles, House Island, the Meg, the Churn), as well as lists of bird species, including ‘Sea Pies’ (Oystercatchers), and the Northumbrian names of ‘Puffins, called here Tom Noddies’, as well as Eiders, or ‘Cuddies Ducks’, the latter after St Cuthbert, who lived as a hermit on one of the Farnes.[4]

Detail from an eighteenth-century map showing the Farne islands and part of the nearby coast.
John Adair, Holy-Island, Fairn Islands with the many Rocks and Hazards that lye Scatter’d in that Sea (Edinburgh: 1703), National Library of Scotland

In August 2023 my family and I followed Pennant’s voyage around the Farne Islands, joining one of the many tours that run from Seahouses on the Northumberland coast. Even on the tour company’s substantial catamaran, we felt the effects of what Pennant calls ‘a most turbulent rippling, occasioned by the fierce current of the tides between the islands and the coast.’[5] My sense of Pennant’s intrepidity in making the same journey in a coble was immediately increased, let alone St Cuthbert, voluntarily stranded one of these lonely rocks in the seventh century. The violent currents didn’t seem to trouble the Grey Seals, which tumbled around quite comfortably in the white water, demonstrating an agility almost comically at odds with the animals I’ve seen hauled-up on the shore.

A photograph taken from a boat through a metal guard rail, showing an island out to sea under a cloudy sky.

From a distance, the Farnes appear almost flat, but as the boat approaches they rise up out of the sea in a series of jagged black cliffs. The boat made its way slowly around each island, and I quickly lost my sense of direction: we’d round a corner to find yet another dark outcrop breaking the surface, where I’d expected a distant view of the mainland and Bamburgh Castle. Between the rocks, the seabed rose up beneath the boat, and sand shone turquoise through the water.

A photograph taken from a boat through a metal guardrail, showing a steep rocky shore with seabirds flying above it.
Farne Islands, August 2023

Our visit was less well timed than Pennant’s, coming at the end of the breeding season by which time many of the birds had moved on, although we spotted a few straggling Puffins flying low over the water, alongside Cormorants, Kittiwakes, and the odd Gannet. The Farnes have suffered from the impact of the ongoing avian flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 6000 birds in 2022; landing to get closer to the bird colonies as Pennant did in 1769 is out of the question for the foreseeable future. Something about the isolation and relative compactness of the Farne Islands creates a certain sense of proximity to those who have been there before you, saints and naturalists. Seasons aside, I couldn’t but compare my own visit to the Farnes with Pennant’s, and think not only about what has been lost, but perhaps more urgently, what we still stand to lose in places like these.


[1] Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland 1769 (Chester: 1771), p.10.

[2] Pennant, p.35.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pennant, p.36.

[5] Pennant, p.37.

The Invisible Library: a Visit to Downing Hall

Mary-Ann Constantine

A landscape print of Downing Hall in Flintshire, with the hall in the back in front of some hills and woods, and a road, trees, and lawns in the foreground.
‘Downing’, from Thomas Pennant, History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell 1796 (National Library of Wales, on Wikimedia Commons)

‘THE house itself has little to boast of. I fortunately found it incapable of being improved into a magnitude exceeding the revenue of the family. It has a hall which I prefer to the rural impropriety of a paltry vestibule; a library thirty feet by eighteen; a parlor capable of containing more guests than I ever wish to see at a time […] I have Cowley’s wish realized, a small house and large garden!’ [Pennant, History of the Parishes, p.7]

Mosses and ferns breaking through the flagstones

On 28 September this year Thomas Pennant possibly received more guests than he would have wished to see at one time. I hope, though, that he might have overcome his reluctance to mingle once he realised that these were congenial spirits. We were there at the kind invitation of the proprietors Ann and Jim Wragg, and through the good offices of the Thomas Pennant Society, visiting the vestiges of Downing Hall with Dr Edwin Rose, who would deliver the annual Thomas Pennant Lecture in Holywell later that evening.

John Edmonson, Edwin Rose, Ann Wragg and Sarah Baylis examine the floor plan

In the wake of storm Agnes we had feared rain and wind, but there was watery autumn sunlight on the piles of brick and rubble that mark where the Pennant family home stood until it was almost destroyed by fire in 1922, and demolished in the 1950s. It is a strange site – the house itself now an invisible presence against the tall dark trees of the dingle, set back from the narrow road, fronted by rolling open fields. For someone who spends so much time in the eighteenth century I have a surprisingly poor historical imagination, but Edwin had brought a copy of the floor plan and, with Jim and Ann, who know the site intimately, we had a very convincing guided tour of the absent house.

The best-preserved part of Downing, and the place most visitors remember, is the cellar. Much of it was filled with rubble after the demolition, and the Wraggs have gradually, with much labour, cleared out the original space. The vaulted ceilings and damp walls make it feel like being in a cathedral crypt, but animated discussion of its alcoves, shelves, stalls and recesses soon filled it with cheeses and hams, jars, kegs and bottles, and busy feet on the different flights of stairs, fetching and lifting or storing safely away. One of those staircases, its stone steps worn away by footprints, now leads evocatively up into the open air.

A series of stone steps from a cellar, leading up past a rough wall to the light above.
The staircase up from the cellars (Image: Edwin Rose)
Edwin rose (man in grey jacket and blue  jeans) smiles at the camera holding a fossil in both hands.
Edwin Rose holds the plant fossil (a ‘species of stigmaria’).

Like many small estates, Downing would have been run as a mini economy, growing, making and preserving much of the food needed for the family and staff – perhaps up to hundred people at one time, judging by the accounts. Among the more curious items kept down there, alongside old bottles and the fragments of broken crockery, is an impressive chunk of a plant fossil which – surely! – must once have been part of Pennant’s natural history collections.    

Above ground, there are a few precarious walls bursting with ferns, mosses and seedlings, and still areas where you can see the floor-tiles and work out the entrances to different rooms. We had no trouble identifying the library, which still has part of the fireplace at the far end. This was Pennant’s favourite room:

‘THE library is filled by a numerous collection of books, principally of history, natural history and classics. My own labors might fill an ordinary book-room; many of them receive considerable value from the smaller drawings and prints with which they are illustrated on the margins, as well as by the larger intermixed with the leaves; among the latter are several drawings of uncommon beauty, by that eminent hand Mr. Nicholas Pococke. These relate either to the Ferroe isles, or to Iceland, others to the distant Tibet or Boutan. […] Among my own labors, I value myself on my MS. volumes of THE OUTLINES OF THE GLOBE, in xxii. volumes, folio, on which uncommon expence has been bestowed, in ornament and illuminations.’

Three figures gathered around an old book amongst dilapidated and overgrown walls.
Paul Brighton, Norman Closs Parry and Edwin Rose look at David Pennant’s copy of British Zoology.

Edwin (who, to our amusement, had been clutching his briefcase all the while) now pulled out his personal copy of David Pennant’s annotated edition of his father’s British Zoology. In typical Pennant fashion, this book is a riddle of scribbles, additions, corrections, and advice from trusted correspondents for a future edition. He opened it for us with a smile. This, he said, is the first time this book has been back in this room for well over a hundred years. We were all moved.

Close-up image of a ruined wall with a burst of green plant growth emerging from the top,.
Ruined wall with vegetation at Downing

The house lives on in various pictures and sketches by Moses Griffith (and his son, Moses Junior), and in letters and accounts by those who visited during Pennant’s time: Wordsworth remembered being shown the beautiful manuscripts of the ‘Outlines of the Globe’, while Katherine Plymley, whose party stayed for several days, lamented that ‘time did not permit us to see nearly all the numberless drawings, & curiosities that Mr Pennant has collected’.  Later sepia photographs show the dining room and library as they would have been at the beginning of the twentieth century – filled with polished furniture, stuffed animals, and books, many from Pennant’s time. This invisible library in which we all stood would have been filled with objects from Pennant’s own collections. Our project hopes to create a kind of Virtual Cabinet of Curiosities, drawing on the many specimens and artefacts which have ended up in the Natural History Museum and other archives and repositories – pulling them back into a different imagined space, a regrouping of objects, but also the beginning of new stories.       

Edwin shared some of those stories later in the evening during his lecture, when he traced the journeys of a few specimens through Pennant’s astonishingly effective web of collaborators and correspondents. He showed us the stages, from living creature to type-specimen in a box, via sketch, watercolour, copperplate engraving, and page in a printed book – plants and creatures examined, represented, described and discussed. These processes all form the eighteenth-century’s contributions to the precise biological classifications, the careful descriptors, which allow us to measure the rich variety of species on our planet – and, increasingly, to reckon the measure of our losses. 

Another black and white print of Downing Hall in front of an open sky with some clouds. A tree and a horse in the foreground.
M. Griffith, ‘Downing: The Seat of Thos Pennant Esq’ (National Library of Wales on Wikimedia Commons)

With grateful thanks to Ann and Jim Wragg, Edwin Rose and the officers of the Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society.

You can see further pictures of the estate here: Downing Estate – Downing Hall (wraggbusiness.co.uk)

You can learn about Edwin Rose’s recent work on Pennant and other eighteenth-century collectors here: Edwin Rose | People | HPS (cam.ac.uk)

You can learn about the activities of Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society here: Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society

The best account of Downing Hall can be found in the opening pages of Pennant’s History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796). See also M. Bevan Evans, ‘Thomas Pennant and Downing’ (Flintshire Historical Soc, 1953-54) 72-79. The article has numerous pictures and plans, and was written shortly after the demolition.

Thomas Pennant and the issue of slavery

Notes from the Curious Travellers team, June 2020.

‘A wolf by the ear’

In 1820, in a letter discussing slavery and the practicalities of emancipation, the former American President Thomas Jefferson used a Classical metaphor to describe the situation:

But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, Monticello, 22 April 1820

Bankside smelting works, near Greenfield, engraving after Moses Griffith

Bankside smelting works, near Greenfield, engraving after Moses Griffith

The Latin phrase ‘Auribus teneo lupum’ (I hold a wolf by its ears) is used by several Classical authors and refers to making choices in a dangerous situation: whichever decision is made will bring problems in its wake. For Jefferson, that problem was the undeniable greater good of emancipation (which for him, it should be noted, included removing freed Black people from America) set against the potential of extreme political turmoil to the Union if different states adopted different measures. Historians are still divided over the paradoxes raised by Jefferson and the issue of slavery: he was a powerful advocate of emancipation, but also an enslaver—and, of course, a politician, whose opinions and decisions adapted to circumstance. (See https://www.monticello.org/slavery/paradox-of-liberty/thomas-jefferson-liberty-slavery/this-deplorable-entanglement/)

It is striking that in 1788 – thirty years before Jefferson – Thomas Pennant used exactly same phrase in relation to what he called ‘that terrible business’ and admitted that his thoughts on the subject were ‘strangely divided’.

This document sets out some examples of Pennant’s statements and actions which could give us a clearer picture of what he believed – although, as we have seen, he himself acknowledged that he was conflicted.  A Welsh-language blog on ‘Thomas Pennant, Africa, and Slavery’ written by Ffion Jones for the Curious Travellers project in 2017 explores some of these issues further: (https://curioustravellers.ac.uk/cy/thomas-pennant-affrica-a-chaethwasiaeth/)

Comments in the letters

1788: Letter to Richard Bull: https://editions.curioustravellers.ac.uk/doc/1080

“Yesterday Mrs P. & I returned frm a jaunt to Leverpool. myself with the influenza came back not the better. but by dint of spirits I clambered over the slave ships; & can say no more to that terrible business, than that ‘We have a wolf by the ears.’ I am so unwell at present that I shall refer you to my M. S. Africa for my thoughts: they are strangely divided.”

