Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), traveller and naturalist, born at Downing in the parish of Whitford (or Whiteford), near Holywell, Flintshire, on 14 June 1726, was the eldest son of David Pennant (d. 1763), by his wife Arabella, third daughter of Richard Mytton of Halston, Shropshire. The Pennant family was an ancient one, and had been long resident at Bychton in the parish of Whitford. A direct ancestor was Thomas (son of David Pennant of Bychton), who, after acting as abbot of the Cistercian house of Basingwerk, near Holywell, married Angharad, daughter of Gwilym ap Gruffydd of Penrhyn, and left three sons. To this abbot Gutyn Owain addressed a poem ('Rhys Jones Gorchestion Beirdd Cymru,' p. 198 sq.). The abbot's brother Hugh was a priest, poet, and collector of Welsh manuscripts, and must be distinguished from a later Sir Hugh Pennant who took part in the eisteddfod at Caerwys in 1568 (cf. Pennant, History of Whiteford).
Thomas Pennant was sent to the school of the Rev. W. Lewis at Wrexham, and part of his boyhood was spent at Hadley, near Enfield Chase. At the age of twelve he was given by his relative, Richard Salisbury (father of Mrs. Thrale), a copy of Francis Willoughby's'Ornithology,' and to this present he attributed his early taste for natural history. He matriculated at Queen's College, Oxford, on 7 March 1744 (Foster, Alumni Oxon.), but took no degree. In 1746 or 1747, while still an undergraduate, he made a journey to Cornwall, where Dr. Borlase encouraged him in the study of minerals and fossils. His first publication was an account of an earthquake felt at Downing in April 1750. This was printed in vol. x. of the'Abridgment' of the'Philosophical Transactions,' p. 511.
In 1754 he made a tour in Ireland, but kept only an imperfect journal,'such,' he says,'was the conviviality of the country.' On 21 Nov. 1754 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, but resigned in 1760. In 1755 he began a correspondence with Linnæus, and at his instance was elected a member of the Royal Society of Upsala in February 1757. About 1761 he began his'British Zoology,' the first part of which was published in 1766. He gave the profits of this work, which, when completed, was illustrated by 132 plates, to the Welsh school near Gray's Inn Lane, London. In 1765 he visited the continent, and stayed with Buffon at his seat at Montbard in Burgundy. At Ferney he saw Voltaire, whom he found'very entertaining' and a master of English oaths. At the Hague he met Pallas the Dutch naturalist, to whom he became much attached. On 26 Feb. 1767 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society, London. He contributed papers to the'Philosophical Transactions' on geological subjects, and wrote a memoir on the turkey (1781). On 11 May 1771 he received the degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford. In the same year he published his'Synopsis of Quadrupeds.'
In 1771 Pennant published his'Tour in Scotland' (1 vol. 8vo), describing the journey made by him in 1769. He says he had'the hardihood to venture on a journey to the remotest part of North Britain,' of which he brought home an account so favourable that'it has ever since been inondee with southern visitors' (on the earlier Scottish tours of Bishop Pococke, see under Pococke, Richard). Starting from Chester on 26 June 1769, Pennant visited the Fern Islands off the Northumbrian coast, and noted many species of sea-fowl that resorted thither. He made nearly the circuit of the mainland of Scotland, observing manners and customs and natural history. On this occasion, as on all subsequent tours, he journeyed on horseback, and kept an elaborate journal.
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The success of the'Tour in Scotland' led to his undertaking a second Scottish journey, beginning on 18 May 1772. He visited the English lakes, proceeded to the Hebrides, and was presented with the freedom of Edinburgh. During this tour he was accompanied by the Rev. J. Lightfoot, the botanist, whose'Flora Scotica' was published in 1777 at his expense. Moses Griffith, the Welsh artist, attended him on this journey (as also on his later tours), making sketches and drawings, afterwards reproduced in Pennant's published'Tours.' Pennant fully appreciated Griffith's talents, though he once describes him as'a worthy servant, whom I keep for that purpose' (making drawings, &c.). In 1774 Pennant visited the Isle of Man with Francis Grose He kept a journal, but most of the material he collected was lost.
