George Penrose

(1877-1951) – Curator at war

George Penrose was curator of the museum of the Royal Institution of Cornwall from 1900 to 1951. Unfit for service, he wrote on 11th August 1914: ‘This terrible war is upsetting everybody, but I hope it will not be prolonged’. Penrose kept busy acquiring new items for the RIC collections during the conflict.

Credit: Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro

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George Penrose was baptised on 2nd March 1877 in St George’s Church, Truro.  His father was a printer compositor and George had two younger brothers and a sister.  Granny Penrose was a laundress and lived with the family in George Street, Truro.  By 1891, when George was 14, he was employed as a school monitor and later solicitor’s clerk.   From 1900 to 1951 he was the curator of the Royal Institution of Cornwall (RIC) and its letter books give interesting insights into his war.

On 4th August 1914 George, as a member of the National Reserve, expected to be called up.   The National Reserve was a register maintained by the Territorial Army, but only those who could march 10 miles with a rifle and 150 rounds of ammunition were initially required.  By 3rd May 1917 George had been rejected twice and placed in military category C3. 

As early as the 5th August 1914, the Red Cross approached George for the use of the new museum building as its headquarters.   George noted on 7th August that ‘Truro is very military just now’.   By 11th August he wrote that ‘this terrible war is upsetting everybody, but I hope it will not be prolonged’.  On 19th August: ‘My holiday is all off.  Our regular Museum attendant had gone to sea with the fleet and it is out of the question my thinking of leaving’.  But 1914 also saw the beginning of a very productive 35-year partnership between George Penrose and the collector Alfred de Pass.

George had to maintain two buildings – the old museum in Union Place and the new one in River Street, yet to be completed due to soaring building costs.  George wrote condolence letters to RIC members who had lost sons, including Stanhope Forbes in 1916. He was busy throughout the war, negotiating the return of the Trewinnard Coach as well as the purchase of the St Juliot gold lunula. The museum joined the Local War Memorial Association in January 1918 and, soon after, the old museum building was commandeered by the Army Council so the collections were hurriedly removed.   War-themed collecting included Wolframite or tungsten from East Pool Mine, used to harden steel, given by Jabez Maynard in 1916, and a request on 26 November 1918 for European war trophies.  George Penrose worked for the RIC for the rest of his life, plagued with arthritis, and died in 1951. 

Key words: home front

Credit: Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro