Thomas Pennant, natural history pioneer

Tuesday 9 August 2011, 10:30

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Few people these days have ever heard the name Thomas Pennant but, in the second half of the 18th century, this remarkable and fascinating man was one of Britain's foremost naturalists and antiquarians. He ranked alongside men such as Gilbert White of Selbourne and, perhaps more importantly, was regarded as one of Wales' greatest travel writers.

Thomas Pennant was born in Flintshire on 14 June 1726, his father having recently inherited Downton Hall (and its large country estate), not far from Holywell. Educated, first, at Wrexham Grammar School, then at Thomas Croft's School in Fulham, by 1744 the young Thomas had moved on to Oxford where he studied at both Queens and Oriel Colleges.

Like many wealthy men at the time he left Oxford without taking a degree. He had already become fascinated by natural history and, in particular, after a walking tour around Cornwall in the winter of 1746, fossils and minerals.

In 1750 he wrote an account of an earthquake that had occurred at Downing Hall and when this was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society his career as a naturalist and zoologist began.

Further papers soon appeared in the journal and within a few years after leaving Oxford, with no formal qualifications, he was regarded as one of the most important scientific writers of the age. Interestingly, several years later, in 1771, Pennant's pioneering work as a zoologist was recognised with the awarding of an honorary degree from his old college.

Thomas Pennant succeeded to the property at Downing after his father's death in 1763. He immediately began to develop and extend the house and estate, even opening a lead mine - which went a fair way to funding his projects.

Pennant was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767 and began to publish books in earnest. He wrote A History Of Quadrupeds and A Tour Of Scotland in 1769, with two other travel books about Scotland following quickly in their wake.

Pennant is perhaps best known for his Tour Of Wales which came out in 1778. He was soon regarded as an expert on his native country, its customs and topography. And yet he spoke little or no Welsh, having to receive help - in the form of translations - from friends such as the Reverend John Lloyd of Caerwys.

Lloyd and artists such as Moses Griffith and John Ingleby - who illustrated his various books - soon created something of a niche for themselves. Pennant was a shrewd businessman and Ingleby, in particular, was paid for his work on a contract basis - not always with money, sometimes by the provision of board and lodging. The illustrations that he and Griffith provided certainly added to the appeal of books like his autobiography The Literary Life and travel books such as Journey To Snowdon.

Over the next 20 or so years Thomas Pennant popularised and promoted the study of zoology. His work was characterised by detailed and accurate research and Pennant even oversaw the production of his books.

This was due, in no small degree, to something of a disaster when The Literary Life was printed on paper that was too large.The book was one of the few by Pennant that made a loss and thereafter he insisted that all his publications should appear in smaller size.

Thomas Pennant was also a fanatical collector of art and artefacts. He regularly commissioned paintings from well-known artists of the day and acquired many old maps and prints, not only of Wales but of the whole of Britain.

Indeed, at his death on 16 December 1798, he was actively engaged in writing and publishing a series of works to be called Outlines Of The Globe. It was an ambitious project, with only two of the volumes appearing in his lifetime. The others were edited and produced by his son in the years after Pennant's death.

Thomas Pennant built up an impressive library at his country house in north Wales. There were eventually over 5,000 volumes in this library, consisting, in the main, of works about topography, travel and natural history. The collection was only broken up and finally sold in the 20th century.

Pennant was an incredibly industrious man. In The Literary Life he actually states that his output and work ethic amazed even him! He had a gift for befriending many influential people and, of course, had the means to pursue his interests.

Yet without his indefatigable efforts there is no doubt that the study of zoology would have been long delayed in its development - and where would Charles Darwin have been then?

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