Unwell and unable to formulate a longer response to the ‘terrible business’ of slavery, the basis of Liverpool’s new prosperity Pennant admits to being ‘strangely divided’ and refers his friend Richard Bull to his ‘manuscript book’ on Africa, part of his decades-long geographical project called ‘The Outlines of the Globe’, most of which was never published; the manuscripts are held in the National Maritime Museum.  As Paul Evans noted in his doctoral thesis on Pennant, ‘Volume XI contains a good deal of information about the slave-trade, much of it having been supplied by a near neighbour, Richard Wilding of Llanrhaeadr Hall near Denbigh’. (Evans (1993) II, p.636).  Wilding had ‘resided twelve years on the coast of Guinea’ and was thus a direct witness of the practices involved; his letters are cited in Pennant’s manuscript.

Bull, one of Pennant’s closest friends, subscribed to the volume of letters published by Charles Ignatius Sancho, who was rescued from slavery as a child. Bull was also comfortable expressing clear anti-slavery sentiments to Pennant in 1795.)

“The field of Politic’s is too large for such a confused head as mine to enter upon, but I hope and trust that all will end in peace, and plenty, and that this little Kingdom, which I feel proud to be a native of, will have had the glory of confirming the rights of all distinctions of people throughout the world, and if it can be done, I hope the slave trade will e’re long be quite at an end”. https://editions.curioustravellers.ac.uk/doc/1189

Nothing else in the 500 letters of correspondence we have edited to date sheds further light on the issue, but there are many hundreds of letters still in manuscript, and we may in time find more.

Comments in published works

As with the letters, Pennant’s remarks on slavery in his published works are few and far between. There is a gruesome description in British Zoology (1768) of the corpse of an enslaved person being thrown overboard and eaten by a Great White Shark – information which Pennant had from ‘the master of a Guinea ship’, who was trying to ‘prevent the rage of suicide’ among ‘these unhappy creatures’. The ‘objective’ scientific perspective of this text does not quite manage to contain the horror of the account, but Pennant does not use the example to express any political view.

In the first volume of the Tours in Wales (1778) one of the works for which he is best known, he is much less equivocal. Writing of a period under the Saxons when British slaves were among the ‘exports’, Pennant adds:

“The first barbarous traffic was carried on by the Saxons to a great height. The description of the mart is an exact picture of the negro* commerce at present; so little have we emerged from barbarism in that instance”.

The footnote takes the reader to a moving scene from the Life of St Wulfstan, where beautiful ‘young people of both sexes’ are roped like animals and sold into slavery.

The present frequently casts a shadow on the past in Pennant’s writing: to be an antiquarian is not necessarily to be cocooned from contemporary concerns. In Of London (1790) the complex and often brutal relationship between the conquering Romans and the less ‘civilised’, but native, Britons is given a grim modern parallel. Speaking of London during the reign of Tiberius, Pennant remarks:

‘The exports from hence were cattle, hides and corn; and let me add, that slaves were a considerable object. Our internal parts were on a level with the African slave coasts; and wars among the petty monarchs were promoted for the sake of a traffic now so strongly controverted’.

If ancient British Londoners were once treated as Africans are today, the sub-text could read here, should we not recognize some kind of kinship with them? Many years later, the novelist Joseph Conrad would also summon up those early Roman traders in human souls, at the very beginning of his Heart of Darkness.

Greenfield Valley: Cotton-mills and Copperworks

The interpretation panels in today’s Greenfield valley, and the open-air museum at its foot, have long been explicit about the inequalities of power and the atrocities of a ‘triangular trade’ which linked the production of copper trinkets to the ‘purchase’ of enslaved Africans, who would be exchanged in the Americas for raw cotton bales, which might end up being milled in the new buildings powered by the stream from St Winifred’s Well. In his History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell, Pennant explains that by the 1780s ‘the great copper-companies, those behemoths of commerce’, energized by Thomas Williams (‘that useful and active character’) had ‘with unparalleled speed, covered the lower part of the stream […] with buildings stupendous in expence, extent, and ingenuity of contrivance’.[1] Williams (‘Twm Chwarae Teg’, 1737-1802) is remembered today for his highly profitable exploitation of the copper mines in Anglesey, and his market-driven, vigorously anti-abolitionist stance.

Thomas Pennant’s own account of these brass and copper objects is oddly disturbing. Describing the ‘goods for Africa, America and most other markets’ he lists:

brass Neptunes, or large pans in which the Negroes make salt; pans for getting the gold out of their rivers, and for various other purposes; kettles, brass and copper rods; bright and black manillas – the first are rings for the ornaments to the arms and legs; the last for the current money of the country. The last are not unlike the golden bracelets of the antient Britons, the ends turned up and flatted.  (History of the Parishes, p. 211)

Pennant here evokes a vision of a thriving society of Africans busily engaged in profitable activities (salt-making, panning for gold) and delighting in the ‘ornaments’ sent across the sea from the Greenfields mills. The antiquarian twist, likening the manillas to the torques of the ‘antient Britons’, once again connects ‘primitive’ contemporary African society to a British golden age, but this time the vision is more idealized. Nowhere in his detailed and inquisitive accounts of copper and cotton manufacture does he mention the question of how and by whom the raw materials are produced, or acknowledge the harsh facts of the triangular trade. But then, neither did younger and more politically engaged visitors, such as Arthur Aiken, the nephew of Anna Le Barbauld, who visited Greenfields in 1796.

[1] Pennant, History of the Parishes, 204.

