William Pengelly Cave Studies Trust

A Little Known Photograph of William Pengelly, 1812-1894

Pengelly Photo

The appearance of William Pengelly, excavator of Kents Cavern, is best known from the rather stern oil painting which hangs in the reading room of the Torquay Natural History Society. There are only two or three known photographs of Pengelly of which this is the most relaxed and informal.



Herodsfoot, Liskeard, Cornwall.


Many papers have been written on various aspects of William Pengelly's life and achievements. This is intended as a more popular account of his life, and starts with his boyhood and early manhood in Cornwall much of which was spent in self education. His move to Torquay at the age of twenty-four followed where he immediately started a school, and in the ensuing few years was instrumental in founding several local scientific institutions. He was now established as a geologist of national repute and travelled widely, but emphasis is placed on his wider scientific interests including anthropology, meteorology, mathematics and astronomy. His main life's study, the geology of Devon, is illustrated by reference to his scientific exploration of Brixham Cave and Kent's Hole and the conclusion he drew from them. In his middle and later life he was to receive many honours and distinctions before his death at Torquay in 1894.

William Pengelly, like many of his peers, grew from relatively humble beginnings to late Victorian eminence. He was born at East Looe on January 12th, 1812, the son of Richard Pengelly, the captain of a small coasting vessel, and nephew of a notorious smuggler. His mother was Sarah Prout of the same family as Samuel Prout, a water-colour artist of some distinction.

As a child his career was almost cut short by fire. Providentially, however, an aunt who was due to visit his home had arrived, as aunts sometimes do, a day earlier than expected. Early on the morning after her premature arrival, she was sitting at her bedroom window, wrapped in a thick woollen shawl, when she was horrified to see her little nephew William rush out of the house enveloped in flames. She hurried down and managed to smother the fire with her shawl, thus saving the boy's life but burning herself so severely that the terrible scars remained till her dying day. William had risen early and had tried to light the fire so that he might begin his lessons before anyone was about. In his endeavours, he set light to his clothes and, but for the prompt action of his aunt, the Nineteenth Century would have lost one of its characteristic geniuses.

The Pengellys had been connected with the sea for several generations and when William's schooling, such as it was, ended at the age of twelve, he went to sea in a vessel trading around the South West coast. At this stage in his career, his self-teaching began with a thoroughness which was to continue throughout his life. His main employment on board ship seems to have been reading to the seamen from the books which he had taken with him - an assortment of publications which included Johnson's English Dictionary, the History of John Gilpin, a Bible, the eighth volume of the Spectator and Walkinghame's Arithmetic. He says, "the latter was by no means unpopular, I occasionally read some of the questions out to my shipmates and they attempted to solve them mentally". That a boy of twelve could get and hold the attention and co-operation of these rough uneducated sailors, in matters unknown to them, shows that he had already attained that charm of manner, which, combined with an impish sense of humour and considerable powers of persuasion, was in later years to serve him so well. He goes on to relate that, "As the answers were given by the author, I had to declare which of them made the nearest guess, for it was often but little more. Of all the questions, none excited so much interest as the one which asks: What will be the cost of shoeing a horse at a farthing for the first nail, two for the second and so on in geometrical progression for thirty-two nails? and which gives for the answer a sum of but little short of four and a half million pounds sterling." This answer was so unexpected that his shipmates, probably getting a little of their own back, conferred on Walkinghame's publication the name of "The Lying Book". Life aboard sailing vessels appears to have been more varied than is generally realised!

His earliest experience of geology took place when he and his ship were weather bound on the Dorsetcoast and he watched a workman break open a large block of Blue Lias to disclose a fine ammonite, the first fossil Pengelly had ever seen. He was very sceptical of the workman's explanation that it was a snake which had been buried by the Biblical Flood, noticing that the specimen had no head and was coiled in an unsnake-like way. This incident marked the beginning of his insatiable quest for knowledge of geologyand prehistory.

Yet again Pengelly had a narrow escape from death. One bitterly cold night at sea, young William and some of his shipmates closed the cabin door, lit a charcoal fire and quickly went to sleep, succumbing to the fumes of carbonic acid. Happily, one of the crew who had remained on deck entered the cabin; he had the greatest difficulty in waking the men and William was only returned to consciousness after prolonged exertions on the part of his shipmates. After William had spent four years at sea, and had reached his sixteenth year, his younger brother died. His mother then decided that William was not to go to sea again and, in deference to his mother's wish, he instead spent the succeeding years at Looe in self-education.

In 1836 William Pengelly was induced by a relative of his mother to settle at Torquay, at that time still a small place but growing rapidly. Here he opened a small day-school on the Pestalozzian system and was one of the first to introduce the use of the black board and chalk. The school opened with six pupils but its roll rapidly increased to about seventy. Scientific studies now began to occupy his attention and he associated himself with all efforts to improve the general state of education in South Devon, playing a leading role in the foundation of the Torquay Mechanics' Institute (1837), Torquay Natural History Society (1844) and Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art (1862).

