The Man Who Lost Pennsylvania


DSC_0420I think we left this story last in a Quaker graveyard, somewhere in the heart of England.

William Penn, having founded the great state of Pennsylvania, died quietly and was buried in Jordans, the Quaker settlement in Buckinghamshire, England. He had left Pennsylvania in 1701, never to return. The family of his second wife secured rights to all lands and mining rights of Pennsylvania: in exchange for taking two beaver skins to Windsor Castle each year.

William Penn’s second son was clever and industrious. He was apprenticed to a London mercer to make some money; he took the family’s rights to Pennsylvania and devised ways to make them pay, collecting rents, renewing treaties with American Indian communities. He married well and had four sons and three daughters. But thought he was warmly welcomed on arrival, according to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography, by the time he departed in 1741 he had acquired a reputation for being cold and greedy. He was no longer Quaker.

And then there was his son John.

John Penn  had a cousin John Penn. When Thomas died, the two inherited Pennsylvania jointly, just in time for the American Revolution.

The fifteen year old John Penn, fresh from Eton College, responded to the revolution by heading, with his mother, straight for Geneva. He travelled out to Pennsylvania later, when the revolution had ended and the spoils were being settled. He built himself a  four-square overgrown dolls-house house called ‘The Solitude” which now rests at the centre of Philadelphia Zoo.

And he came home to England in 1789 after receiving £130,000 compensation for losing a large American state.

He had a place in Buckinghamshire: but it is his dealings with the island of Portland which brought him to my attention.

He was not a well liked man on the island.

He first arrived with George III in 1796, and resolved to have the spot above the wild and rugged Church Ope Cove there and then. It is a beautiful spot, with the only woodland on the island gracing the land running to the cliffside.

He was appointed governor of Portland Castle, and had an ostentatious castle built at Church Ope Cove, back from the cliff, and went about getting land from the locals.

He enclosed the land. One day, the local people found they could not walk there because there were fences in the way. Portland has its own ancient police system, the Court Leet,which unleashed local fury: but all efforts to release the land – which included the ancient ruins of Rufus Castle and St Andrew’s Church – were in vain.

Then the bathing craze hit England. Everyone was doing it: bathing in sea water to improve their health and vitality.

But John Penn did not fancy going all the way down the cliff to the sea for a bathe every day. No: he would rather build something comfortable half way up the cliff, comfortably accessible from his nouveau castle. Filling it was a simple matter of making servants collect the water from the beach to fill it.

Build it he did. And the Court Leet watched, and bided their time.

When it was ready, they approached the governor with something akin to glee.

John Penn had built his bath on common land, they announced, and Penn would have to pay the exorbitant sum of two shillings  and sixpence annually.

Penn was enraged: but the Court Leet had done its homework. He could not avoid the payment; and so, much to the relief of the servants, he simply abandoned the bath all together.

You can still see it today, though it is tricky and dangerous as the cliff erodes into the sea. The castle still looks down its nose at the Portland landscape: a pretty bauble purchased with the proceeds of Pennsylania.

Its name?

Pennsylvania Castle.

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32 thoughts on “The Man Who Lost Pennsylvania

  1. These Penns did not show themselves to be mightier than swords. Not a very nice bunch, it would seem. Very interesting, though. I love the come-uppance which stopped his come-downance!

  2. That’s interesting that Penn was compensated for losing the state. After all, I think Britain’s stance on the war’s causes had to do with needing the taxes they were trying to levy on the colonies – and I assume it was the crown that paid John Penn! Funny thing about the bath, though . . . he must have fancied himself royalty for a minute. 🙂

    1. Indeed. we must be thankful for the American Revolution in so many ways: for how many beaver skins would the poor beleaguered descendants of Penn be hauling up to tea with the queen nowadays? It doesn’t bear thinking about…

    1. Great, as always, to have you visiting. Yes: careless of Mr Penn, wasn’t it? When I think of his incredible grandfather, and the philosophies which went into creating a place for Quakers to be: it makes me rather sad.

  3. I was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I admired William Penn and the Quakers. It’s sad to learn that his noble intentions eroded thru the greediness of his heir. Payback is a bear. 😉

  4. What a fabulous story! I didn’t even know that Penn returned to England. I think I just assumed he died in Pennsylvania. There’s something so satisfying about a story where someone’s pride is brought to a crashing halt! You have me thirsting to know a bit more about this illustrious family with such roots in two countries. I wonder if younger Americans have only a passing knowledge of William Penn, and think he is just a figure on an oatmeal box! I needed to know more myself, apparently. 🙂

  5. From the title and the pic, I thought the photo was of Bryn Mawr College, one of the seven sister schools Wellesley is part of in the East coast. I went to BMC for a year before the transfer to U Penn. The photo is a dead ringer for the BMC buildings, modeled after Cambridge. European history is so kooky. Interesting.

      1. Bryn Mawr in PA.

        Wellesley is part of the network but it’s in MA. I was talking about Bryn Mawr. I thought, “Oh look, my old school!” when I tapped into the post. =)

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