Hints of Sir William Penn’s influence can be found throughout Chorleywood and Rickmansworth. But some residents may be unaware of the importance of the man, his role in the foundation of the United States, and the area’s connection to the state named after him, Pennsylvania.
William Penn was born in London on October 14, 1644, son to a naval officer and grandson of a Dutch merchant.
As an adult, he became a Quaker, and is known to have been an early advocate of democracy and religious freedom. This was at a time when religious non-conformists like himself would regularly be beaten and tortured for their beliefs.
Following a missionary tour around Europe in 1671, Penn married his wife, Gulielma, at King John’s Farm in Chorleywood, before taking residence in what is now Basing House in Rickmansworth.
Both Chorleywood and Rickmansworth would become a cradle of Quakers, as Penn would regularly accommodate Quaker colleagues on their travels.
Penn’s own journey to America began when, upon seeing conditions deteriorating for Quakers once more, he appealed directly to King Charles II with a solution: the mass emigration of English Quakers to the New World.
This was granted, and in 1677, 200 settlers from Chorleywood and Rickmansworth made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. They founded the town of Burlington, which still exists today in New Jersey.
Penn then appealed to increase the Quaker region, and in an extraordinary act, King Charles II granted him an extremely generous amount of land, making Penn the world’s largest private landowner.
Penn himself took his first step onto American land in 1682, founding the region known as Pennsylvania. He originally wished to name the area simply ‘Sylvania’, but the ‘Penn’ was added at the insistence of the King.
Penn’s new land was to be something unique in America. Dubbed a ‘holy experiment’, freedom of religious belief and from religious persecution was key to the new territory.
Penn was also unique amongst colonial leaders in that he treated Native Americans as his friends and equals, often including them in negotiations and trading with them.
Though originally intended to be a haven for Quakers, religious non-conformists of all kinds, particularly from Chorleywood and Rickmansworth, would flock to Pennsylvania.
Today, Pennsylvania has a population of more than 13 million people. It is still known as ‘the Quaker state’ and is home to the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school considered to be one of the best in the country.
As for Penn, he would return permanently to England in 1701, and would sadly become embroiled in several financial problems. He died in in 1718 and is buried in the cemetery of the Quaker meeting house in Jordan, several miles from Chorleywood and Rickmansworth.
A plaque dedicated to him can be found on the front of the Grade II listed Basing House on Rickmansworth High Street.