Philip Pearsall Carpenter's "Passion for Shells"

By R. A. Baker & R. A. Bayliss

Extracted from Journal of Conchology 38, pp.241–251
Philip Pearsall Carpenter (frontispiece to R. J. Carpenter, 1880)

“A passion for shells” was the title of an exhibition on Carpenter and his shells held at the Redpath Museum at McGill University, Montreal, in 1994 (The Gazette, Montreal, January 22nd 1994). Carpenter, although born in England, emigrated to Canada in 1865 to live in Montreal and donated his remaining shell collection, now housed in the Redpath Museum, to McGill University. The present paper looks mainly at Carpenter’s life in England prior to his emigration to Canada and considers the people, places, institutions and collections which shaped his career as a naturalist. Although his work on the conchology of North America is well documented and American malacologists have studied the shells associated with him, (Keen 1968, Palmer 1945, 1951, 1958), his life in England is less well known and forms the basis of this paper.

Philip Carpenter was a remarkable man. Until 1861, much of his scientific, social and educational work was done in addition to his clerical duties as a nonconformist minister. Most of his important publications were between 1855 and 1865, “a measure of his productivity and abilities” (Coan, 1970). Parson naturalists were well known in Victorian Britain (Armstrong, 2000). Most of them worked their local areas and few became important figures abroad but Carpenter was one of these and his work in conchologv made him an international pioneer. “Philip Carpenter ranks next to W. H. Dall (1845-1927) and Paul Bartsch (1871-1960) in the number of marine molluscan species described from the West Coast, San Diego to British Columbia…[and]…was one of the important figures in early American conchology” (Palmer, 1958).


Early Life and Family

Philip Pearsall Carpenter was born in Bristol on 4th November 1819, the youngest son of Lant Carpenter (1780–1840) a notable Unitarian minister. Mary Carpenter (1807–1877) the eldest child, became a social reformer and a brother, William Benjamin Carpenter (1813–1885), was a distinguished physiologist and zoologist (Gardiner, 2000).


Education and Early Experience

Philip was educated in his father’s school, which included science lessons, then at Bristol College and later in York and Manchester at the Dissenting Academy. Philip’s early education was of "the highest type of devout and earnest Unitarianism then existing" (Gordon, 1880) but as a man he refused to be bound by any political or religious party. Although that early life moulded his character he held views which embraced a wider church and found it impossible to remain satisfied with Unitarianism, "preferring practical religious regeneration…[than]…the mere demonstration of certain isolated points of theological doctrine" (Gordon,1880).

Like many Unitarians, Lant Carpenter, his father, had shown an interest in science, but it was the Bristol Institution (for the Advancement of Science, Literature and the Arts) which first fired Philip’s enthusiasm for shells. Philip’s father, brother William Carpenter and sister Mary were all members. The Institution was founded in 1823 and had a museum, rich in molluscs and fossils; lectures on scientific topics were organised by the Bristol Philosophical and Literary Society which must have caught Philip’s imagination. Family friends were to encourage him but two people in particular stand out. Samuel Stutchbury (1798–1859) the second curator of the Institution, from 1831 to 1850, gave him help and information, showing him important books held by the Institution. Stutchbury, who published a number of important scientific papers during his time at Bristol, was a modest and unassuming man, always willing to help and encourage others (Crane, 1983). Samuel Worsley (1808–1888), a local amateur geologist and Unitarian, was to play a vital role in determining the way Carpenter’s interests developed. Worsley was partially sighted and Carpenter later wrote that, "It was to serve as eyes to guide his knowledge, that I commenced the study of shells” (Palmer, 1958). Worsley was on the members' list for the Bristol Institution in the late 1820s and was also, for a time, a member of the associated Philosophical and Literary Society. By the early 1830s, now in his early teenage years, Carpenter spent time in school holidays helping in the Bristol Museum. According to Palmer (1958), he had "at an early age developed a discriminating judgement of species determination". In 1833. he visited London for the first time to help in his late uncle’s manufacturing optician’s business and learned how to prepare microscope slides, but returned home when his strong desire to become a minister was made known. While in London he met John Edward Gray (1800–1875) who was to be an inspiring early influence. Gray who from 1824 to 1874 was at the British Museum, first as an assistant then from 1840 as Keeper of Zoology, saw Carpenter’s "remarkable aptitude" (Anon, 1877) for shell taxonomy and later persuaded him to deposit the first and best set of Mazatlan shells at the museum. As a consequence of this, Carpenter was asked to write the catalogue of that collection (Carpenter, 1857a,b).

