William Pennoyer

William Pennoyer was born in England in 1601, and was apprenticed to a vintner in Bristol aged 16. From these modest beginnings, he rose to prominence as a major figure in both London and in New England. Throughout his life, William was a Puritan of frugal disposition, described by a contemporary as "a person wholly composed of Mercy and Goodness, Bounty and Liberality" and yet he amassed great wealth through trading activities, a few of which today would be considered rather questionable.

However, his charitable support of worthy causes stands as his greatest monument, and without his endowment, Pulham St Mary school would not have survived. William Pennoyer is remembered even today in the USA as the benefactor of the Pennoyer Scholarship at Harvard University, one of the oldest scholarships in the USA.

Humble Beginnings

William Pennoyer was born in Hay-on-Wye in Herefordshire at the beginning of the 17th Century.  His father was a glove-maker, who had changed his name from Butler because he had been witness to a murder.  William was apprenticed to a vintner in nearby Bristol, but he did not complete his first apprenticeship, and instead in 1620 became an apprentice to a member of the Clothworkers' Company of London.

The Clothworkers' Company was one of the Great Twelve Livery Companies in the City of London. Its role was to promote the craft of cloth-finishing and to support its members. After nine years' apprenticeship Pennoyer was free to trade in the cloth-finishing business.

In 1637, William married Martha Josselyn daughter of John Josselyn of Hide Hall in Hertfordshire (right). Clearly, William had risen from his relatively humble beginnings to make such a marriage, and indeed, two years later he was elected to the Livery of the Clothworkers' Company.

London in the 17th century was a rapidly expanding business environment, with trading activity flourishing from there around the world. England's chief overseas export was part-finished woollen cloth, mainly destined for the northern European markets. Cloth was big business and William played a big part in that business, but his enterprise didn't end there.

International Businessman 

Clearly, William Pennoyer was well positioned as a Clothworker, but his enterprise didn't end there – William was soon also trading in tobacco as well as cloth.

England's share in global trade in the early part of the 17th century was increasing dramatically. This was in part due to the opening of new trade routes with the Middle and Far East, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. This enabled traders from England to deal directly with exporters in distant countries, rather than through intermediaries along the Silk Routes.

A new breed of merchants – including William Pennoyer – emerged during this period, trading in new markets in the Middle East, the East Indies and America. Groups such as the Levant Company and the East India Company were the leading importer/exporters, trading directly in diverse goods such as raw silk, currants, nutmeg, mace, fish and furs.

William's links with America were strongest of all.  Puritans dominated the colonies in New England, having emigrated there to be able to practise their faith without persecution.  The new colonies provided an opportunity for the strict regime of Puritanism to be implemented without disruption; William, as a Puritan, would not only have much in common with the colonists, he no doubt had met many of them in England.

William came in contact with a number of merchants, including Maurice Thompson, who owned land in Virginia and traded in tobacco. By the late 1630s, William and Thompson had been granted a fishing patent by the Massachusetts Bay colony to build a fishery at Cape Ann, conditional on their emigration to the colony. It seems they were never forced to comply with this!

During the 1640s, William acquired land in Barbados and established sugar mills there, exporting horses from the UK to both Barbados and Virginia. In the next decade, he became a munitions manufacturer, buying saltpetre from the East India Company, selling the gunpowder to Parliament and profiting hugely from his efforts. He is also recorded repeatedly as one of the owners of ships sailing between England, West Africa and the Colonies, so this too must have added to his fortune. 

The darkest side of William Pennoyer's trading activities relates to slavery.  Records show that his ships carried cargoes of slaves from Guinea in West Africa.  It is also certain that to operate a sugar plantation in Barbados would have entailed slave labour, as there were insufficient numbers of indigenous people to undertake this work.  There is no evidence that Pennoyer traded slaves himself, but this is academic. 

William was highly respected in Britain for his knowledge and experience in a range of areas, acting as a Parliamentary advisor on many topics, including colonial affairs.

In 1641, a rebellion began of Catholics in Ireland against English rule, and William Pennoyer and Maurice Thompson were soon delivering goods, ammunition, arms and soldiers over to Ireland to support Parliament's campaign against the rebels. Many records exist in Hansard (the records of Parliament) of Pennoyer and Thompson petitioning parliament in order to receive their (generous) repayments – including land in Ireland – for their services in this area. 

By 1642, England was on the brink of Civil War, and the power of the throne was diminishing.

In 1657, William became the Master of the Clothworkers' Company, a position of great responsibility and importance. Samuel Pepys, the great Diarist, became Master in 1677. William continued to live in Bishopsgate in London, near Great St Helen's Church throughout life, and was buried in the churchyard of St Helen's in 1670. William lived in the city of London through the Great Plague of 1665 and the subsequent Great Fire of London in 1666.

By 1662, William Pennoyer's name is absent from the Court List of the Clothworkers' Company, suggesting that he had retired from business by that time. Certainly, as a Parliamentarian (supplying munitions etc to Parliament, and as Master of a Livery Company which supported Cromwell) his career did seem to decline after the death in 1658 of Oliver Cromwell, and the subsequent restoration of King Charles II.