Pennant made tours in various parts of England, including Northamptonshire (1774), Warwickshire (1776), Kent (1777), Cornwall (1787). As the outcome of several journeys in Wales he published his'Tour in Wales,' the first volume appearing in 1778. In 1781 he published his own favourite work, the'History of Quadrupeds,' being a new and enlarged edition of his'Synopsis of Quadrupeds.' In 1782 his'Journey from Chester to London' appeared. In 1784 he issued his'Arctic Zoology,' which gave a'condensed view of the progress of discovery' along the northern coasts of Europe, Asia, and America. For this work he received information from George Low and other Scottish naturalists, and from Sir Joseph Banks, who had visited Newfoundland. In 1790 he published his'London,' which went through three impressions in two years and a half: he says it was'composed from the observations of perhaps half my life.'
Pennant declares that from about 1777 he began to lose his taste for wandering, and preferred to make'imaginary tours.' He projected about 1793 a work in fourteen volumes, to be called'Outlines of the Globe;' he published two volumes dealing with India and Ceylon, and vols. iii. and iv. (China and Japan) were issued posthumously. In 1793 he published'The Literary Life of the late Thomas Pennant, Esq. By Himself,' giving biographical and bibliographical details.
Nearly all his life Pennant enjoyed perfect health, which he attributed to temperate living and abundant riding exercise. About 1794 his health and spirits began to fail, though he continued his literary work, and in 1796 published'The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell.' He died at Downing on 16 Dec. 1798, in his seventy-third year (Gent. Mag. 1798, pt. ii. p. 1090), and was buried in the church of St. Mary at Whitford, where there is a monument to him by Westmacott (Lewis, Topogr. Dict. of Wales, 1849, art.'Whitford').
Pennant married, first, in 1759, Elizabeth (d. 1764), daughter of James Falconer of Chester, lieutenant in the royal navy; secondly, in 1777, Anne (d. 1802), daughter of Sir Thomas Mostyn, bart., of Mostyn Hall, Whitford. By his first marriage he had a daughter Arabella, who married Edward Hanmer, son of Sir Walden Hanmer, bart., and a son David (d. 1841), who succeeded his father at Downing, and edited his posthumous publications. By the second marriage he had a daughter Sarah, who died when fourteen, and a son Thomas, who became rector of Weston Turville, Buckinghamshire, and died in 1846 without leaving children (on other descendants of Pennant, see Burke's Landed Gentry, 1894, vol. ii. under'Pennant of Bodfari').
Pennant's name stands high among the naturalists of the eighteenth century, and he has been commended for making dry and technical matter interesting. His'British Zoology' and'History of Quadrupeds,' arranged according to the classification of John Ray, long remained classical works, though in point of style and method of presentment they are greatly inferior to the works of Buffon. Cuvier in his memoir of Pennant, written about 1823 for the'Biographie Universelle,' says that Buffon profited by Pennant's'History of Quadrupeds,' 1781, though in the third edition Pennant himself has drawn on Buffon. He describes the work as'encore indispensable,' and praises the'Arctic Zoology' as valuable to naturalists.'Pennant's works on natural history' (says Sir William Jardine, 1833)'were much valued at the time of their publication, and contained the greater part of the knowledge of their times.' Gilbert White published his'Selborne' in the form of letters to Pennant and Daines Barrington.
Pennant's'Tour in Scotland' was the cause of a violent dispute between Johnson and Bishop Percy, who had disparaged the traveller's accuracy.'A carrier,' the bishop said,'who goes along the side of Loch Lomond would describe it better' (Boswell, Life of Johnson, 12 April 1778). Johnson defended Pennant:'He's a whig, sir; a sad dog. But he's the best traveller I ever read; he observes more things than any one else does.' And when in Scotland in 1773 (Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 17 Sept. 1773), Johnson declared that Pennant had'greater variety of inquiry than almost any man.' Boswell thought the Scotch'Tour' superficial, but praised the'London.' Later critics have eulogised the accuracy and acute observation of the Scotch'Tour.' The'Tour in Wales' has less the character of a journal than Pennant's other'Tours,' and his biographer, Mr. W. T. Parkins, considers it his'best performance.' Horace Walpole, in letters to William Cole (Walpole, Letters, ed. P. Cunningham, vi. 86, vii. 464, viii. 2, &c.), sneers at Pennant as a smatterer in history and antiquities who'picks up his knowledge as he rides.' Walpole found him'full of corporal spirits, too lively and impetuous,' though'a very honest, good-natured man.' Pennant's literary industry was immense, and he reckoned that his works contained 802 illustrations prepared under his superintendence. Yet he found time for the duties of a country gentleman. He was high sheriff of Flintshire in 1761, wrote on mail-coaches and the militia laws and headed a'Loyal Association' (against the French) formed at Holywell in 1792. He describes himself as'a moderate tory.' On his estate at Downing, to which he succeeded in 1763, he'enlarged,' he says,'the fine scenery of the broken grounds, the woods, and the command of water,' and discovered a rich mine of lead. In appearance Pennant was of fair complexion and slightly above the middle height. Two portraits of him are preserved at Downing: (1) a picture of him as a young man painted by Willis, a clergyman, and engraved in the 1810 edition of the'Tours in Wales;' (2) a portrait of him at the age of fifty, painted by Gainsborough in 1776, and engraved in Pennant's'Literary Life' and in Rhys's edition of the'Tours in Wales' (cf. Bromley, Cat. Engraved Portraits).