Engraving after Moses Griffith, Holywell, Upper and Lower Cotton Mills

Engraving after Moses Griffith, Holywell, Upper and Lower Cotton Mills

Friends on both sides

As Ffion Jones has shown, Pennant was proud of his distant kinship with Richard Pennant, Lord Penrhyn, whose energetic expansion of the slate industry in Caernarfonshire, and improvement of his own estates, and of the living conditions of his workers, was funded by money from slavery. He writes with enthusiasm of visits to Penrhyn, but, again, in common with virtually every other visitor at the period, does not make an explicit connection between the distant sources of wealth and its effects on the Welsh landscape and economy. Yet he was also a friend and correspondent of the committed abolitionist Joseph Plymley (1759-1838), who seems very likely to have been a source of information about the north coast of Africa, as Pennant gathered material for his ‘Outlines of the Globe’. The surviving letters between Pennant and Plymley are currently being edited and will be published in Curious Travellers Digital Editions in the near future (a north Wales tour written by Joseph’s sister, Katherine Plymley in 1792 can be read at: https://editions.curioustravellers.ac.uk/doc/0008.

 

Conclusions     

Thomas Pennant’s attitude to the issue of slavery cannot easily be summed-up, since it was, as he suggests, ‘strangely divided’. His abhorrence of the nature and conditions of the trade in human beings is very clear, but he does not take an abolitionist stance, and can see how wealth acquired through slavery has brought material and economic benefits to Britain. He has friends on both sides. His antiquarian imagination allows him to equate Ancient Britons and modern Africans in ways which are both sympathetic and troubling. Though he writes nowhere at great length about slavery, he does not ignore it: an interest in the cultures, the geography, landscapes and natural history of other countries brought him into contact with people who had first-hand experience of the north coast of Africa. Slavery was not, therefore, a merely theoretical concern, but unavoidably connected to his work as a naturalist and traveller, and part of the wider story of how British intellectuals at this period constructed their views of the world.

This sample of citations from his work can be taken as representative, but it is not comprehensive: more work on this subject should help to build a clearer picture over time. We will endeavour to add to this survey, and we welcome any further insights and observations from readers of Pennant’s work.

Mary-Ann Constantine for Curious Travellers research team, June 2020.

 

Further reading:

Chris Evans, Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660–1850 (University of Wales Press, 2021)

Brian Taylor, Human Cargo: A slave trade link with Greenfield Valley (The Friends of the Greenfield Valley Association, 2007)

https://gov.wales/slave-trade-and-british-empire-audit-commemoration-wales

The Meeting

A letter written during lock-down by the Chairman of the Thomas Pennant Society,

Norman Closs Parry

[Cymraeg yma]

 

Like most sensible citizens, I have felt very apprehensive, if not scared, during this lockdown period of the Coronavirus pandemic. As I heard some elderly ladies discussing on television (both had lived through the worst of the Second World War) how then, night after night, you knew what to expect, where it was coming from, and what to do. But with this one does not know where it is, or where or who is next! It currently appears as if the transmission of the virus is down (though not out, as the scientists tell us it could spike anywhere, anytime) and the politicans are playing catch-up until a vaccine is found.

Wordsworth as a young man in 1798, by William Shuter. (wikimedia commons)

Wordsworth as a young man in 1798, by William Shuter.
(wikimedia commons)

For me, this has meant total shutdown. I have just received my second letter from Cardiff suggesting strongly that I stay indoors until August 16th.  But to every cloud there is a silver lining, and the lock in/shut down has given me time to catch up with my reading. This period of being shut in has also coincided with my 80th birthday: all my family and friends pushed the rules to their limit, and have ensured that now, in my eighty-first year to heaven, I am drowning in reading material. Paul Brighton, my “friend of fifty years well nigh” presented me with Jonathan Bate’s new classic Radical Wordsworth: The poet who changed the world (2020), an excellent piece of research into the life and times of the great poet William Wordsworth. All of us remember him, of course, from school-days – ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud/ that floats on high o’er vales and hills.’  Back when I did my environmental science course at Bangor, I hung my argument on his poetry:

“One instance from a vernal wood
Will teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good
Then all the sages can…”
(‘The Tables Turned’)

And even now, when I see a rainbow, I recite his words;

“My heart leaps up when I behold
a rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man,
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”

Reading and thinking about this book has helped me a great deal during the troubled times and the very long hours of solitude, and I have been particularly delighted to follow up the references to Wordsworth’s highly significant visit to Wales – memorialized in his great autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’.  A  great walker and an admirer of nature from infancy (his passion for walking may have affected his Cambridge degree, which was a disappointing lower 2nd), while at college he befriended a Welshman, Robert Jones  from Plas-yn-Llan, Denbigh. Jones accompanied him on his Alpine tour, also wonderfully described in ‘The Prelude’; and then, quite depressed, he came and spent the summer of 1791 with Jones (and his five good-looking sisters!!) at Plas-y-Llan, Llangynhafal, Denbigh.

Whilst at the Plas, he and Robert made excursions into the Welsh Countryside, and it is not beyond imagination that Wordworth picked up a copy of the Tours in Wales or Journey to Snowdon by Thomas Pennant in Plas-yn-Llan.

 Snowdon from Caernarfonshire by Paul Sandby – a print in Pennant’s  Extra-Illustrated Tours of Wales.


Snowdon from Caernarfonshire by Paul Sandby – a print in Pennant’s  Extra-Illustrated Tours of Wales.

Over the last decade I have added tremendously to my knowledge and understanding of Pennant and his time and contacts through the involvement of Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant with ‘The Curious Travellers’ project based at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and Glasgow, and through other new scholarship by young academic researchers. These projects have often focused on connections between people, and on social and literary ‘networking’. This seems to me a very simple but effective example: let us imagine Wordsworth in Dyffryn Clwyd (Clwyd Vale), feeling a little sorry for himself. The ‘elan’ of The Great House’ with the laughter if these pretty sisters will have helped, I have no doubt, but he must also have found imaginative and intellectual challenge in The Tours. On enquiry with the Joneses he found that he knew somebody who knew Thomas Pennant (my guess would be the Rev John Lloyd of Caerwys, since young Robert Jones was destined for holy orders). I’m sure that two things were activated. Firstly, Wordsworth and Jones decided on the ‘Snowdonian Adventure’, an secondly that they would walk as far as Downing by arrangement for a consultation with Pennant who had written so splendidly about his climb up Snowdon. (See Radical Wordsworth, p. 83.) Wordsworth would have read how:

A vast mist enveloped the whole circuit of the mountain. The prospect down was horrible. It gave an idea of numbers of abysses, concealed by a thick smoke, furiously circulating around us. Very often a gust of wind formed an opening in the clouds, which gave a fine and distinct visto [sic] of lake and valley. Sometimes they opened only in one place; at others, in many at once, exhibiting a most strange and perplexing sight of water, fields, rocks, or chasms, in fifty different places.

 Journey to Snowdon (1781)

 

Thomas Pennant too could be literary! I remember experiencing such phenomenon myself when we as youngsters we used to go ‘i weld yr haul yn codi…’ (to see the sunrise) from this same summit, usually at the time of Harvest Moon. But circumstances turned an experience shared by many into a defining moment in the life of William Wordsworth when, presumably after their consultation at Downing, he and Jones undertook the climb.

‘Snowdon from Llanberis Lake’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1797) [wikimedia commons]

‘Snowdon from Llanberis Lake’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1797)
[wikimedia commons]

Without question, Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem The Prelude is one of the great books in the English language. Unlike the great Wordsworthian sonnets ( ‘London 1802’, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ or, with Coleridge, the poems of the Lyrical Ballads’) it is in free verse, made up of fourteen ‘books’ – all in pure poetry observing and reflecting on his ‘seven ages’. It encapsulates much of his life philosophy, and understanding his way of looking at the ‘inside’ of things requires time and thought. What is most important to me, along with the idea that he sought Thomas Pennant’s advice regarding his night climb of Snowdon, is that this climb forms the concluding part of the Prelude; that the work where he brings all facets of his philosophy of life, learning and Nature together comes about because of what happened when he, Robert Jones and John Jones, a local guide (probably from Beddgelert) undertook the adventurous experience:

When at my feet the ground appeared to brighten,
And with a step or two seemed brighter still;
Nor was time given to ask or learn the cause,
For instantly a light upon the turf
Fell like a flash, and lo! as I looked up,
The Moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still ocean; and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the solid vapours streched,
In headlands,tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic, that appeared
To dwindle, and give up his majesty,
Usurped upon far as the sight could reach.

(The Prelude 1850, Book XIV)

For an introduction to the beauty of ‘The Prelude’, no one has written better than Earl Grey of Falloden, but I’m grateful that Jonathan Bate’s brilliant biography, Radical Wordsworth made the ‘Welsh connection’ for me. I urge you, for personal satisfaction – seek a quiet room, and read at leisure what can happen, when two great minds, Pennant and Wordsworth, experience and capture a similar natural phenomenon in prose and poetry!

Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above the frame of things
(Which, ‘mid all revolutions in the hopes
And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.

The Prelude, Book XIV: Conclusion

Norman Closs-Parry (July, 2020)

Post-script: a memory of meeting Pennant

In a letter written many years later, Wordsworth recalled his visit to Downing (either 1791 or a later visit in the early 1790s). He offers a lively portrait of Pennant:

“Five and thirty years ago I passed a few days in one of its most retired vallies at the house of a Mr Thomas some time since dead. His ordinary residence was upon an estate of his in Flintshire close to Mr Pennant’s of Downing with whom, I mean the Zoologist, then a handsome figure of a man in the freshness of green old age I passed several agreeable hours in his library; he was upwards of seventy, tall and erect and seemed to have fair pretensions for 15 years of healthful and useful life, but soon after he fell into a sudden languishment, caused mainly I believe by the death of a favorite Daughter, and died…”

Letter to George Huntly Gordon, 14 May 1829, cited in Donald E. Hayden, Wordsworth’s travels in Wales and Ireland, (Tulsa, Oklahoma : University of Tulsa, 1985). See also D Myrddin Lloyd, Wordsworth and Wales, National Library of Wales Journal, VI, (1950) 338-350.

Further reading:

Michael Freeman has compiled a list of many accounts of ascents of Snowdon, including Pennant’s descriptions of two ascents (1752 and the early 1770s), and Wordsworth’s climb with Jones.

Francis Place (1647-1728) and his early sketches of Wales

Helen Pierce (University of Aberdeen)

Within the first volume of Thomas Pennant’s extra-illustrated Tour in Wales are two drawings by the English artist Francis Place. Place was a member of the York Virtuosi, a collection of largely independently-wealthy gentlemen, active in York and the north of England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with a shared enthusiasm for travel, antiquarianism, natural philosophy, and the visual arts.

Place is known to have visited Wales twice. In 1678, he and William Lodge, a fellow artist and member of the Virtuosi, journeyed around South Wales, reportedly covering an impressive 700 miles on foot over a period of seven weeks. Pen-and-ink sketches of this tour, which was combined with leisurely episodes of fishing, are preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Museum of Wales. Yet it was not all art and angling: Place and Lodge were, quite literally, ‘strangers’ as they travelled from Yorkshire as far west as Pembroke Castle, and were reportedly arrested at Chester on suspicion of being Jesuit spies, with friends having to vouch for their innocence before they were released. 