In 1836 Carpenter attended the British Association meeting in Bristol where he met other scientists and in the same year, with his brother, William Benjamin, attended classes at the University of Edinburgh, showing a special interest in mathematical work (R. L. Carpenter. 1880). By this time Carpenter had a good working knowledge of shells. and had arranged the conchological collection at the Bristol Institution.


Carpenter's Later Education and Early Ministry

In 1837 Carpenter began studies at Manchester College, which had moved to York, a training ground for Dissenting ministers, especially Unitarians. The college, which had earlier been in Manchester and returned there later, was never solely a theological college but students training for the Unitarian ministry formed the majority and the number of lay students fell steadily from 1831. The college, in the traditions of the Warrington Academy before it, attempted to construct and teach a curriculum which was "secular in content, liberal in tone, in touch with wider developments in the fields of science, political economy and so on" (Seed, 1982). The curriculum therefore was an enlightened one, involving the classics but also mathematics, mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, optics, astronomy, experimental philosophy and natural history. A botany course started in 1824 (Seed, 1982) and there were objections from some that the corriculum was too broad . Among Carpenter’s tutors were the Principal, Charles Wellbeloved, John Kenrick and the botanist William Hincks (Baker, 1999a). Thomas Hincks (1818–1899), William’s son (Baker, 1999b), was one of the senior students when Philip began his studies and later was to be his predecessor at the Warrington Chapel. The college moved back to Manchester in 1840 when Philip was still a student but he found a lack of community there, was short of money and did not like the change. He wrote, "I am hurried on from one thing to another and have not a single hour to think" (Smith, 1986). He graduated BA (London) in 1841 with first class honours and immediatelv became minister at Stand, Lancashire (from 1841 to 1846) from where he continued to attend British Association meetings. These visits helped to rekindle "his ardour for natural history" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880).

In 1846 he was invited to Warrington as nonconformist minister at Cairo Street Chapel and decided to accept this appointment, after much deliberation and correspondence. His interests were widespread and one can understand the somewhat caustic comment of a biographer, reviewing the young minister’s "endless philanthropic schemes, some wise and useful, others ill considered and unfruitful" (Moore, 1887). In a life-long concern for better health and continuing education, Carpenter used all the methods available, including the sensible use of a printing-press (which included the first issue of the Mazatlan Catalogue) and vivid teaching. In Warrington he carried out the major part of his ministry, accomplished most of his social work, established himself as an important local figure and became a respected figure in conchology.

Warrington had an important Dissenting Academy from 1757 to 1786 and the tutors included Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) and Thomas Robert Malthus (1776–1834). Two years after Carpenter arrived, Warrington had a museum and library, the former established following a decision by the local Natural History Society to hand over their 2745 specimens to form the nucleus of the museum collections (Stephens, 1980). A new building provided for a library, museum and art gallery. Carpenter became a curator at the museum, spent much of his time there working on shells and published his first paper on molluscs (Carpenter, 1855), indicating the help he had received from Hugh Cuming (1791-1865). Cuming’s collection played a large part in Carpenter’s work on the Mazatlan shells and he had a lot of help from Cuming at various times. Carpenter was on the lookout for material for the Warrington Museum and some 300 items are held there with some marine Mollusca from the Mazatlan collection (which Carpenter described but later split up). On his travels, he made large collections for the Wariington Museum, "consisting not only of shells, but of birds, reptiles, crustacea, dried plants etc. He had remembered its interests wherever he travelled" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880). Carpenter donated a collection of fossils and minerals as well as ethnological artifacts (information from Rolf Zeegers at the Warrington Museum).

