Three Rivers Museum launches William Penn Heritage Centre project
Article from the Watford Observer
Thursday 23rd October 2008
By Melanie Dakin

In 1677, families from Chorleywood, Rickmansworth and parts of Buckinghamshire set sail for America inspired by the words of William Penn. William is believed to have resided in Basing House, Rickmansworth, which stood on the spot of what is now Three Rivers Museum, following his first marriage to Gulielma Springett, which took place at King John’s farm, Chorleywood in 1672.

A Quaker in a time when religious dissention was punishable by death, William sought to create a utopia where he and likeminded people could settle and think freely. As a young man, William was often at odds with his father Admiral Sir William Penn – who was knighted for his role in bringing the young King Charles II back to England after the death of the Puritan Cromwell – but by the end of his life he was able to praise his son’s steadfast beliefs.

We have a local hero in William Penn. We know the name but we don’t know the man. Having been expelled from Oxford, sent off to France by his father to mend his ways and arrested and sent to the Tower of London and Newgate Prison, respectively on his return, it was apparent Penn junior was not about to change his views.

Although I knew parts of this fascinating story before visiting Three Rivers Museum, it was clear, after spending just a little time with the enthuasiastic volunteers, they knew a whole lot more.

Volunteer Bill Sharp has been researching Penn’s life as part of an ongoing project to establish the museum as a William Penn Heritage Centre. Inspired by the Benjamin Franklin house at Craven Street in London, Bill hopes to bring alive the life and times of Penn through displays and, with funding support in the future, actors telling aspects of the story as visitors wander from room to room.

Bill says: “We have a local hero in William Penn. He lived in a house on this site and a plaque to him was unveiled in 1951. We know the name but we don’t know the man and his times.”

Bill put his birthday present, a new computer, to good use researching the Penn connection. “I got hooked on the subject,” says Bill. “I was Googling and there were more than one million entries on Penn. There’s a Penn school in Sussex, the Pennsylvania pub and Penn Heights, both in Rickmansworth.

“I’m just discovering how much there is about this chap. It’s amazing how things have come my way.” Among the fruits of his internet research, Bill discovered an opera entitled William Penn, which was created by the late American composer Romeo Cascarino in 1982 for the 300th anniversary of Penn’s arrival in what would become Pennsylvania. In October 1682, Penn arrived in New Castle and named the settlement Sylvania, the Duke of York (later James II) added the prefix Penn in tribute to Penn’s father, an honour which William reluctantly accepted.

Bill discovered the opera, which charts Penn’s early persecution for his religious beliefs in London and his emotional separation from his wife and children – Penn’s first wife Gulielma was the stepdaughter of Isaac Penington, another oft imprisoned dissenter, who lived at Bury House, Amersham. The opera then describes his departure from England aboard The Welcome, and his experiences while founding the new colony.

To kickstart the heritage centre project, Three Rivers Museum has assembled a small but significant display of memorabilia. There are items generously supplied by Romeo Cascarino’s widow Dolores Ferraro, who sang the part of Gulielma.

Dolores and Romeo had meticulously researched Penn’s life for the opera and Dolores has sent several books over to Bill for the exhibition, including Gulielma’s cookbook, plus photographs, the script and a CD recording of the opera recorded in performance in 1982 with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Singers and Thomas Jefferson Chorus with John Cheek singing the part of William Penn.

The museum hopes to stage a concert performance of the opera in due course.

“It’s a very powerful opera,” says Bill. “It opens with Penn and his fellow dissenters walking through the streets of London. They were regarded as outcasts and members of the crowd shout out “traitors” and “blasphemous swine”.

For the time being, visitors will also be fascinated to see the trunk, purse and an intricately worked wooden box, owned by Penn’s travelling companion Robert Dimsdale, who carved the panels of the box while making the month-long journey to America. These items are on temporary loan from his descendant, also called Robert, who attended the opening ceremony at the museum last Saturday.

After this initial voyage, Penn returned to England in 1684 and found the country in the grip of absolutism.

Bill points out that Penn lived in Rickmansworth for longer than he spent in America. Turbulent political times led him to go into hiding and sadly after suffering from the stress of separation and ill health, Gulielma died in 1694. Penn married Hannah Callowhill two years later and set sail for Pennsylvania with his then pregnant wife in 1699. The visit was short-lived however as Penn’s affairs in England brought him home again and he died after a series of strokes in 1718, at his home in Berkshire. Penn was buried next to Gulielma in the cemetery of the Jordans Quaker meeting house, near Chalfont St Giles.