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William Copeland Borlase, born this day in 1848 in Castle Horneck, near Penzance, was the only son of Samuel Borlase and Mary Anne Copeland – an Essex girl.

The great-great-grandson of Dr William Borlase, William visited many of the sites in Cornwall documented by his ancestor before an education at Winchester College and Trinity College, Oxford.


In 1863 he was asked (aged 15?) to supervise an excavation of the Iron Age village at Carn Euny, for which he in turn commissioned the antiquarian J T Blight to do many of the engravings for the subsequent report.


William married in 1870, to Alice (or Ellen) Lucy Kent, the wife of a minister.

In 1872 his major work “Nænia Cornubiæ: a descriptive essay, illustrative of the sepulchres and funereal customs of the early inhabitants of the county of Cornwall“, was published. It has been estimated that Borlase excavated about 200 barrows in Cornwall but he has been criticised for poor archaeological practice, particularly in only writing accounts of a tenth of the barrows. 1878 saw publication of an account of his travels around the world from October 1874 to September 1875, entitled “Sunways: A Record of Rambles in Many Lands“, a journey on which his wife did not accompany him.

Standing for Parliament in the 1880 general election, Borlase was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for East Cornwall, until the seat was divided in the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885. In the 1885 general election, he was elected MP for St Austell, and in 1886 he was made Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board.

However, with all his standing, his tastes became ever more expensive.  By 1887 his effects were being sold off by auction and he resigned his seat in disgrace after his mistress revealed the extent of his debts, which brought him to bankruptcy.

The Times, February 8, 1887:
The valuable Library of William Copeland Borlase, Esq., MA.. F.S.A., M.P.
MESSRS. SOTHEBY. WILKINSON.and HODGE, will SELL by AUCTION, at their House, No. 13. Wellington Street, Strand, W.C., on Monday, February 21. and two following days, at 1 o’clock precisely, the valuiable LIBRARY of William Copeland Borlase, ESQ., M.A., F.S.A., M.P., comprising highly important Cornish manuscripts and printed books, including Hals’s and other County Historeies; Chinese, Japanese, and East India Literature: Chinese, Japanese, and Hindoo Drawings : Antiquarian and Scientific Works, Illustrated Publications, and Writings of Standard Authors. May be viewed two days prior. Catalogues may be had ; if by post, on receipt of six stamps.

The Times, October 12, 1887:
Sale of Mr Borlase’s Effects.- the sale of the effects of Mr W. Copeland Borlase, formerly M.P. for the St Austell Division, commenced at Penzance on Monday. There was a large attendance, buyers being attracted by the fact that Mr. Borlase was a well-known collector of curios and rarities. There was keen competition for many of the pictures, and good prices were realized, and this was the case with the old gold and silver coins. The old silver plate fetched prices varying from 3s, to 16s, 9d. per ounce.

He moved to Ireland to work, and subsequently managed tin mines in Spain and Portugal. The move allowed him time to write however, and in 1895 he published “The Age of the Saints: a monograph of early Christianity in Cornwall with the legends of the Cornish saints and an introduction illustrative of the ethnology of the district” and followed this two years later with “The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people” – a work in three volumes.

Ardaragh, from the Dolmens of Ireland.

Ardaragh, from the Dolmens of Ireland.

But sadly, the disgrace was too much, the rest of the family disowned him and he died aged just 51, in London on 31 March, 1899.


April 2013

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