Working in a provincial town like Warrington, which did not have a rich collection of scientific books or collections, Carpenter was not well placed to carry out his scientific work and at the commencement had little knowledge of the literature. Indeed, it is not entirely clear how Carpenter amassed the historical and scientific information for a detailed study. Many naturalists, from both sides of the Atlantic helped, and Carpenter was never afraid to ask. Typical was a letter he wrote to an unnamed person at the British Museum in 1856, "Mr Darwin refers me to Dana’s Geology of the US Exploration Expedition for information of the Tertiary fossils of the West Coast of North America…of course I have no power of consulting it, as you have. Can you spare time to do so, and extract for me any lists that will bear on my branch with title and date of book" (Carpenter to British Museum, July 12th 1856).


Carpenter and the Mazatlan Shells

Moore (1887) refers to a chance event which occurred while Carpenter was walking down a street in Liverpool in the early 1850s. He saw some shells in a dealer’s window, went in and found they were part of a vast collection which had been collected by Frederick Reigen. Little is known about Reigen, a Belgian, who "must surely be unrivalled - in any age - for the quantity of shells he amassed…with a determination amounting almost to mania” (Dance, 1986). Reigen’s material was collected live, so much so that he was called before the police because of the stench from the decomposing molluscs on his premises (Palmer, 1958). Carpenter appears to have known about the collection and worked on some of these shells prior to 1855. The true story of when and how this occured is not clear but there can be no doubt that the event gave Carpenter a renewed focus for an extraordinary and lasting burst of activity which transformed his life.

With financial help from his brother-in-law, Herbert Thomas, he bought part of the collection for £50 from George Hulse, a dealer in natural history in Dale Street in Liverpool. Hulse operated from both 146 and 160 Dale Street and is listed as a turtle dealer in Gore’s directories of Liverpool in 1859 (information from Roger Hull, Liverpool Record Office). Reigen had collected the shells along the western coast of Mexico between 1848 and 1850 and the collection had arrived in England following Reigen’s death. The Liverpool portion alone weighed 14 tons and each ton measured about "40 cubic feet" (Carpenter, 1857c); the rest had gone to Le Havre. Hulse had purchased the collection and almost at once disposed of many of the larger shells to a publican living near Manchester, in order to save room in his stores. R. D. Darbishire, an early helper accompanied Carpenter to examine Hulse’s "secret chamber" (Carpenter,1857c). Carpenter later wrote his own account of the episode. "Being desirous of making the permanent collection of the British Museum as complete as possible, and finding that the original stores were in danger of being dispersed, and so rendered useless to science, I obtained possession of the remainder of the vast collection, and subjected it to a renewed and more rigid scrutiny" (Carpenter, 1857c). Carpenter had a unique method of mounting shells. Many of his specimens were mounted on glass tablets and labels were written on the glass using white ink.

Signature of Philip Pearsall Carpenter
Signature of Philip Pearsall Carpenter
(from Biology Curators' Newsletter 2 (9) 1981 p.426)

Carpenter produced three major works, two for the British Association (1857c, 1864) and a catalogue for the British Museum (1857a,b). In addition to these, there was a brief report read before the Liverpool meeting of the British Association in 1854 (published 1855). It shows that Carpenter knew about this collection prior to 1855 and is thought to have received help from Edward Forbes (1815–1854). Forbes had recommended that the shells be transferred to the British Museum. Carpenter was requested by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to produce the first "Report on the present state of our knowledge with regard to the Mollusca of the West Coast of North America" for the Cheltenham meeting in 1856. The object of this report was to condense and arrange existing material and knowledge. Carpenter began the report with a statement that "in consequence of an opportunity which an accident had thrown in his way" he had found himself "almost entirely destitute of technical knowledge" and "deprived by death of help promised", thought to be a reference to Edward Forbes. In 1864, order to correct a number of errors and to add a great deal of fresh information, he produced a "Supplementary Report" on the same subject which was published in 1864, following the British Association meeting in 1863. In the 1857 report, he stated the physical conditions of the area, the sources of information in historical order, tabulated the geographical and zoological information and "drew inferences as the present state of our knowledge may warrant". He emphasised the errors which may occur in nomenclature, site names and collections and acknowledged the help of several well-known conchologists, including A. A. Gould (1805–1866), S. C. T. Hanley (1819–1900), W. Baird (1803–1872), S. P. Woodward (1821–1865) and L. A. Reeve (1814–1865). He was clearly aware of the importance of geographical distribution and was a pioneer in the field of molluscan biogeography. He said, "My principal object in the preparation of these works has been to make out and compare the writings of previous naturalists, so that it might be possible for succeeding students to begin where I left off, without being obliged to waste so large an amount of time as I have been compelled to do in analyzing the (often inaccurate) work of their predecessors" (Carpenter, 1872). Indeed, he was often highly critical of the work of others. Russell Carpenter wrote that "When I looked at it first, [Carpenter, 1857c] and saw page after page filled with names, I asked him how many members of the (British) Association he expected would study it. He hoped there would be half a dozen, but observed that the record would be valuable for future naturalists" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880).The reports were laying the foundations for future work. Palmer (1958) commented on these reports as a "wealth of concise information of Eastern Pacific conchological literature". William Henry Dall (1845–1927) refers to the importance of the 1857 and 1864 papers as "of utmost value to students of the Tertiary and recent molluscan fauna…they not only analysed the literature from the beginning but systematized the data contained in it in a masterly way and at the cost of great labour" (Dall, 1909).

