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Basingwerk Abbey, Holywell, Flintshire Richard Pennant, 1st Lord Penrhyn map of Jamaica   


The Pennants
The Pennants, the former owners of Penrhyn Castle, originate from Flintshire. They descend from Thomas Pennant (d.1522), Abbot of Basingwerk Abbey, Holywell (pictured).

The Pennants in Jamaica
The first Pennant in Jamaica was Gifford (d. 1676-7), grandson of Abbot Thomas. Jamaica had been taken from the Spanish by Oliver Cromwell's forces in 1655. Gifford, a captain of a company of horse, was garrisoned on the island from around 1656-8.

To develop Jamaica as a sugar-producing colony quickly, generous land grants were made available. These attracted both opportunists from Britain and many of the soldiers on the island to become planters (owners of sugar plantations). Gifford took full advantage of the grants and he bought and sold land rapidly, acquiring 18 times the average holding. Other families, such as the Beckfords and the Barretts, had larger plantations but the considerable size of the Pennant estates and the early settlement of the family in Jamaica placed them at the centre of Britain's sugar industry.

Gifford's son Edward (1672-1736) increased his father's landholdings and became a significant figure in the Jamaican establishment, becoming Chief Justice and a member of the governing council. On his death, Edward's large estate was divided among his three sons John, Samuel and Henry. His will ensured that a fourth son was adequately cared for until his death, he being unable to inherit due to a congenital brain condition.

While Jamaican plantations made many of their owners extremely rich, the island itself was difficult to live on. Island residents had to cope with tropical storms and diseases, the constant threat of slave rebellion, alcohol abuse and the overwhelming brutality of daily life in a slave-based society. Like many wealthy planters, the Pennant brothers left the running of their estates in the hands of agents and by the 1730s all three were settled in Britain.

The Pennants in Britain
Their wealth enabled them to move into British society at the highest level. Samuel (1709-50) was knighted and became Lord Mayor of London in 1749. He died after contracting 'gaol fever' (typhus) while presiding over a case at the Old Bailey. Both he and Henry died without children, leaving their estates to their brother John.

Richard Pennant, 1st Lord Penrhyn, John Pennant (d. 1781) was a successful West India merchant in Liverpool, Britain's largest slaving port. He also invested in the salt industry, going into partnership with Colonel Hugh Warburton of Winnington, Cheshire, who, through his wife, owned half of what had been the medieval Penrhyn estate in North Wales. John and his son Richard (pictured) began buying the remainder of the estate, reuniting it when Richard married Colonel Warburton's daughter in 1767.

Penrhyn flourished under Richard Pennant, 1st Lord Penrhyn, as he spent vast amounts of money in developing his estate. Having no children, on his death Richard's assets passed to his second cousin George Hay Dawkins, who, under the requirements of the will, adopted the surname Pennant.

The British slave trade (the purchase of enslaved Africans and their transportation and sale across the Atlantic) was abolished in 1807, the year before Richard Pennant's death. Slavery itself (the use of a coerced, unfree labour force) became illegal in British colonies during George Hay Dawkins Pennant's lifetime. The profitability of the West Indies sugar industry fell sharply at the end of slavery. By this time, however, the Pennants had already invested much of their Jamaican fortune into the development of Penrhyn slate quarry, which soon provided them with even greater prosperity.

See also:
•  The Douglas-Pennant family



Sources for this article include:
  • Sugar & Slavery, by Dr Marian Gwyn, sometime employee of the National Trust, based at Penrhyn Castle

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024