The school proved very successful and enabled Pengelly to find employment as a private tutor in mathematics and geology at Torquay, while at the same time lecturing in various parts of England. His renown as a geologist spread and he carried his studies beyond Devon, visiting many parts of the British Isles, where he met and consulted with eminent scientists. His interests were by no means narrow; he would discuss anthropology, meteorology, mathematics, geology and astronomy, the latter subjects giving him valuable understanding of the scale of time and space.

Happy family life began for William in 1837, when he met, fell in love with, and married Mary Ann Mudge. He delighted in their children and despite the worry of his wife's delicate health, he established and enjoyed a very close-knit and loving family life.

Some nine years after his marriage, he took a holiday in Wellington, spending his time, as always, in taking copious and accurate notes of his surroundings. While he was there he discovered that an old friend lived only eight miles away, and walked over to see him. William was received by the Rev. and Mrs D .... with kindness and delight, as it was many years since they had met. Unfortunately the reunion was limited to two hours for, as William records, "I must reach Wellington tonight and I am utterly unacquainted with the road, so I cannot remain with you one minute after eight o'clock!' "Oh, very well," said D .... "then we must improve the shining hour. Jane, my dear, be so good as to order tea." Having said this he left the room, returning with his hands full of writing materials and Hind's Trigonometry under his arm; pushing things on the table aside, he laid out the book and said "There's a lot of examples here for practice, let us see how many of them we can complete before eight o'clock. We can drink our tea as we work and so lose no time." "All right" said I; though it was certainly not the object for which I had come out of my road. Accordingly we set to work. No words passed between us; the servant brought in the tray, Mrs D ....handed us our tea which we drank now and then. At length, finding that it was a quarter to eight, "We must stop" said I, "for in a quarter of an hour I must be on my road". "Very well. Let us see how our answers agree" said Rev. D .... It proved that he had correctly solved one more than I had. This point settled, I said "Good-bye". "Good-bye. Do come again, the farmers here know nothing of Trigonometry". We parted at the rectory door and during my long walk to Wellington my mind was chiefly occupied with the mental isolation of a rural clergyman".

Mental isolation must have felt like purgatory to Pengelly, who was used to many pupils; among them he reekoned an unusual number of persons of high rank, including members of more than one royal house. One of his pupils, afterwards his helper and great friend, was Miss (later Baroness) Burdett-Coutts. At her instigation, a fine collection of fossils he had made on her behalf was presented to the University of Oxford and designated the Pengelly Collection.

Pengelly's principal study was the geology of Devon and no-one was more knowledgeable on the county's caves. At that time very few scientists had realised the importance of cave science; furthermore, the investigative methods then practised were, by our present-day standards, extremely amateurish, although Pengelly, with his usual thoroughness, was to introduce great improvements in technique. His studies paid special attention to the question of Man's early history and the antiquity of the human race and his results were presented in many scientific papers - the Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers for example, credits him with the authorship of no less than one hundred and twelve articles. His reputation rests on three arduous tasks of scientific exploration undertaken in Devon: the examination of the plant-bearing deposits at Bovey Tracey, the exploration of Brixham Cave and the investigation of Kent's Hole at Torquay.

The Bovey Tracey project commenced in 1860 and, in the following year, at the expense of Miss Burdett-Coutts, large collections of fossil plants were made. These were afterwards examined by Professor Heer who referred them to the earlier part of the Miocene period - at present, however, they are assigned to the Middle Eocene.

The excavation of Brixham Cave greatly enhanced Pengelly's reputation. The cave was discovered in 1858 by a builder, Mr Philp, in the course of erecting a terrace of houses in Mount Pleasant Road. A pick-axe disappeared through a hole in the ground and the resulting search revealed an underlying cave into which the tool had fallen. When entered for the first time, the cave was found to be completely undisturbed and sealed at both ends, and, in particular, its stalagmite floor was seen to be intact.

Chance had thus provided an opportunity long-awaited by Pengelly. Previously the best available opportunities for establishing the antiquity of Man had lain in Kent's Hole but this cave had been entered at least as early as the 1600's. Its entrance was never closed so that debris could drift in and anyone interested could confuse the sequence of its deposits by excavating whenever and wherever they pleased. Some forty years before, the Rev. J. MacEnery, a Catholic priest of Torquay, had excavated part of the cave deposits and made discoveries which had been received with general incredulity. He had found, under stalagmite, a black band of cave earth which contained bones of prehistoric animals associated with the very early implements of Man, an occurrence which conflicted with the only interpretation then generally acceptable - that such artefacts might be washed into a cave and deposited in a layer above, and therefore later than, a stratum containing the bones of prehistoric animals. All might then be covered by further sediments deposited in the Deluge. MacEnery communicated his observations to Dean Buckland (Dean of St. Paul's and one of Britain's most eminent geologists) only to be assured that the implements must have worked their way down into earlier deposits so that there was no connection in time between the prehistoric animal remains and the human artefacts. Poor MacEnery could not dispute this decision - the times were distinctly unfavourable for those who sought to disprove the views held by their scientific and ecclesiastical superiors. Mac Enery's amazing findings, however, were to be confirmed when, in I 864, Pengelly and Edward Vivian resumed his work in Kent's Hole, although again the evidence from the deposits could not be conclusive.