Pennant's principal publications are as follows: 1.'The British Zoology,' 1766, fol.; 4 vols., London, Chester, 1768-70, 8vo; 4th ed. 4 vols., London, 1776-77, 4to; new ed. 4 vols. London, 1812, 8vo. 2.'A Tour in Scotland, 1769,' Chester, 1771, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1772, 8vo; 3rd edit. 1774; 4th edit. 1775; 5th edit. 1790;'Supplement to the Tour in Scotland,' Chester, 1772, 8vo. 3.'Synopsis of Quadrupeds,' Chester, 1771, 8vo. 4.'A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772,' 2 pts., Chester and London, 1774-76, 4to, also 1790; printed in Pinkerton's'Voyages,' &c., vol. iii. 1808, &c.; German translation, Leipzig, 1779. 5.'Genera of Birds,' Edinburgh, 1773, 8vo; London, 1781. 6.'A Tour in Wales, 1770 [1773?],' London, 1778-81, 4to;'Tours in Wales,' 3 vols., London, 1810, 8vo; Carnarvon, 1883, 8vo, edited by T. Rhys. 7.'Indian Zoology,' twelve coloured plates with letterpress, by T. P.; the plates were given to Dr. J. Rheinhold Forster, who published them in Germany in 1781, with the letterpress translated:'Indian Zoology, an Essay on India,' &c.; 2nd edit. London, 1790, 4to. 8.'History of Quadrupeds' (enlarged from the'Synopsis of Quadrupeds'), London, 1781, 4to; 3rd edit. 1793, 4to; German translation, Weimar, 1799-1800. 9.'The Journey from Chester to London,' London, 1782, 4to; Dublin, 1783; also 1798, &c.; 1809, 1811. 10.'Arctic Zoology,' 2 vols. London, 1784-1787, 4to; German translation, Leipzig, 1787, 4to; French translation, Paris, 1789, 8vo. 11.'Of the Patagonians. Formed from the Relation of Father Falkener, a Jesuit [whom Pennant visited at Spetchley, near Worcester, in 1771],' forty copies only, printed at the private press of George Allan, esq., Darlington, 1788, 4to; reprinted as an appendix to Pennant's'Literary Life.' 12.'Of London,' London, 1790, 4to;'Additions and Corrections to the First Edition of Mr. Pennant's Account of London,' London, 1791, 4to;'Some Account of London,' 2nd edit. London, 1791, 4to; Dublin, 1791; London, 1793, 4to; 4th edit. with additions, London, 1805, 4to; 1813; German translation, Nuremberg, 1791. 13.'The Literary Life of the late Thomas Pennant, esq. By Himself,' London, 1793, 4to (with reprinted tracts as appendices). 14.'The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell' [London], 1796, 4to. 15.'Outlines of the Globe,' 4 vols. London, 1798-1800, 4to. 16.'A Journey from London to the Isle of Wight,' London, 1801, 4to. 17.'A Tour from Downing to Alston Moor,' London, 1801, 4to. 18.'A Tour from Alston Moor to Harrowgate and Brimham Crags,' London, 1804, 4to.
[Pennant's Literary Life; European Mag. May 1793 pp. 323 f., June 1800 pp. 440-1; Memoir by W. T. Parkins in Rhys's ed. of the Tours in Wales, 3 vols. 1883; Memoir by Sir W. Jardine in The Naturalist's Library, vol. xv.; Williams's Dict. of Eminent Welshmen; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. and Lit. Illustr.; Brit. Mus. Cat. and authorities cited.]
Warwick William Wroth, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 44. pgs. 320-323.