Friday, June 4, 2010

Penzance Library: Not Just For Pirates Anymore

The Morrab Library
(Undated Print, Courtesy Of The Morrab Library Website.)

Mention "Penzance," and what leaps to mind is "pirates," "Gilbert and Sullivan," and maybe a few bars of The Major-General's Song. But Penzance is much more than the setting of a famous comic opera. This seaside village in the Penwith district of Cornwall is the home of one of the most beautiful of the 19 private subscription libraries in the United Kingdom. Housed in a Georgian-style mansion built in 1841, and surrounded by a lush, three-acre subtropical garden, The Morrab Library is undoubtedly "The Pearl of Penzance."

The Morrab Library And Garden Bandstand.
(Image Courtesy Of The Morrab Library Website.)

The Morrab Library (the name comes from two Cornish words, "mor" meaning "sea", and "app" meaning "shore") was founded in Penzance in 1818 by a small society of bibliophiles. Until the late 1830's the Library's current location, at the edge of town, was nothing but sand dunes. But in 1840 an enterprising local brewer, Samuel Pidwell, saw the potential beauty of the gently sloping land by the seaside, and became determined to turn a wasteland into a new Eden. By 1841 he had completed work on his stately manor, dubbed "Morrab House," and had even surrounded it with a walled garden. Alas, the Pidwell Family was forced to leave Cornwall only a few short years later. But in a tribute to his Victorian era dream house, Samuel Pidwell built a stone-for-stone exact copy of the Penzance mansion in his adopted homeland of Portugal.

The Boer War Memorial In The Morrab Gardens, Library At Rear.
(Image Courtesy Of Sandra & George Pritchard, Morrab Gardens Penzance.)

Meanwhile, Morrab House was purchased by a local bigwig, Charles Campbell Ross. Ross was a five-time Mayor of Penzance (1877, 1878, 1879, 1881 and 1883), a Conservative Member of Parliament for the St. Ives borough of Cornwall (1881-1885), and a major partner in the Penzance Bank. But the late 1880's were the start of a downward spiral in Ross's fortunes. In 1885 he lost his seat in Parliament to the Liberal candidate, Sir John St. Aubyn, in a particularly nasty and bitterly contested election. Feeling ill-used, Ross left Morrab House for a more isolated home further from Penzance. Then in 1896 the Penzance Bank went belly up. Ross, unlike his unfortunate depositors, didn't lose his bespoke shirt, but his future in politics and business was all used up. So, like many a down-on-his-luck gentleman, he sought anonymity in London, and became a man of culture. Charles Campbell Ross ended his career as a respected museum curator.

One Of The Morrab Gardens Fountains, Library At Rear.
(Image Courtesy Of Sandra & George Pritchard, Morrab Gardens Penzance.)

But what was bad for Charles Campbell Ross was good for bibliophiles. Morrab House, and the adjacent lands, were purchased by the Penzance Corporation for conversion into a public park. The society running the Penzance private library knew a prime location was up for grabs, and quickly made a deal to rent Morrab House. By 1889 the Morrab Library was ensconced in what remains its home to this day. The surrounding grounds were converted into a public garden designed by London landscape architect Reginald Upcher. This places the library amidst a bower of flowering shrubs, tree ferns, Cornish palms, Japanese Bitter Orange Trees and banana plants.

One Of Many Sunny Reading Rooms In The "Unstuffy Club."
( Image Courtesy Of The Morrab Library Website.)

The Victorian home that became the Morrab Library is a haven of large, sunny rooms with garden views that "has the happy atmosphere of an unstuffy club," according to the library's website. It also has the distinction of having one of the lowest membership fees of any private library in the United Kingdom, "roughly the cost of one hardcover book," for a calendar year's subscription. (The exact amount varies, being lowered for members who join after June 30.)

Book Stacks At The Morrab Library.
( Image Courtesy Of The Morrab Library Website.)

And what do the roughly 600 members get for that small fee? Total access to the sixth largest private library in the U.K., with more than 40,000 volumes, 2,750 of which were published before 1801. The collection is particularly strong in literature, history, biography, antiquities, topography, travel, and religion. The Morrab Library's Jenner Room is entirely devoted to books on Cornish and Celtic Studies, making it one of the richest resources anywhere for scholars of those ancient tribes. The Library also holds extensive runs of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century periodicals, including over a century of Cornish newspapers.

A Photo Of Thus Far Unidentified Edwardian Ladies From The Cornish Photo Archive.
( Image Courtesy Of The Morrab Library Website.)

Special collections at the Morrab Library include a 3,000 piece archive of Napoleonic memorabilia, which has been described as "the only great Napoleonic collection in the world;" a Cornish Photo Archive featuring 10,000 prints and negatives of antiquities, places, people, and events of importance to the area's history and culture; and a Peers of the Realm Archive which contains images, photos, heraldic devices, maps, and genealogies of the British nobility, as well as original letters and documents dating back as far as the 14th century. The current chairman of the library is biographer and essayist A.N. Wilson, the previous incumbent was the King of Spy Fiction, John le Carre.

The Morrab Library In Late Summer.
(Image Courtesy Of Sandra & George Pritchard, Morrab Gardens Penzance.)

When Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert conceived of The Pirates Of Penzance in 1878, the title of the comic opera was a joke on several levels: the sleepy seaside town seemed a most unlikely spot for bloodthirsty pirates, and the opera actually premiered in the United States to avoid the common practice of "pirated" productions of British works in an age before the protection of international copyrights. Finally, in the 12th through 16th centuries the coastal town of Penzance actually was a frequent target of what were referred to as "Turkish pirates," in fact the Barbary Corsairs, a loose alliance of Muslim privateers who operated for centuries out of North Africa. Nowadays, book loving pirates might well be tempted to sack the riches of "The Pearl of Penzance." But there's no need when the Morrab Library is always accepting new members, and visitors are welcome for a daily fee of a mere 3 British Pounds Sterling.

Thanks to Culture and Anarchy's Serena Trowbridge for the lead.


  1. Charles Campbell paid in full all his depositors using not only his money but all the family helped to make sure everyone get their money back. Also he did not become "a man of culture" he always was a man of culture and had travelled widely.

  2. While researching for a book I found this post about the Morrab library and the Pidwell family. Can anybody tell me why the Pidwell family was forced to leave Cornwall? It may be a very useful information for my book. Thanks in advance for any help in this regard. Claudia

  3. Claudia,

    Sorry,I have no information on why the Pidwell family left Cornwall. I'd be interested to know myself.

    Best of luck on your research and your book.


  4. Thanks, Nancy. I'll let you know, when I find out more details.


  5. The caption to the photograph of the fountain says "Library at rear" but it's not the library in this picture, it's numbers 10 and 11 St Mary's Terrace - I own number 11!
    We're lucky enough to have a lovely view over Morrab Gardens from our front windows.
    Jenny Forbes


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