Described recently in this paper as “Rickmansworth’s most famous citizen”, few names associated with this area’s history are more familiar than that of William Penn. Locally, a school, a shopping centre and a leisure centre have all been named after him. His portrait hangs in Rickmansworth High Street on a pub sign. Basing House, his former home was subsequently the council’s headquarters and now houses the Three Rivers Museum.
Beyond the commemorative names though, the fact that he had something to do with the origins of the US state of Pennsylvania may be as much as many locals actually know about him.
Born in 1644 and the son of an admiral, Penn became a convinced Quaker at the age of 22 in a time of political and religious turmoil when members of this radical egalitarian group were frequently beaten, imprisoned and tortured. Penn himself, a prolific writer and outspoken critic of the establishment in church and state, was imprisoned repeatedly for his faith and for challenging measures to outlaw dissent.
It was Penn’s faith that drove him to harness his other talents, learning and family advantages in the foundation of a “holy experiment”, a New World society free from religious persecution in Pennsylvania, still known today as ‘the Quaker State’. Almost uniquely among colonial leaders he respected Native Americans and treated them as friends and equals in negotiating and trading. Some two hundred Quakers from Rickmansworth and Chorleywood as well as thousands from elsewhere in Britain, Europe and other American colonies, left home to share his vision of a free, peaceful and tolerant society in which each could follow the leadings of God from within rather than endure persecution under the rule of clerics and kings who feared where such visions might lead. Penn’s carefully drafted Constitution of 1682 included democratic restrictions to his own powers as Governor and reached for the lofty ideals of freedom and equality that later inspired the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
Penn’s great project was, in some ways, a victim of its own success as many other settlers, of different faiths and none, were drawn to Pennsylvania and prospered there, inevitably evolving the character of his ‘experiment’. He died in 1718 and his plain gravestone can be seen a few miles from Rickmansworth, in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House at Jordans. Fittingly it carries no grand epitaph although Penn was the author of many Quaker maxims for living including the simple, impossible and essential; “To be like Christ is to be a Christian”.
Simon Colbeck is a member of Watford Quaker Meeting. Reprinted from the Watford Observer 22nd October 2010.