The discovery of the closed and untouched cave at Brixham therefore came like the answer to a prayer for Pengelly. He immediately got in touch with the Torquay Natural History Society and tried to negotiate a lease of the cave from Mr Philp, but the latter demanded an excessive price. Pengelly thereupon called in his friend Dr Falconer and, together with the Rev. Evans, they inspected the cave and came to the conclusion that it must be excavated. As a first step, Dr Falconer set up a committee of the Geological Society of London, chaired by himself and numbering Sir Charles Lyell, Professor Owen, Joseph Prestwich, Professor Ramsay and William Pengelly among its members. This committee succeeded in obtaining a grant of £100 from the Royal Society and, with this considerable supplement to their available funds, the lease could be taken up. All this was accomplished in a matter of weeks, showing the importance given to the cave; similarly no time was lost in commencing the excavations which were begun in May of the same year. Dr Falconer acted as Director but the important work of local Superintendent was left in the capable hands of Pengelly who, in the discharge of this responsibility, brought all his thoroughness and precision of thought into play. He was determined that there was to be no chance to doubt the findings this time.

He began with two innovations, the first a grid system which ensured that every ounce of earth, stalagmite, bones, teeth and artifacts was permanently recorded in its rightful position, and the second an instruction that the dig should follow the lines of the strata. By present-day standards the grid system employed was much too coarse, rendering the results of limited value for re-interpretation by later, more stratigraphically-minded workers (see the comments by Stuart in this volume, pp9). However, the results of his painstaking excavation were beyond the dreams of even Pengelly himself, when on breaking through the intact stalagmite floor, he found artifacts of early Man mingled with the bones of many prehistoric animals, including lion, bison, hyaena, bear and wolf. No bones of Man were found, only his flint knives, arrowheads and burins, but this was enough to provide proof positive for the conclusions framed by MacEnery at Kent's Hole forty years before.

With this new understanding and with renewed enthusiasm, Pengelly applied his new methods of excavation at Kent's Hole. His work here met with great success and completely vindicated MacEnery's earlier conclusions, demonstrating the antiquity of Man beyond reasonable doubt.

Work commenced in 1864 and it was not until June 19th 1880, that the excavation of Kent's Hole was brought to an end. It had been the most complete and systematic investigation of a cavern that had ever been undertaken and its scale had been much greater than that at Brixham. A task of this kind is very exacting; it cannot be left to workmen; it cannot be left to a committee whose members pay only intermittent visits; it demands the constant oversight of one man. Pengelly stated that, in the fifteen and a quarter years during which his Kent's Hole work was in progress, he visited the cave almost daily and spent on average over five hours a day there.

Life was not always happy for William Pengelly; early in his scientific career he had to bear the sadness of the loss of his first wife in 1851 and of both his sons by her. Two years later he married Lydia Spriggs, a Quakeress, who, with their two daughters, survived him. He had to maintain his beliefs despite much opposition and to withstand the scorn the conclusions derived from his painstaking investigations at first aroused. He was nevertheless steadfast in defence of his findings and lived to see even those who had originally stoutly opposed his views convinced not only of their truth but also of their inestimable value to archaeological and geological science. He maintained his powers almost to the end when, after some months of declining health, he died at his residence 'Lamorna', in Torquay on March l6th 1894. His memorial takes the form of a hall, built by public subscription, which forms part of the Museum of the Torquay Natural History Society.

Pengelly became a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1850 and received from this Society its Lyell Fund in 1877 and its Lyell Medal in 1886. In 1863 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. He presided over the Geological Section of the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1877 and over the Anthropological Section in 1883. Among other tokens of appreciation, he received a testimonial of about £600 in 1874 and his portrait in oils by A. S. Scope in 1882, both in acknowledgement of his services to the Torquay Natural History Society. The portrait, now in the Society's museum, is typical of its time and shows the likeness of a grave and noble head; however, it gives no indication of the subject's charm, fund of anecdotes, sense of humour and ready wit which made him the most genial of companions. A smaller portrait, by the same artist, together with a bust in plaster, were in the possession of the Pengelly family.

Pengelly left this piece of advice to the student: "Be careful in scientific enquiries that you get a sufficient number of perfectly trustworthy facts; that you interpret them with the aid of a rigorous logic; that on suitable occasions you have courage enough to avow your convictions, and don't be impatient, or annoyed, if your friends don't receive all your conclusions, or if they even call you bad names!'

An appreciation of the scientific work of William Pengelly appeared in Studies in Speleology in 1964 (Davies, 1964) and was following by an account of his role in early investigations of the Niah Caves (Harrison, 1966). This paper has sought to emphasise its subject's character rather than his achievements and, as such, seeks to supplement its predecessors. In its preparation I have received much kindness and advice from Mrs Slack of Brixham whose help I would gratefully acknowledge.