The Catalogue of the Mazatlan shells in the British Museum (1857a,b) was the result of a major donation of shells to the British Museum. The shells, known as the first set were presented by Carpenter on condition that he wrote the Catalogue. "I presented 8800 shells to the British Museum being the great Reigen collection…I was paid £50 for writing the Catalogue, which turned out to be an entire year's work" (Carpenter in litt. to Gunther August 11th 1875). There are two versions of this 552-page book, one published in Warrington and printed by Carpenter using the Oberlin press, a co-operative, with a preface by the author, the other published by the Trustees of the Museum, with a short preface by J. E. Gray. Gray emphasises how the work illustrates "the local fauna of a known station" at the mouth of the Gulf of California and exhibits the "amount of variation within a species by comparing large numbers of individuals". Unfortunately the shells were not illustrated in the Catalogue. The US National Museum possesses a complete set of drawings of the new species, made by Carpenter, and illustrations to the Catalogue have since been reproduced by Brann (1966). The "fact that he listed nearly a sixth as indeterminate and synonimized over a hundred existing names shows that he was not an indiscriminate splitter" (Galbraith and Dance, 1961). When the British Museum published a history of their collections in 1906 (Smith, 1906), reference was made to the Mazatlan shells which indicates that the collection was donated in 1857 and "692 species are enumerated or described…the total number of specimens amounts to 8800…and as a geographical series are of considerable importance". Keen (1968) describes it as a "pioneer work". The importance lies in the fact that it was an almost complete collection from a limited area and was examined in great detail and catalogued.


North American Journey

Carpenter first visited North America in 1858, sailing from Liverpool on December 8th on "SS. Kangaroo" (Palmer, 1951) in a steerage cabin and in tempestuous weather (R. J. Carpenter, 1880). He visited museums, gave lectures, examined specimens, arranged collections and met fellow scientists. His first task was to deliver boxes containing more than 6500 shells, the "first duplicate" set, to the New York State "Cabinet" of Natural History at Albany. The material came as a gift but according to Palmer (1951) he was paid for arranging it. Later he visited leading conchologists and institutions in North America, including A. A. Gould, and at the Smithsonian Institution he met the Director, Joseph Henry (1797–1878). During his stay, the University of New York, through the Regents at Albany, awarded him their first Doctorate in Philosophy. This was further recognition of his growing international status.


Carpenter's Other Work on Shells and Collections

Although the Mazatlan collection and the eastern Pacific molluscan fauna dominated his life and work, he did much more. He published articles on nomenclature, fossil molluscs, and on several groups such as the Caecidae, Calyptraeidae, Pandoridae, Pyramidellidae, Trochidae and Vermetidae. When he died, he had been actively working on chitons, preparing a report to be published by the Smithsonian Institution. Palmer (1958) thought that this would have "exceeded the British Museum Catalogue (1857a,b) in size and importance" and Dall said it was "the most valuable scientific treatise on the subject in existence" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880), but it was never published. Carpenter also examined and deposited other collections in Europe and North America. In England for example, material relating to Carpenter and Mazatlan can be found at museums in Bolton, Scarborough and Warrington and at several others. In 1874 he was arranging shells of the Boston Natural History Society (Carpenter, in litt, to J. E. Gray June 19th 1874). A year later he claimed to "have overhauled all the principal US collections, except Philadelphia” (Carpenter in litt. to O. A. L. Morch , May 24th 1875).