Francis Place, ‘Etching of St Winefrid’s Well’, pub. Pierce Tempest (1699). © Trustees of the British Museum

Despite this experience, Place found himself back in Chester, reluctantly or otherwise, in 1699. He was returning to his home in York from a further sketching tour, this time having travelled in Ireland between Drogheda and Waterford. From Holyhead to Chester, he continued to draw vistas and landmarks including St Winefrid’s Well, just outside Flint. He also reproduced his sketch of this pilgrimage site as a detailed etching which was then published in London by Pierce Tempest, a fellow native of Yorkshire. This image was an enduring, and apparently commercially-successful one, since it was republished several times during the 1750s by two further London printsellers, John Bowles and Robert Sayer.

Thomas Pennant acquired one of Sayer’s prints of St Winefrid’s Well (with its original imprint, mentioning both Place and Tempest, firmly erased and replaced with Sayer’s details) which was pasted into his extra-illustrated copy of A Tour in Wales, now held in the National Library of Wales.

Francis Place, ‘Hawarden Castle’, from Thomas Pennant’s Extra-Illustrated Tours in Wales (National Library of Wales). The image can be viewed in detail here.

Also included in the first volume of Pennant’s guide to Wales are two original drawings by Francis Place, executed in pen and ink with light washes of watercolour. One depicts the west side of Hawarden Castle with a distant view of Chester, the other, of Flint Castle, has been annotated by the artist to indicate specific landmarks: ‘West Chester’ ‘The West Side of Flint Castle in 1699’ and ‘& Bestone [Beeston] Castle’.

Francis Place, ‘Flint Castle 1699’, from Thomas Pennant’s Extra-Illustrated Tours in Wales (National Library of Wales). The picture can be viewed in more detail here.

Beneath the drawing of Flint Castle is a faint inscription in pencil, written by Thomas Pennant himself: ‘Drawn by F. Place and presented by D Perrot See Walpole’s Engravers’. Horace Walpole was an acquaintance and occasional correspondent of Pennant’s, and his Catalogue of Engravers Who Have Been Born or Resided in England, first published in 1764, would have been an essential reference book as the illustrations for A Tour in Wales were assembled. ‘D Perrot’ appears to be a misnomer for Francis Parrott, Place’s grandson, who had inherited the artist’s personal collection of artworks. Following Place’s death in 1728, the contents of what were termed in his will as ‘the pictures in my house, pictures prints drawings & other things belonging to my painting room’ had been kept and passed down through the family, with the collection remaining largely intact until it was auctioned the 1930s. Thomas Pennant’s note in A Tour in Wales, however, confirms that certain items had left the collection much earlier, as gifts or donations. Francis Parrott’s ‘presentation’ of his grandfather’s drawings of Hawarden Castle and Flint Castle to Thomas Pennant also echoes the earlier activities of Francis Place, who donated a number of items, including his own drawing of Tynemouth Castle, to the extensive cabinet of curiosities established by his fellow York Virtuoso, Ralph Thoresby.

Francis Place, ‘Tinmouth Castle and Lighthouse’ © Trustees of the British Museum

We know that Francis Place tended to draw his landscape subjects, quite literally, on the spot, using small-scale, portable sketchbooks, and although some of these drawings were subsequently revised into prints, such as that of St Winefrid’s Well, many seem to have been made simply for pleasure. Place represents a particularly early example of the artist as tourist around Britain, exploring and visually recording parts of the country which were slowly becoming accessible to outsiders. Having returned to Yorkshire from Ireland via Wales, Place’s next sketching tour took him to Scotland in 1701, where surviving drawings indicate that he visited Dunbar, Stirling, Glasgow and Dumbarton, taking a particular interest, as he had in North Wales, in castles and fortifications. The recording of a further, now untraced drawing of ‘Highlands Scotland’ in the collection of Place’s drawings which were handed down through his family, suggests that his artistic activities as a curious traveller were, for the early eighteenth century, remarkably novel and ambitious in their scope.

Further reading

Richard Tyler, Francis Place, 1647-1728, York: H Morley & Sons, 1971.

Emily O’Reilly, Wales 1678: Reconstructing the earliest on-the-spot sketches of Wales 

Susan Owens, The Art of Drawing: British Masters and Methods Since 1600, London: V&A Publishing, 2013, Chapter 2.

The Adventures of Anne Lister in Scotland

Kirsty McHugh

Fig. 1. Joshua Horner, ‘Anne Lister’ (c. 1830), Calderdale Museums.

This spring the TV drama ‘Gentleman Jack’ will introduce the fascinating Anne Lister to a wider audience. Sally Wainwright’s drama focuses on only a short portion of Lister’s life from 1832, after she had returned from travelling in Britain and Europe to concentrate on the development of her estate at Shibden Hall near Halifax, West Yorkshire. I have been studying Lister’s diaries as part of my doctoral research into manuscript travel journals recording tours of Scotland and Wales in the 1820s, and discovered just how much they reveal about the aspirations and the emotional life of this striking character at a period when she was contemplating her options for a future alliance with a female partner.

The section of Lister’s diary covering the summer of 1828 which she spent in Scotland in the company of the Scottish noblewoman Sibella Maclean is not well-known because it is not included in the extracts which have been transcribed and published. I am very grateful to Helena Whitbread for bringing the Scottish tour to my attention, as the only reference to it in print is in Muriel Green’s edition of Lister’s letters (1992), which is long out of print and hard to find. Only recently (2018) has the English translation of Angela Steidel’s Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist highlighted Anne and Sibella’s relationship. Working from digital photos from West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, I read and roughly transcribed the 100 or so pages (about 70, 000 words) which make up her entries from late May to early August 1828.