There is no record of where Pennoyer lived at this time.  It is conceivable that he chose to move to one of his properties in Pulham at that time - close enough to London to continue managing his empire, but not so close as to antagonise the Court of King Charles II. 

Charitable Activities  

William Pennoyer, as a Puritan, had little interest in living lavishly, and believed in using his considerable wealth for more constructive purposes. In 1656, William had purchased the Manor of Vaunces, in Pulham St Mary, for £4,000 – a considerable sum in those days. This included the farms known today as Upper Vaunce's and Home Farm. Both these properties were let, and two other farms he purchased in Pulham (Asten's Farm and – possibly - Kemp's Farm) were used as security for loans. There's no evidence to show whether William ever lived in any of his Pulham properties.

 In 1659, William became a Governor of Christ's Hospital, which was established in 1552 by King Edward VI to care for poor and homeless children in London. Christ's Hospital, now in Horsham, East Sussex, remains one of the last and largest truly charitable schools in the UK. William made many donations to Christ's Hospital, throughout his life and also in his will, where the balance of his rents from Home Farm and Vaunce's Farms were paid to the school.

William was elected a member in 1668 of the New England Company, also known as the "Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England", whose president was the eminent scientist Robert Boyle. This missionary society aimed to convert the Indians of New England, and its members were drawn largely from the wealthy merchant community in London. In his will, Pennoyer directed that a sum of £10 per annum was paid to the Company from the rents of Asten's Farm. The remainder of the income from that property was left to Harvard University. 

American Connection 

Despite spending the majority of his life in 17th century London, William Pennoyer had extensive connections beyond England.  These mostly arose from his business activities, which led him to discover new sources of goods, and new markets in which to sell them. Many of William's business interests involved the “Colonies” in New England, from the export of cloth and his fishery business in Cape Ann to shipping and the growing of tobacco, its finishing in England, and re-export to Syria.

It is clear that Pennoyer made a major contribution to the economic stability and growth of the young colony, but his contributions in fact have lasted beyond his death up to the current day. William's half-brother Robert Pennoyer emigrated to New England in 1645 to work for Matthew Craddock of the Massachusetts Bay Company (the same company that granted William and his partner their fishing rights in Cape Ann). Robert's early years in New England are marked by a series of court appearances and resultant punishments. From 1652, however, Robert has settled down and was living in Stamford, Connecticut, with his first wife, with whom he had five children, two boys and three girls. 

William and his wife Martha had no surviving children – several infant deaths are recorded in the registers of St Helen's Church in London. Perhaps it is the absence of dependants that prompted William to state in his will that he wished the balance of the income from one of his Pulham St Mary properties, Asten's Farm, to be used so that: 

“Two fellows and two Schollers for ever shalbe educated mainteyned &brought upp in the colledge called Cambridge Colledge in new England Of wch I desire one of them soe often as occasion shall psent may be of the lyne or posterity of the said Robert Pennoyer if they be capable of it and the other of the Colony now or late called Newhaven Collony”.

Cambridge College is now better known as Harvard University.

There is no documentation to show how William Pennoyer learned of the existence of Harvard University or what persuaded him to make such a generous bequest in its favour. Did he visit it? Did colleagues or friends tell him about it? Other beneficiaries in his will included William Hooke, a former minister from New Haven, whose two sons went to Harvard, so it may be through this route; of course, his connection through the New England Company with the scientist Robert Boyle may also have led him to remember the college in his will. 

The descendents of Robert Pennoyer, including members of the Lounsbury family into which Robert's daughter Elizabeth married, have been recipients of the Pennoyer Scholarship throughout its long history – indeed, it is thought to be the oldest hereditary scholarship in the USA. 

The “New Haven Colony” refers to a breakaway Puritan colony established in 1638 by a group of 500 Puritans who wanted a more theological community than offered in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1661, the colony provided a refuge for two of the judges who signed the death warrant for King Charles I; did this act persuade William Pennoyer to single them out in his will, or was it simply their Puritan roots? Today, the colony is simply known as New Haven, Connecticut and is home to Yale University.

In the early years of the 20th century, Asten's Farm in Pulham St Mary was sold by the Governors of Christ's Hospital (the Trustees of Pennoyer's charities), and the net proceeds sent to Harvard University to be added to the Pennoyer Fund. At this point, the relationship between Christ's Hospital and Harvard, that had lasted over 200 years, came to an end. 

However, the chain of events linking Pennoyer's School in Pulham St Mary and Harvard University had yet one more connection to be made. In 1946, Virginia Gehringer (née Pennoyer) visited the school whilst working for the US Embassy in the UK. The school trustees offered her the bell that had hung in the belfry since 1790. Virginia's father, Dr Grant Pennoyer, a recipient of the Pennoyer Scholarship, wrote to the Headmaster accepting the bell, and in 1947 it was shipped to him. He in turn offered it to Harvard University in recognition of the hereditary scholarship, and it hangs to this day outside Leverett House in a specially commissioned bell-frame inscribed with the name “Pennoyer”.


lottery funded logoThe Pennoyer Centre, Station Rd, Pulham St Mary IP21 4QT Tel: 01379 676660 email: admin@pennoyers.org.uk

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