Thursday, July 04, 2013

Two William Penns in Deptford

A little July 4th historical piece on two William Penns. 

William Penn the elder (1621-1670) was an Admiral in the British navy, serving both the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War and the King after the restoration of the monarchy. Like most naval officers of his period, he was a visitor to Deptford where many of the ships he sailed and commanded were built and launched. 

In 1644 for instance, he set sail from Deptford on board the Fellowship, which operated in the Irish Sea against the King's forces. In 1646 he took command of the Assurance, a ship built in the Dockyard at Deptford. Then in 1650 he was commissioned to command the Fairfax, then being completed at Deptford. His instructions this time were to lead a squadron of eight ships to attack Portuguese ships on their way home from Brazil. In 1655, he was a commander in Cromwell's naval expedition to the West Indies which completed the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish. Penn went on to be an MP.

Penn's son, also William Penn (1644-1718) is famed as the founder of the state of Pennsylvania. He was a prominent Quaker, and was jailed for his religious views.  As the King owed his father money he was able to negotiate for the King to grant him land in America - this was also intended to resolve religious conflict at home by providing a place for persecuted Quakers to emigrate to. Penn planned to call the area New Wales then Sylvania, but King Charles II named it Pennsylvania in honor of his father. Penn's Frame of Government for the province, which included freedom of religion, was an influence on those who drafted the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

William Penn, aged 22

Penn the younger's main recorded visits to Deptford relate to Peter the Great's stay in the area in 1698. While studying the shipbuilding industry, the Russian Czar stayed at John Evelyn's house in Deptford (though he and Evelyn never met). As Sarah Young notes, the details of his visit are shrouded in myth, 'confusion and apocryphal tales'. It is unclear exactly what the interaction between Peter and the Quakers (Society of Friends) involved, but they  involved William Penn (who by then had returned to England).

A plaque on the wall of what is now the Salvation Army shop on Deptford High Street states: 'Deptford Friends' Meeting House Stood Here' (Demolished 1807). Peter the Great Czar of Russia worshipped here 1697-8'. The Czar does seem to have visited the Deptford Quaker meeting house, but I am not sure that Penn met Peter here. Penn did though attempted to visit him at Deptford and may have spoken to him. According to Passages from the life and writings of William Penn by Thomas Pym Cope (1882) 'The Czar became so much interested in Friends, that he sometimes attended their meetings at Deptford. William Penn afterwards wrote him the following letter: 'It was a profound respect, and not a vain curiosity, great Czar, which brought me twice to wait upon thee." It is recorded that when Penn called on Peter in April 1698, the latter refused to meet him. But he did subsequently receive two Quakers, which may be the second visit Penn refers to (see Peter the Great Through British Eyes, Anthony Cross, 2000). 

144 Deptford High Street, a 1920s building on the site of the Friends Meeting House

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