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William Borlase was born on this day, February 2nd 1695 in Pendeen, Cornwall. It is said that he was born in the farmhouse where the Pendeen Vau fogou is located. The family descended from an old Norman family who took the Borlase name from the farm where they had first settled, just northwest of St Wenn. The family moved to Pendeen in the mid-17th century. There is still a Borlase Farm at St Wenn today.

He attended Exeter College at Oxford and was ordained as a deacon in 1719, and a year later as a priest. He returned to Ludgvan in 1722 and ten years later following the death of his brother (the incumbent) was also presented with the vicarage of St Just, the parish of his birth. William married Anne Smith, a rector’s daughter, in 1724 and they had six sons though only four survived infancy – three of whom became churchmen like their father. Anne died in 1769, aged 45.

William Borlase

As an antiquarian he is best known for his ‘Antiquities of Cornwall’, first published in 1754, but he was also known as a naturalist and geologist as well as being vicar of Ludgvan for 50 years before his death in 1772.

Living in a strong mining area led to an interest in geology and collection of mineral samples, and from this came an interest in the natural history of the county, and the various ancient monuments there, many of which still survive.

In 1730, he became acquainted with Alexander Pope (for whose grotto at Twickenham he later supplied many the fossils and minerals), Ralph Allen, and other persons of eminence and ability and began a correspondence with them, and other distinguished persons whose acquaintance he afterwards made. This continued throughout his life, and a considerable archive of his letters exists.

Visiting Exeter in 1748 for the ordination of his eldest son, he met with Dean Lyttelton (afterwards bishop of Carlisle). This acquaintanceship seems to have led to the publication of William’s essay ‘Spar and Sparry Productions, called Cornish Diamonds‘ in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’. Shortly after this, in 1760 he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society.

Borlase Title

‘Cornish Antiquities’ was published in 1754, with a second edition released in 1769, complete with many plates based upon his sketches, including depictions of Zennor Quoit prior to it’s partial destruction and subsequent restoration, and Lanyon Quoit before it’s collapse in the early 1800’s.

'Senar Cromlech'

‘Senar Cromlech’

In 1766 his account of the Scilly Islands, ‘Observations on the Ancient and Present State of the Islands of Scilly, and their Importance to the Trade of Great Britain’ appeared, being an extension of an earlier essay in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’. 1758 saw the publication of his ‘Natural History’, also illustrated with numerous plates from his own drawings.

Shortly after 1758 he presented his collections to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In acknowledgment of this gift, and in recognition of his distinguished services to literature and archaeology, the university conferred upon him by diploma, in 1766, the degree of doctor of laws.

William died at Ludgvan on 31 Aug. 1772, aged 77. Only two of his sons survived him: the Rev. John Borlase, and the Rev. George Borlase.

A ‘scholarly biography’ is available from the Cornish Bookshop.


February 2013

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