Last Years in England

On the voyage back to England, Carpenter read Darwin’s “Origin of Species” before attending the British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860 (R. L. Carpenter,1880) but "never really applied Darwin’s ideas" (Coan, 1970). In the same year, and with adopted son between them at the altar, he married Minna Meyer of Hamburg. However he was unsettled and had set his heart on Canada. "My feeling is…that in the present prospect of American affairs, there is sure to be any amount of good work to be done, by speech, pen and life: with better interest (so to speak) for labour-capital, than is likely to be here…I have no mission, or call, or definite purpose; but feel as though I wished to report at Montreal, and be ready for orders from the Shepherd" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880). By then even his sister Mary, who did not want to lose him, felt it was the right decision but hoped he would "never enslave himself to shells again" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880) Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) a prolific author, controversial joumalist and friend, was more outspoken and tried to dissuade him from emigrating, adding, "well you can come back if you don’t like it" (Harriet Martineau in litt. to Carpenter, no date).

Following his resignation from the Warrington chapel in 1861, he spent the next four to five years at the museum in his "large, light, airy and orderly workroom. I rarely speak a word" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880). He had much to do, catching up on correspondence, examining shells, preparing to send back collections to America, writing reports and carrying out promised work for the Smithsonian Institution. He wrote, "I rise at six or before: go straight to the museum ; work incessantly, except when eating, till ten pm. This gives me nearly fifteen hours a day, close work. I think of nothing else." (R. L Carpenter, 1880) He was working so hard away from his ministry that his sister became worried about him. Mary wrote, "How sad … you should be exiled from human beings… Scientists’ work is very valuable and beautiful; but there are many who can do that: few the other. Do seek a location, where the precious gifts God has given you may be used for His children". (R. L. Carpenter, 1880). His family were not sorry to hear that in the summer of 1864, the room he used at the museum was required for a reference library and the Cairo Street Trustees asked him to vacate part of the house he rented from them for the storage of his shells. This curtailed his work but he was able complete his next report and arrange for three typical series of Mazatlan shells to be sent to museums abroad.


Note on Emigration to Canada

He finally emigrated on October 26th 1865 and took up residence in Montreal, returning only once more to Warrington in 1874 to see old friends, members of his church and to do some conchological work. In Canada he taught, took up earlier interests in sanitary reform, continued his writings and developed a close friendship with John William Dawson (1820–1899) and with William Edmond Logan (1798–1875). People who visited him at his home were surprised to find that they had to watch him washing shells as he talked to them! He donated his remaining shells to McGill College (now McGill University). Carpenter claimed that this was the only collection in North America named in London from H. Cuming’s material. Prior to this he wrote to Professor Dawson, Principal of McGill College, "I consider this collection to be far too valuable be in the hands of a private person…I am willing to present it to your museum" (R. L Carpenter, 1880). Carpenter saw "the necessity of type specimens, adequate repositories for them, and the exchange of materials named from types” (Coan, 1970). This collection is still in the possession of the University and held in the Redpath Museum, McGill University, Montreal. Carpenter’s health declined and he contracted typhoid fever. He died in Montreal on May 24th 1877.


Discussion and Conclusion

Philip Pearsall Carpenter had the good fortune to belong to an enterprising and compassionate family. His education, from the first lessons in his father’s school, included a scientific element, complemented by varied and interesting practical experience. His chosen vocation was the service of the church and social reform was part of this. In his brother’s words, commenting on the 1836 British Association meeting at Bristol, "with all his love of natural history, the ministry was his heart’s desire" (R. Carpenter 1880).