Finding a life partner

Fig.2. ‘Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull’, 1815, from Daniell & Ayton’s A voyage round Great Britain

What I soon realized was that by 1828 Anne Lister had come to the difficult decision that she could no longer wait for the death of the husband of her long-term lover, Mariana Lawton, allowing the pair to live together. Lister approached finding a new female companion and lover in a typically pragmatic and business-like manner. She fixed her sights on Sibella Maclean (Isabella Jean Maclean, 1790-1830, daughter of Alexander Maclean of Coll) whom she had met in York in 1820. Anne was introduced to Sibella by the Norcliffes (Isabella “Tib” was Anne’s friend and occasional lover), and they formed a friendship which was continued by correspondence throughout the 1820s. Much of Sibella’s appeal for Anne lay in her good breeding as a member of an ancient Scottish family and the opportunity she offered Anne for social advancement. On Lister’s tour through Scotland with Sibella Maclean the two women became lovers and Anne began to consider Sibella as a life partner. Lister had confided in her diary as early as 1822 “I would rather spend my life with Miss Maclean than any one”. The seriousness of the relationship is attested to by the fact that Anne persuaded Sibella to buy her a ring at a jewellers in Glasgow and recorded in a coded passage in her diary on 11 June “Miss MacLean put on my finger the little guard ring”. Visiting the Macleans at their home on the island of Mull, Lister tried to persuade them that (presumably on the grounds of health) Sibella should come and live with her in Paris. In the event, Sibella’s deteriorating health would prevent her from going abroad, and she would die of consumption in 1830.

In the course of my wider research I have found that tours could often reinforce familial relationships (between father and son, husband and wife, extended family) and be utilised as a means to cement social and business relations. Lister’s tour can be understood in this context, but she subverts the orthodox model by using the tour to develop the emotional and sexual bond between the two women.

The Scottish Tour

Fig.3. Redford House, Edinburgh, where Anne and Sibella stayed in May 1828. Author’s photograph.

Anne Lister arrived in Edinburgh on 19 May 1828 and she and Sibella Maclean travelled together around Scotland finishing their tour at Sibella’s home on the island of Mull on 22 July. After spending some time with the family on Mull, Lister started out alone on her homeward journey to Yorkshire, taking in more tourist sites in the Scottish borders, and arriving back at Shibden on 15 August. During their tour Anne and Sibella visited many of the usual tourist spots in the vicinity of Glasgow, including the Trossachs and Loch Lomond, and around Tayside. They also made use of the new steamboat services to travel round the East coast, visiting St Andrews, Elgin and Inverness, and visit the Highland forts and the Western Isles.

For many years Anne Lister had used a code of her own devising to record intimate details in her diary (such as sexual activity, bowel movements, health, menstruation) and so her account of her tour in Scotland has two parallel narratives running alongside each other: one recording her personal journey towards a more intimate and more formal union (including discussions of finances) with Sibella, and the other describing the practicalities of the material journey through Scotland by coach and steamboat. This supports Caroline L Eisner’s suggestion that the diary enabled Lister to maintain two selves, through the use of a code to divide, at least on paper, “her deviant self from her public self”. Travel, I think, offered Lister a space where she could explore the boundaries between those two selves.

Writing for posterity?

Fig.4. Anne Lister’s diary for 30 May 1828-15 Apr 1829. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale SH:7/ML/E/11.

In Halifax and York society Lister was regarded as peculiar because of her manners and dress. As Sibella’s travelling companion she had the opportunity of moving beyond her normal social sphere. Many of the concerns expressed in Lister’s diaries relate to how she was perceived by others and describe her desire for social advancement and acceptance amongst her peers and superiors. She prided herself on her observance of etiquette and strove to make a good impression in society.

Like others who have studied Lister’s diaries I share the disconcerting sense that Anne Lister expected her diaries to be read one day. Anne might be proud today that she is the subject of media attention, yet in her own lifetime she sought to carefully conceal her lesbian relationships to protect her social position. Whilst she wrote in her diary of how she felt her love for women was natural, she was aware that roles such as landowner or tourist were also facets of her identity which shaped how she was perceived by her contemporaries. These personas might be used to signal an outward respectability whilst gently pushing at the boundaries of what was socially acceptable.

Anne Lister’s Scottish tour is analysed further in my forthcoming article in Studies in Travel Writing.

References & further reading

Caroline L. Eisner “Shifting the Focus: Anne Lister as a Pillar of Conservatism”, a/b: Auto/Biographical Studies vol. 17 (2001), 28-42.

Kirsty McHugh & Elizabeth Edwards, Online edition of Anne Lister’s 1822 tour of Wales.

Angela Steidele (transl. Katy Derbyshire) Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2018.

Helena Whitbread (ed.), The secret diaries of Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840), Virago, 2010.

West Yorkshire Archive Service online exhibition on Lister’s diaries.

Rebecca Woods “The Life and Loves of Anne Lister”.

Curious Travellers in Romanticism 24:2 (‘Edgy Romanticism’)

Liz Edwards

It’s a pleasure to announce the appearance of a new Curious Travellers publication in the latest issue of Romanticism. This article, titled ‘A Kind of Geological Novel’: Wales and Travel Writing, 1783–1819’, is a particularly project-based piece that started out as a paper for our ‘Layered Landscapes’ symposium in Cardiff in 2015, which commemorated the bicentenary of William Smith’s pioneering geological map of (mainly) England and Wales. I became fascinated with Smith’s work, which is part map of the mainland ‘underscape’ and part pure work of art; it was all too easy to get lost in the colours and shapes running across the beautiful and somewhat epic object on display in the National Museum of Wales.

Reproduced by permission of the British Library (via Wikimedia Commons)

The map itself contains a compelling and long-running story that represents travel as much as any of the other texts we’ve been working with on the project. It became the starting point for an exploration of Welsh travel writing as a particularly sedimentary genre, a form in which material (research, first-hand observation, chance happenings) piles up and settles down in the course of a tour committed to paper. The title comes from Charles Darwin, who made some of his first geological observations in Wales, and who saw – as did Thomas Pennant before him – far-reaching narratives stored away in Snowdonia’s rocky landscapes.

The article is open-access and freely available to read here.

