Geologist, conchologist, social scientist and banker: some of the many talents
of Elizabeth Carne!
On a bright and windy day, a small group of us met at St Felicitas church, Phillack, to try and identify the family tomb of the Carne family. This Penzance-based family contains several prominent figures: the head, Joseph (1782-1858), had been the manager of the Cornish
Copper Company in Hayle between 1807 and 1819, before subsequently moving to Penzance - living at Chapel House -to work in the family bank (Carne, Batten & Oxnam), established by his father. Joseph was also a founding member of the Cornwall Geological Society, and an elected Fellow of the Royal Society in London (1). His youngest daughter, Elizabeth (1817-1873), was the first female to publish in the Transactions of the Cornwall Geological Society (1), the first female to become an elected Member of that Society, and one of few women to be actively involved in Cornwall’s banking scene during the 1800s.
Elizabeth was brought up in a devout Methodist family, and her empathy with those less well-off in the community is evident through both in her musings on society’s development in her published works (2), and in her philanthropic activity: she established three schools in the rural areas close to Penzance (3) to widen opportunities for the children of miners and farmers in the district.
Our search for the Carne family resting place was aided by the wonderfully organised records in a folder in Phillack church. The family grave here would have been established whilst the family were living at Riviere House, Phillack (4): their fourth child, Elizabeth, died in 1818 aged four years. The same plot was then used for other close family members in the following years.
Interestingly, Elizabeth Carne, geologist/banker, must have initially been given a different name; she was born in 1817, before the death of her older sister, then presumably ‘inherited’ the name Elizabeth after her sibling’s death. This would partly explain why the younger Elizabeth has more given names than any of her siblings: she was baptised in May 1820, at Phillack, with the name Elizabeth Catherine Thomas Carne. Perhaps her baptism was delayed due to mourning for her sister.
The Carne family grave is located in Section E, plot no. 52 – close to the old vestry building built in to the wall alongside the road. It is a prominent granite chest tomb, which was entirely overgrown by ivy and brambles, and surrounded by a tall, decaying ironwork fence.
Initial clearance of the well-established brambles revealed only some fine-grained grey granite, and marble plates with no apparent inscription. Then, as more brambles were cleared and pulled out from between the railings, the first glimpse of the name ‘Carne’ appeared on an oval disc attached to the western side of the tomb.
Once cleared, this turned out to be a plaque – albeit stained by lichen growth and marred by ivy roots - commemorating Elizabeth, with the words:
In Memory of
Elizabeth T Carne
Daughter of Joseph and Mary Carne
Who died September 7th 1873
Aged 55 years
Deeply Loved and Mourned
Soon afterwards, well-preserved lettering on the eastern end of the granite tomb turned-up a surprise; an inscription to Caroline Carne, the elder sister (by two years) of Elizabeth, who had lived with Elizabeth at the family home in Penzance, and kept house for their father after their mother passed away in 1835. Caroline was not listed in the church records, so we will advise them of this addition in the near future. The inscription reads:
In loving memory of
Daughter of Joseph and Mary Carne
Born April 3rd, 1815
Fell asleep October 17th 1900
Thy presence is fullness of joy
Caroline was the last surviving child of Joseph and Mary; according to Jill George (5), she remained living at the family home on Chapel Street, Penzance, up until her death, aged 75.
Further clearing exposed a large, loose oval plaque on the top of the tomb, which had seemingly once been fitted on the south side. It is weathered, and difficult to read, but commemorates the two children of Joseph and Mary - Elizabeth (1814-1818) and George (1821-1822) - who died in infancy; the latter was born and died in Penzance, though was evidently laid to rest here. Another plaque, for Joseph (1782-1858) and his wife Mary (1777-1835) must be either missing or not yet located, as their names are listed in the Church records.
When we had finished our hour or so of work, it was rewarding to see the shape of the granite tomb through the surrounding fences...and a cubic metre of cut vegetation in the bag we had bought with us! Further attention can now focus on clearing the remainder of the greenery and cleaning/repairing the tomb.
Though the dates on the inscriptions here are from a century or more ago, the achievements of Elizabeth Carne – a published scientific and social science author (1,2) and bank manager - shine through to the present day. At a time when both these fields were overwhelmingly dominated by men, her adeptness in analysing scientific and financial data must have helped to redefine society’s perceptions of the abilities of females. She helped to break the domestic mould to which all women at that time were expected to conform, and show that intellect, excellence and good judgement were traits not bound by gender. Our appreciation of her talents is, likewise, not bound or diminished by the passage of time.
2 ‘Three Months' Rest at Pau in the Winter and Spring of 1859,’ using pseudonym of John Altrayd Wittitterly (1860)
‘Country Towns and the place they fill in Modern Civilisation,’ (1868)
‘England's Three Wants,’ an anonymous book, (1871)
‘The Realm of Truth,’ 1873.
5 The Light Among Us – Jill George, with John Durring. Pub. 2022, Atmosphere Press