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History's Headlines: A world turned upside down for a Pa. power couple

John Penn was familiar with the sights and sounds of a summer night in 18th century Pennsylvania.

The sharp chirp of a multitude of crickets, the thump of bullfrogs on the nearby Schuylkill River and the distant flash of lightning and rumble of thunder; all was as it should be. But there was another sound the former governor of Pennsylvania and grandson of William Penn heard over all the others on the night of August 4, 1777, one that he had learned to dread at that late hour.

It was hoof beats, pounding down the road from Philadelphia. And at that time in the middle of the American Revolution they could only be something serious. At the sight of three members of the Philadelphia Troop of Light Horse pulling their mounts up sharply in front of Lansdowne, his stately summer mansion (a place of refuge, he had hoped, for himself and his wife Anne Allen, daughter of Allentown founder William Allen), he assumed their mission was not a friendly one.

It is not known if the cavalrymen knocked and were admitted or if they charged into Penn’s home and shouted to him to come down. But whatever it was, the message they came to deliver was a grim one. They had a document they called a parole and demanded that he sign it or face arrest.

In it he was to promise that he would do nothing unfriendly to the United States, that he would pass no intelligence to British forces whose fleet was nearby for a suspected invasion, and that he consider himself a prisoner of war.

According to historian Lorett Treese, after reading the document carefully, Penn exploded. How dare they come into his house at that hour frightening his wife and threatening his servants. He had committed no crime, and he would not be browbeaten into signing anything.

Telling the soldiers to wait, he went to his room, perhaps to think it through and to teach these bullying troopers a lesson. The sun was crossing the horizon when Penn passed a note to them with his response. He would sign nothing under pressure. Come back on the next day - Friday - at a decent hour and he would have an answer for them.

With that the soldiers rode off.  Penn waited for them all day Friday, but it was not until the afternoon of the following Monday that they returned.

This time there were six cavalrymen who told him he must return to Philadelphia as their prisoner to appear before the Supreme Executive Council. After much talk they agreed that Penn and his wife could stay at her father’s home and counting house on Water Street in the city. John Penn and Anne Allen kept their word, but he still refused to sign the parole.

With that soldiers were placed around William Allen’s former residence and Penn was considered under house arrest. For three days they waited fearfully. Anne believed that Congress wanted to hold her husband in case the British captured some patriot leaders and they needed to have a hostage for a prisoner exchange.

After bickering with Congress, during which Penn reluctantly signed the parole, an agreement was reached. Penn could leave the area and travel to the Liberty Iron Works in New Jersey, 55 miles from Philadelphia, a property owned by William Allen.

But his wife, although allowed occasional visits, must spend most her time in the city. Fearful that they had no choice and not knowing if they would ever see each other again, the couple agreed.

Neither John Penn nor Anne Allen could have imagined this fate in 1773 when, returning from a trip to Europe, they were hailed by local officialdom and cheering crowds.  And at the time of their marriage in 1766, even the normally argumentative Colonial Assembly sent a message of congratulations to the couple. At that time there was nothing but praise for the uniting of the two best known families in colonial Pennsylvania.

John Penn, son of Richard Penn Sr., had been groomed by his uncle, Thomas Penn, who oversaw the family’s interest in Pennsylvania to be governor. The only major kink in the program came when John, then 18, fell in love with a young woman named Grace Cox and secretly married her. The Penn family was horrified, believing her to be a fortune hunter. Apparently, some sort of agreement was reached, and they were separated.

There was no such problem with the Anne Allen. Her father’s fortune promised a handsome dowry, of which Thomas Penn made sure. Allen was born sometime between 1734 and 1740. What sort of education she had is unknown. A portrait painted of her in 1760 by Benjamin West shows her with dark hair and fair, alabaster white skin swath in a silk shawl.

West has set her in an Italianesque setting with a Mona Lisa-type landscape in the background. Used to the best of everything, Anne Allen was also aware of the importance of style. A note exists from her father noting that her riding clothes “must be in fashion when she rides.”

Anne was not aware of Penn’s interest in her until told of it by his friends. The courtship took time as both later admitted they were “naturally bashful.”  A marriage finally took place in the spring of 1766, but no record of an exact date has apparently survived.

John Penn and Ann Allen were no strangers to the Lehigh Valley. Penn is recorded as first stopping at the Sun Inn in Bethlehem with his brother, Richard Jr. in 1765. According to a 19th century chronicler of Philadelphia society, Richard Penn Jr.  was ”a fine, portly man, a bon vivant and very popular.”

In late April of 1766, John Penn and his bride Ann Allen spent three days at the Sun Inn. One of those days “they spent a pleasant afternoon on the river, witnessing the men of the village taking shad with the bush-net after the Indian mode of fishing.”

They also apparently visited William Allen’s fishing lodge along the Jordan Creek and in 1769 James Allen’s country mansion, Trout Hall.

As he stayed in America, John Penn came to think of himself more as an American than British. When the tensions began rising between the colonists and the mother country, he did what he could to try and heal them and avoid a break.

But when the Declaration of Independence was issued, he and Anne withdrew to Lansdowne, hoping to wait the war out as neutrals. From September 1777 to July 1778, the British stayed in Philadelphia as an army of occupation, and John Penn stayed in New Jersey.

But when they left, Congress allowed him to return to Philadelphia. Once there, John Penn took a loyalty oath to the new American government and retired to Lansdowne with his wife.

But the following year the legislature passed a Divestment Act, taking 24 million of the 29 million acres that William Penn received from King Charles II as state property to be sold. The Penn family was to be paid 130,000 pounds compensation. John Penn protested, but he was told by his friends that he should be glad for what he got as many got nothing.

After the Revolution was over, Penn wanted to try and collect rents on some of his land that remained in his possession. But the same friends, most prominently Benjamin Chew, warned him he should just try to sell it off to his tenants unless he wanted to start the Revolution all over again.

Eventually he shared the 130,000 pounds with John Penn of Stoke, the youngest son of Thomas Penn, who had died in 1775.

John Penn died on Feb. 9, 1795, and was buried in a handsome monument in the floor of Christ Church in Philadelphia where he rests today. He was 67.

Anne Penn decided she wanted to live in England, where her brothers Andrew and William lived. Andrew’s daughter, Margaret, was to return to America as the wife of George Hammond, the first British ambassador to the United States.

But Margaret soon discovered that being a diplomat’s wife was not all embassy balls. In 1795, a crowd of between 300 and 400 protesters showed up at the couple’s doorstep in Philadelphia and burned a copy of what they saw as the flawed, unequal Jay Treaty between the U.S. and Britain (nicknamed for John Jay the American who negotiated it), shouting “Damn John Jay! Damn John Jay! Damn everyone that won’t damn John Jay!”

Margaret might have been reminded of stories she heard about the revolution from her father and aunt. But then again, it was nothing like the just ended French Revolution.

Before she left America forever, Anne Penn sold Lansdowne to James Greenleaf, husband of James Allen’s daughter Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf. It was destroyed in a fire in 1854.

Apparently seeking solace in the countryside, Anne Penn moved to Spleen, a hamlet near Newbury, Berkshire, in rural England.  In one letter she wrote in 1801 she noted she lived on a three-acre plot, maintained two cows and a kitchen garden and could not afford a carriage.

An article in the 1968 issue of the Lehigh County Historical Society’s Proceedings, without citing a source, claims she had a “considerable fortune,” when she died at approximately age 84 in 1830, one that was divided between her nephews and nieces, who called her "Aunt Penn."

Anne Penn was buried in the burial ground of the fashionable St. George’s Hanover Square Church located in an area called Bayswater.

In 1969, the land was cleared for redevelopment, and the 11,500 remains were taken to London’s historic West Norwood Cemetery, where, along with the rest, those of Anne Penn were cremated and buried.


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