You can read other recent articles from the project via the following links:

Mary-Ann Constantine on Catherine Hutton’s fiction and travel writing (Romantic Textualities, 2017)

Nigel Leask on Ossian and the Highland Tour (Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2016).

Alex Deans and Nigel Leask on Pennant in Scotland and Wales (Studies in Scottish Literature, 2016).

Pennant in Cornwall: Letters to William Borlase at the Morrab Library

Mary-Ann Constantine

When Pennant was in his late twenties he wrote to the Cornish antiquarian, William Borlase, rector of Ludgvan near Penzance, to ask a favour. They had met, he reminded the older man, during Pennant’s student ‘ramble’ in Cornwall some four years earlier; first at the residence of Sir John St Aubyn, and then at Borlase’s own home, where he was received ‘in a most obliging manner’. It was Borlase’s generosity in passing on a few choice specimens, indeed, which had sparked Pennant’s interest in mineralogy:

“I have applied myself very assiduously to the study of the mineral Kingdom; and have made a very large collection of the different kinds, which I have gathered together by the assistance of my Friends.”

Finding himself ‘still very deficient in the article of Tin oras, and the minerals usually attending it’, he had remembered Borlase’s previous kindness. A gentleman who had recently leased one of the Downing-owned collieries from Pennant’s father was running ships from there to Plymouth: ‘if we engage in a sort of mineral commerce’, he wrote, offering treasures from Flintshire by return, ‘we have a ready means of conveyance’.  A list of wished-for specimens is—optimistically—appended. Borlase agreed, and the two men began a correspondence which would extend over two decades, and take them from the discussion and exchange of ores and minerals to ‘Druid stones’ and other antiquities, marine plants and creatures, and sea-birds.

The letters Pennant wrote to his Cornish mentor were preserved in Borlase’s letter-book, now held in the Morrab Library in Penzance. This small, independent subscription library celebrates its bicentenary this year:  it must surely be one of the loveliest archives to work in.  A Victorian mansion set in amazing subtropical public gardens (and, for once, with weather to match…), it has housed the library’s rich collection of books, photographs and manuscripts since 1888 when the building was acquired by the Corporation of Penzance. I was lucky enough to spend a day there reading through the Pennant correspondence, and listening in to one half of a conversation between two fascinating, obsessive, eighteenth-century scholars. (The replies from Borlase, which will have to wait for another time, are housed with much of the Pennant archive in Warwickshire Country Record Office).

In 1753, when Pennant initiated the correspondence, Borlase was preparing his Antiquities of Cornwall, which would be published the following year. Two letters written after Pennant returned from a tour of Ireland in the summer of 1754, show, rather touchingly, how the younger man used Borlase’s descriptions of Cornish standing stones, cairns, hill-forts and caves to make sense of a similar Irish landscape. He had, he admits, been too much a casualty of Hibernian hospitality to see most of the antiquities he had hoped for:

“But not to disappoint you entirely I shall give you a short account of such things as I had an opportunity of seeing, and also of others which I was informed of. I shall follow the order you place the druidical monuments in your Book without offering to make any reflections on them after your performance.”

Pennant also relates how the ‘native Irish’ use ancient arrow heads (‘Elf-shots’) and ‘magical gems’ to prevent disease in cattle. Turning from material antiquities to anthropology, he suggests that the keening of the ‘Modern Hibernian Howlers’ which he witnessed at a funeral in Kerry might itself be a ‘relique of Paganism’.

As the correspondence progresses, plant and animal life come more to the fore, although this does not stop the exchange of (and anxious enquiries after) carefully packed boxes of specimens, now arriving by a more efficient sea-route on tin-ships into St Ives. ‘Walking on our shore, picking up whatever had either oddity, or novelty, to recommend it’, Pennant finds and identifies sea sponges, shells and anemones, all minutely referenced and described. Borlase is also kept informed of the progress and set-backs involved in the publication of his British Zoology, and there is much discussion of the best way to accurately represent different species of birds.  The identification of the ‘Soland Goose’ as the ‘Cornish Gannet’ is an especially satisfying moment, and there are further requests for specimens from the obliging Borlase: ‘Should any sure bird fall into your hands, I should be glad to have it well dried & preserved if of a moderate size in an oven; if large to be flayed and stuffed’.

The final letter in the collection dates from 1761 and marks a new episode in Pennant’s life. Recently married to Elizabeth Falconer, and having already lost a baby boy the previous year, he writes with some relief of ‘the satisfaction of seeing Mrs Pennant safe in Bed; and of being Father to a fine Healthy Girl’.  Fatherhood, however, has not dulled his passion for collecting: ‘you wld promote my design greatly’, he writes, ‘by procuring these Birds well preserved stuffed or dried, being not found on our coasts: Cornish Wagel, Tarrock, Curwillet or Towillee, Turnstone or Sea Dotrel, Petrel’.

The Curwillet is probably a sanderling; the Tarrock is a young kittiwake, and the Wagel is a type of grey gull. It is noted in one of Pennant’s favourite books (the work, he claimed in his autobiography, which first made him a naturalist), the 1678 Ornithology of Francis Willughby and John Ray, who describe it, rather entertainingly, thus:

“The Cornish men related to us for a certain truth, that this Bird is wont to persecute and terrifie the Sea-Swallows, and other small Gulls so long, till they mute for fear; and then catches their excrements before they fall into the water, and greedily devours them as a great dainty: This some of them affirmed themselves to have seen.”

Whether the patient rector of Ludgvan managed to ‘procure’, stuff and parcel up a specimen for his friend is not revealed, but the Wagel did make an appearance in the pages of the British Zoology some years later.

Many thanks to staff at the Morrab Library;  to Nick and Ann Round for hospitality in Penzance, and to Oliver Padel and Isobel Harvey for their enthusiastic identification of Cornish sea-birds.

Further Reading: P.A.S. Pool, William Borlase (Truro: Royal Institution of Cornwall, 1986)