Elizabeth Carne

Elizabeth Carne ( - )
Also known as
John Altrayd Wittitterly
Short biography

A Cornish author, geologist, conchologist, and philanthropist. 

Full biography

Early life

Elizabeth Catherine Thomas Carne was born at Riviere House, Phillack, Cornwall on 16 December 1817. Riviere House was a large Georgian mansion belonging to the Cornish Copper Company. It overlooked the then busy shipping port and harbour of Hayle.

She was the seventh of eight children of Joseph Carne FRS, FGS (1782-1858), a Penzance banker, and Mary Thomas (1777-1835). Her father was also the director of Cornish Copper Company and an Honorary Curator of the Penzance Library, now the Morrab Library. Her father was deeply interested in geology and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work in the area. Her grandfather was the wealthy Wesleyan Methodist, William Carne (1754-1836), a merchant, banker and mineralogist. Methodism was at heart of the family, bringing with it a strong belief in education as the prime tool for re-energising the Church of England and general drive towards raising public living standards.

Following her father's protracted business conflicts in Hayle, the family moved to Chapel Street, Penzance. Due to her family wealth, Carne was free from the necessity of taking up an occupation and was well-educated. In her early years, she was educated at home on Chapel Street, and was able to read widely and study broadly, covering mathematics, the classics, and several languages. By the late 1830s and early 1840s, she had travelled widely in Europe. Visits to Venice, France, Holland, and Pompei, are recorded in her travel drawings, held in sketchbooks at Kresen Kernow. Nonetheless, from 1835, she, along with her sister Caroline, held primary domestic responsibility in the Carne household when their mother died. She was a close friend of Caroline Fox, the Quaker diarist and co-founder of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society. Though the record of letters they exchanged begins 15 years before Fox’s death in 1871, from their correspondence it is clear that they were known to each other far earlier.

Geology and early works

Carne shared her father's enthusiasm for geology and he nurtured her interest. He had come to geology as a young man, walking around mine sites collecting and purchasing mineral samples for his collection. On his death in 1858, Carne received a double legacy, becoming responsible for the family bank, Batten, Carne, & Carne, and responsible for cataloguing, housing, and developing her father’s mineral collection. 

Following her father’s death, she travelled to Pau and Menton in France, which inspired both her travel and geological writing. Under the pseudonym John Altrayd Wittitterly, she published Three Months Rest at Pau in the Winter and Spring of 1859 (1860). Written in a diary format, the book appeared to be a travel guide, but really served as a wide-ranging manifesto for her future works as a social commentator and philosopher. The contents ranged across literary criticism, political argument, religious outlook, botanical and mineralogical rambling, and reports on conversations with companions and characters met along the way. The trip also formed the basis of her first paper read to the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, and in its journal: ‘The Age of the Maritime Alps surrounding Mentone’. Indeed, in 1865 she became the first woman to be elected as a member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, five years after her first paper had been read there.

Growing up in a wealthy Methodist family, Carne was acutely aware throughout her life of poverty and deprivation in surrounding mining areas, and the dire need for education and social support for those less fortunate. As well as developing her arguments on the integration of communities, the education of all, and for the destruction of what she felt was a suffocating class system in several books, she was a practical philanthropist. She is known to have initiated and underwritten the costs for at least three and possibly four schoolhouses for communities around West Cornwall. Carne also anonymously donated the funds for the purchase of the land on which St John’s Hall, Penzance, was built, in order to house the governmental and administrative offices of Penzance, the Royal Geological Society, and the magistrate’s courtroom.

Later writings

Carne published three further books, several more geological papers, and contributed anonymously to the London Quarterly Review

Her second book, Country Towns and the place they fill in modern civilization, was published in 1868, under the Wittitterly pseudonym. The book was her first serious study of social conditions she observed in Britain. She concentrated on raising concerns on public health concerns, such as over-crowded slums, the hazards of poor drainage and of air pollution, as well as education, arguing for the benefits of co-educational schooling for children.

Her third work, published anonymously, was England’s Three Wants (1871). A political and religious pamphlet, the book was rooted in textual references to Revelations 22:17 and Ezekiel 47:2-5. Here Carne concentrated on the hidden poverty of rural communities, the lack of enthusiasm for spiritual learning and the failure of the churches to address these problems. Her final book, the only book published under her own name, encapsulates her personal philosophy. In The Realm of Truth (1873), Carne saw morality and spirituality as underlying all human interaction with our world. Thus, she stated her belief that there was a moral imperative to study that world, reveal its secrets, and change it for the better.

Death


Carne died of typhoid fever in Penzance, aged 55, in 1873. She is buried in the family mausoleum at Phillack, near Hayle. The Morrab Library holds a beautifully executed notebook or diary of the conchology of the Land’s End and Scillies, and Carne is the subject of a substantial archive at the Hypatia Trust. Carne donated her family’s mineral collection to the Sedgwick Museum at the University of Cambridge, where it remains. Three large volumes of her sketches and watercolours of Cornwall, elsewhere in England, and in Europe are held in Polwhele family records at Kresen Kernow.

Sources

Crook, Denise. (2004) 'Carne, Elizabeth Catherine Thomas (1817–1873), geologist and author.' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Hardie-Budden, Melissa. (2014) 'Take thy new existence, child of clay” Elizabeth Catherine Thomas Carne' Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, Bi-Centennial Volume XXIII, Part 1 (April). A shortened version is available at: https://www.academia.edu/40639467/Take_thy_new_existence_Elizabeth_Catherine_Thomas_Carne

Hardie-Budden, Melissa. (n.d.) 'Elizabeth Catherine Thomas Carne (1817-1873): A 19th Century Hypatia and her circle'. Accessible at https://www.academia.edu/6703449/Elizabeth_Catherine_Thomas_Carne_A_19th_century_Hypatia

Timeline

Activity

Elizabeth Carne, author, natural historian, and philanthropist, is born at Phillack.

Date
Place
Phillack, Cornwall
Activity

Following the death of her father, Joseph Carne, Elizabeth Carne takes charge of the family bank, Batten, Carne & Carne, at 40 years of age.

Date
Place
Penzance, Cornwall
Activity

The publication of Elizabeth Carne's first book, Three Months’ Rest at Pau in Winter & Spring 1858

Date
Place
London, England
Activity

Elizabeth Carne is elected a member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall

Date
Place
Penzance, Cornwall
Activity

Publication of Elizabeth Carne's Country Towns and the place they fill in modern civilization

Date
Place
London, England
Activity

Publication of Elizabeth Carne's England's Three Wants

Date
Place
London, England
Activity

Publication of Elizabeth Carne's of The Realm of Truth

Date
Place
London, England
Activity

Death of Elizabeth Carne, aged 55

Date
Place
Penzance, Cornwall

Works in our collections

Image
A sepia toned photograph of Elizabeth Carne, the Cornish author, philanthropist, and natural historian. It shows a middle aged woman in a bonnet. She has dark, centre parted ringlets and is looking directly into the camera.
Image caption
‘Miss Elizabeth Carne of Chapel Street’, Geoffrey Harvey Album of Cartes de visite, Morrab Library Photographic Archives
Date of birth
16 December 1817
Place of birth
Phillack, Cornwall
Date of death
07 September 1873
Place of death
Penzance, Cornwall
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