Late 19th Century Taal as Described by the UK-Born Priest Rev. J.E. Tenison-Woods - Batangas History, Culture and Folklore Late 19th Century Taal as Described by the UK-Born Priest Rev. J.E. Tenison-Woods - Batangas History, Culture and Folklore

Late 19th Century Taal as Described by the UK-Born Priest Rev. J.E. Tenison-Woods

From an 1888 paper1 written by the noted priest-cum-geologist Reverend Julian Edmund Tenison-Woods, we are able to obtain a very vivid descriptive picture of life in the Municipality of Taal in Batangas Province late in the 19th century. The paper itself was really more about Taal Volcano, but Tenison-Woods devoted a good part of his introduction to the town that to this day has the same name as the volcano.
The London-born Tenison-Woods was a novice for the Catholic priesthood when he traveled to Australia in 1855. He worked in a local newspaper but in 1856 entered a Jesuit seminary and was ordained as a priest the following year2. He had a special interest in geology and natural history and would travel extensively in Australia and the Far East and wrote about his findings during these travels.
He visited the Philippine Islands in 18863 to collect information about Taal Volcano and Lake Bombon4. Naturally, the priest would have visited Taal and nearby towns; and it is to his impressions of Taal that we devote this article to.
Old Taal photo
The town plaza in Taal early during the American Era. Image credit: Luther Parker Collection, NLP.
Taal’s Population
Tenison-Woods estimated that the population of Taal at the time of his visit was “between forty and fifty thousand.” The inhabitants were mostly Tagalogs with a “a few Mestizos.” The priest also noted that Taal “was one of the most important centers of population in the country” and that it boasted “of a parish priest and a gobernadorcillo.”
The gobernadorcillo was the local government administrator during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines who could be either a municipal judge or a governor and who carried “the responsibilities of leadership, economic and judicial administration5” within a municipality.
Despite Taal being right next to the sea and having a “fresh and agreeable climate,” Tenison-Woods seemed surprised that “the Spaniards resorted to it but little.” He also wrote that there were “scarcely and European residents.” Although the priest was very keen as an observer, he nonetheless missed the fact that there were no Chinese residents at all in the town.
Old Caysasay church photo
Volcanic earthquakes were a major construction consideration in Taal.  Image credit:  Luther Parker Collection, NLP.
Taal’s Infrastructures
Tenison-Woods called Taal a place with “a picturesque appearance,” with neat streets, a fine stone church, “a ruined Casa Real6 and one or two other stone buildings of modest pretensions.” Most of the people’s houses, he wrote, were “bamboo huts shaped like beehives.”
Among the more notable structures of Taal as observed by Tenison-Woods was its parochial church which was “of the usual Spanish style” and constructed “with a view to probable earthquake contingencies.” He was likely referring to the volcanic earthquakes which typically accompany Taal Volcano’s major eruptions. It has to be mentioned, however, that the town is also occasionally visited by earthquakes caused by shifts in offshore tectonic plates.
The town also had a public cemetery called the campo santo which Tenison-Woods wrote was “a combination of a cemetery and a catacomb7.” It was important to Spanish-era officials that burial grounds be located far from residential areas for sanitation purposes, and the British priest noted that the cemetery in Taal “was far from the population and well ventilated.”
Finally, Tenison-Woods wrote that Taal also had “a primary school, a monastery and a prison.”
Agriculture in Taal
Because of its volcanic soil, the priest noted that Taal’s soil was naturally rich. He wrote that the town’s principal agricultural products were “wheat, rice, maize, coffee, cocoa, pimento — which includes pepper, capsicums, chilis and other hot condiments — hemp, cotton, besides many vegetables and many fruits.”
Because the tropical climate also blessed Taal — and needless to say, the rest of the Philippines — with aromatic flowers, there were “bees in abundance, from which the natives gather valuable stores of honey and wax.”
Because of the “rich and wide pastures” within the jurisdiction of the municipality, Tennison-Woods noted that there were “large herds of livestock, including cattle, horses, goats and sheep.” Wild animals were also aplenty, such as “deer, monkeys, wild boars, foxes, porcupines, ferrets, hedgehogs; wild fowl, including ducks and geese, pheasants, pigeons and snipe.”
Many of these animals, regrettably, can no longer be found in Taal and likely in many other localities in Batangas.
Industries in Taal
The principal industry in Taal, observed Tenison-Woods, was the production of cotton. The quality of the cotton produced in the town, he wrote, “was superior to that of almost any other portion in the Philippines.” The cotton was prepared in great quantities by both men and women of the town and “woven into a multitude of fabrics such as broadcloths and stuffs for wearing apparel, both coarse and fine.” The cloths are dyed in colors that “were brilliant and varied, besides being permanent.”
People of Taal also produced oil from a leguminous plant called sesamum; and this oil was used for lighting purposes or as pigments. The oil was also used as an “adulterating oil8 as well as for food.” Except for the oil’s tendency to become rancid, Tenison-Woods noted that it could easily have become a valuable export for Taal.
Fishing was also another major industry in Taal, according to the priest; and the town’s fishermen fished in both Balayan Bay and in Bombon Lake. The fishes caught in the lake “are all marine9” and “said to be of an excellent flavor and prized more highly than any in the Philippines.
Notes and references:
1 Unless otherwise specified, the historical information on Taal contained in this article is from “On the Volcano of Taal,” by the Rev. J.E. Tenison-Woods, published 1888 in the Australian journal “Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales,” online at the Internet Archive.
2Julian Tenison-Woods,” Wikipedia.
3Tenison-Woods, Reverend Julian Edmund,” online at
4 “Lake Bombon” was the old name of Taal Lake.
5Gobernadorcillo,” Wikipedia.
6 “Casa Real,” directly translated, means “royal house.” In the context of the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines this often referred to a building where municipal officials held office.
7 A “catacomb” is an underground cemetery.
8 Adulterated oil refers to oil to which other substances have been added.
9 What Tenison-Woods referred to as “marine fishes” were those that were spawned in saltwater then swam up to Taal Lake through the Pansipit River in what is their natural life cycle.
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