It is our view that by the time Philip had attended lectures at Edinburgh University in 1836, he was a naturalist of sound education and with a better grounding than other naturalists at the start of their careers. There were years to come when the scientific element in Carpenter’s life lay dormant, although he was able to attend some of the British Association meetings, and it seems likely that he was able to carry on significant self education. His own self doubts were perhaps the expression of a naturalist out of practice, confronted by a formidable volume of exacting work and other pressing commitments. The circumstances of the Mazatlan collection and Carpenter’s purchase are not clear. At the time shell collecting was a popular hobby as well as a serious scientific pursuit and dealers were in business. The date of his major purchase is incorrectly given in R. L. Carpenter’s memoir (1880), for the first small Mazatlan paper was in the hands of the British Association in 1854. The precise reason for Carpenter’s purchase can only be guesswork, and what might have been a matter of impulse and opportunism was fortunately the right one for conchology.

Carpenter, as a result of arduous labour, dedication, generous help and personal sacrifice achieved much in a relatively short period of time. His early scientific background was an important factor in his success. Without mentioning Carpenter, Allen (1978) gives examples of "astonishing displays of intellectual stamina" in the work of naturalists and Carpenter’s work is a clear example. The often quoted remark of Louis Pasteur could be remembered in this context that "chance favours only the prepared mind" (Beveridge, 1979).

The publications of Philip Pearsall Carpenter reflect many of his interests but a difficulty remains. There does not appear to be a complete bibliography of his work. Coan (1969) published a list of "biological writings" with 62 titles, including works from Carpenter’s period in North America. Much of his work was published by the Zoological Society of London, and also appeared in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. Carpenter did not write textbooks and his brother’s memoir was based largely on material, often in shorthand, of a prolific letter writer. There is more work by Carpenter, mainly of a non scientific nature and not in bibliographies, which indicates that he produced a lot of written work before he began to write on conchological matters.

What of Carpenter’s place in Natural History? Although he is highly regarded in North America, his reputation in Britain is not easy to assess. He achieved no academic position, although he applied for at least one, at Southampton (R. L. Carpenter, 1880). He appears not to have been conspicuously involved in national scientific societies, other than the British Association. Unlike his eldest brother, Benjamin, he was not a scientific man of affairs in the rapidly developing events of the mid-nineteenth century. Part of what seems to have been a solitary scientific life was offset by having numerous correspondents in Britain and North America. However, S. P. Woodward’s letter to Darwin on 15th July 1856, referring to a Zoological Society meeting, mentions "Philip Carpenter joining in conversation", giving a clear impression that Carpenter was a well known naturalist amongst his peers (Burkhardt & Smith, 2000).

An early view of Carpenter was by Francis Newman (1805–1897), a teacher at Bristol College and later professor at University College, London. "I soon gained a perception how very transparent was his nature – guileless and ardent – a nature with which I had warm sympathy". Newman wrote , "when I heard of his eminence in natural history I thought it to be a natural result of his youthful tendencies. From very early years he possessed the highly valuable quality of minute and persevering diligence, with great love of order and precision" (R. L. Carpenter, 1880).

Palmer, after years of research on Carpenter’s shells, concluded that "he made himself an outstanding authority among the conchologisits of his day by his careful and persevering habits of analysis and comparison" (Palmer, 1972). Dance (1986) described "the diligent and capable conchologist. Carpenter’s work showed that the chances of discovering new and interesting shells were increased considerably by paying close attention to small and minute forms".

Coan (1969) summed up Carpenter’s position in science in a sentence, "Carpenter made contributions to the concepts of species and variation within species, to nomenclatural, systematic, and curatorial techniques, and to biogeography".

Philip Pearsall Carpenter was not a great innovator nor an important scientific theorist. In an age of many naturalists and a few giants of science, he contributed to a limited field. However, Carpenter’s importance in the history of North American conchology can not be overstated. His seminal publications on the molluscs of the West Coast with the descriptions of so many new species put in an historical context, are excellent and laid the foundations for malacology in that part of the world. He was also a highly industrious and honourable man and a naturalist who deserves to be remembered as a pioneer.


We wish to thank librarians at the universities of Aberdeen and Leeds, Aberdeen City Reference Library, Bristol Museum and Bristol Records Office, Liverpool Records Office, the General Library and Archives of the Natural History Museum in London, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, Roger Clark, Eugene V. Coan, S. Peter Dance, Carol Gokce, Roger Hull, Sue Killoran, Sheila Lang, Adrian Norris and Rolf Zeegers.



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