Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Borlase, William

BORLASE, WILLIAM (1695–1772), antiquary, descended, it is said, from a Norman family, who settled in the parish of St. Wenn, Cornwall, where they adopted the Cornish name of their place of residence (Borlase's MSS.) Pendeen, near St. Just, became their chief abode about the middle of the seventeenth century; and the Borlases took the royalist side in the civil war. William Borlase, the second son of John Borlase, M.P. for St. Ives in Cornwall, and Lydia Harris, his wife, of Hayne, Devonshire, a descendant of the Nevilles and Bouchiers, was born on 2 Feb. 1695 (Quarterly Review, cxxxix. 367). First educated at a school in Penzance, he was removed thence to Plymouth in 1709, and placed under a Rev. Mr. Bedford; going afterwards to Tiverton School. In March 1712–13 he was entered at Exeter College, Oxford, where he took his degrees of B.A. and M.A. in due course. In 1719 he was ordained deacon, and in 1720 priest. In 1722 he was presented to the living of Ludgvan, near Penzance, and he now seems to have first paid particular attention to the natural history of his native county, and to the præhistoric antiquities of the hundred of Penwith. He was an acute observer and a careful draughtsman, and his observations, albeit sometimes of a too fanciful character (especially when he approaches the subject of the Druids), are often interesting and original. In 1724 he married Anne Smith, daughter of the rector of Illogan and Camborne. In 1730, when on a visit to Bath for the benefit of his health, he became acquainted with Pope, Ralph Allen, and other persons of eminence and ability; and his correspondence with them, and other distinguished persons whose acquaintance he afterwards made, continued during Borlase's life, and is preserved, in more than forty volumes, in the library of Castle Horneck, Penzance. A list of them is given in Courtney and Boase (Bibl. Cornub., i. 3415). In 1732 his brother, the Rev. Walter Borlase, LL.D., vice-warden of the Stannaries of Cornwall, died; and thereupon Borlase added the vicarage of St. Just, about twelve miles distant, to his other benefice. Notwithstanding his active researches in natural history and antiquities, William Borlase seems to have paid close attention to his clerical duties, which he is said to have performed with 'the most rigid punctuality and exemplary dignity' (Chalmers). In the summers of 1744 and 1746 Borlase came into conflict with John Wesley, whom, in his capacity of magistrate, he summoned before the justices. In 1748 he went to Exeter, to be present at the ordination of his eldest son, and whilst here made the acquaintance of Dean Lyttelton (afterwards bishop of Carlisle). This acquaintanceship seems to have led to the publication of the results of Borlase's labours, for in the following year appeared his essay on 'Spar and Sparry Productions, called Cornish Diamonds,' in the 'Philosophical Transactions.' This at once procured his election in 1760 as a fellow of the Royal Society. His contributions to the 'Philosophical Transactions' (nineteen in all) are catalogued in the 'Biographia Britannica,' ii. 426.

In 1753 he went to Oxford in order to bring out his 'Cornish Antiquities,' which was published in the following year. A second edition followed in 1769. In 1766 his account of the Scilly Islands appeared. It was an enlargement of one of his papers in the 'Philosophical Transactions,' and the work elicited from Dr. Johnson, in the 'Literary Review,' the criticism that 'this is one of the most pleasing and elegant pieces of local inquiry that our country has produced.' In 1767 Borlase revisited Oxford, this time with a view to bringing out his 'Natural History which appeared in 1758, illustrated, like the 'Antiquities,' with numerous plates after his own drawings. Some supplemental emendations of this work were printed in the 'Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall' for 1864 et seq. Shortly after 1758 he presented to the Ashmolean Museum the whole of his collections. A manuscript list of them, with some original letters, is in the Museum (W. H. Black's Catalogue of Ashmolean MSS.) In acknowledgment of this gift, and in recognition of his distinguished services to literature and archæology, the university conferred upon him by diploma, on 23 March 1766, the degree of doctor of laws. Although Borlase was now seventy years of age, he continued his literary pursuits, writing his 'Sacræ Exercitationes' (chiefly paraphrases of Ecclesiastes, the Canticles, and the Lamentations). He took deep interest in gardening, and in the formation and improvement of the public roads in his neighbourhood. He now also worked at a 'Parochial History of Cornwall,' never published. His latest literary work consisted of some speculations on the 'Creation and the Deluge,' but this, too, was not printed (although actually sent to the press), in consequence of Borlase's last illness. On 31 Aug. 1772 he died at Ludgvan, of which parish he had for fifty-two years been rector, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.

He left six sons, only two of whom survived him: the Rev. John Borlase, and the Rev. George Borlase, casuistical professor and registrar of the university of Cambridge.

[Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, iii. 78, 680, v. 291–303; Nichols's Illustrations, iv. 227, 445, 460, 468 ; Gent. Mag. Ixxiii. part ii. 1114–17; Literary Magazine for May 1766; Tregellas's Cornish Worthies.]

W. H. T.