Thomas Pennant

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:256-59.

This eminent naturalist was born in 1726. At Wrexham, in the county of Denbigh, he received the first rudiments of his education, thence he was removed to Fulham, in the vicinity of the metropolis, and was put under the care of Mr. Croft, a schoolmaster of some celebrity, with whom he resided until he was deemed fit for Oxford. Within the walls of Oriel college he applied himself, among other branches of knowledge, to the study of jurisprudence, it being the design of his father to bring him up to the bar: but it does not appear that he ever followed the law as a profession, or even entered himself of any of the inns of court, which is a preparatory step, and one absolutely indispensable to all such as are desirous of pleading in our municipal courts. His mind indeed had taken another bent, for at a very early age he had imbibed a strong predilection for natural history, in consequence of a trifling accident; and this circumstance decided his future pursuits in life.

Mr. Pennant made a tour into Cornwall from Oxford, in 1746 or 1767, in the course of which he paid a visit to, and resided during some time at the house of Dr. William Borlase of Ludgvan, who in the kindest manner made him acquainted with every thing there deemed worthy of notice; and it was in that county, so celebrated for its subterraneous riches, that he first conceived a strong passion for every thing that appertained to the mineral kingdom. The knowledge obtained on this occasion, not only proved serviceable to him as a naturalist, but, in all probability, tended not a little to regulate his conduct as a proprietor of mines. His passion for natural history had induced him to cultivate an acquaintance with the learned and elaborate Linnaeus, whose studies have tended so much to simplify, arrange, and illustrate this branch of science. He had accordingly commenced a correspondence with him in the year 1755, and it was in consequence of this intercourse that Mr. Pennant received what he considered as the first and greatest of all his literary honours; for in 1757 he was elected a member of the Royal society of Upsal, at the express instance of the illustrious Linnaeus, with whom he continued to communicate until age and infirmities obliged the former to desist. In 1761 he began his British Zoology, which, when completed, consisted of one hundred and thirty-two plates on imperial paper. Peter Pallon was the painter of the various subjects; he is represented as an excellent artist but rather too fond of gaudy colouring. The engraver was Mazei, to whose skill and integrity he bears the most unequivocal testimony. George Edwards, the celebrated ornithologist, at first conceived some jealousy of this undertaking, but it soon subsided into friendship, and he presented many original drawings to our author. This work, to the expense of which several gentlemen contributed, does not appear to have succeeded equal to his expectations, in consequence of his using folio instead of a quarto page. He however behaved nobly on the occasion, for he dedicated the profits arising from the sale to the benefit of the Welsh charity school, near Gray's Inn, London.

Incited perhaps by a recent domestic calamity — the loss of a good and amiable wife — he determined to travel on the continent. He accordingly left London in February, 1765, and repaired to France. While there he was fortunate enough to form an acquaintance with the celebrated Count de Buffon, who treated him with great politeness and attention, notwithstanding Mr. Pennant had made a comparison in his British Zoology, between this philosophical foreigner and his own countryman, the religious Mr. Ray, highly disadvantageous to the former. On his return to England, Mr. Pennant finished his Zoology, a work which had been interrupted by his journey; and in about two years afterwards he was elected a fellow of the Royal society.

In 1768, at the request of Mr. Benjamin White, bookseller in Fleet street, the British Zoology was republished in two volumes octavo, illustrated with seventeen plates; for his permission on this occasion he received one hundred pounds, which he most generously vested in trustees for the Welsh charity school. Much about the same time Mr. Pennant was gratified by seeing the folio edition translated into German and Latin, by M. de Murre of Nuremberg, with the plates copied and coloured by ingenious foreign artists. Mr. Pennant's reputation was now so well established both at home and abroad, that learned societies of all kinds were anxious to nominate him one of their associates; accordingly, in March, 1769, he was elected a member of the Royal academy of sciences of Drontheim, in Norway, which was signified in a polite letter from the prelate of that see. In 1770 he published an octavo volume in addition to his British Zoology, with numerous plates, additions, and descriptions.

He had long conceived a desire to visit the northern parts of this island, and, accordingly, in the course of 1771 he undertook a journey thither. An account of it was published soon after, under the title of A Tour in Scotland, and such was the favourable reception it experienced, that the whole impression was purchased, and another immediately printed and sold. He subsequently visited and described the Hebrides. In 1773 appeared the octavo edition of his Genera of Birds. In 1777 he published a fourth volume of the British Zoology, which included the vermes, and the crustaceous and testaceous animals of our isle. Next year appeared his first volume quarto, of a tour through North Wales, and a new edition of his Synopsis of Quadrupeds, in two volumes quarto, also his Free Thoughts on the Militia Laws. The Arctic Zoology, two volumes quarto, appeared in 1785, and added greatly to the author's fame, for it was speedily translated into French and German.

A hiatus of two or three years appears about this period in the literary life, and even the literary rambles, of our author; this was occasioned by another "happy marriage." During the unhappy contest with the colonies, Mr. Pennant appears to have been on the side of coercion; instead of considering the guilt and shame attendant on that struggle to have originated in imprudent and dishonest counsels, he seemed to think that the fault lay with those who were intrusted with the direction of our armies. Being deeply impressed with this idea, he now published a work entitled American Annals, an Incitement to Parliament Men to inquire into the conduct of our Commanders in the American war. He however omitted this tract in subsequent editions of his works, being, as he observes with much amiable discretion, "unwilling to revive the memory of the most deplorable event in all the annals of Great Britain." Happily for the interests of literature, but a small portion of our author's life was dedicated to politics; he was now employed on an account of London, for he had been accustomed during many years to walk about the capital with his notebook in his hand, and had collected a variety of materials. In 1790 appeared the first edition of this work, and in a short time two more large impressions were called for. It was now supposed that the labours of Mr. Pennant as an author had closed; but in 1793 appeared his Literary Life, written by himself. This contains a most copious account of his writings and peregrinations, besides a variety of curious particulars relative to the genealogy and descent of all the great Cambro-British families.

As the advertisement prefixed to the last work we have mentioned exhibits a good specimen of the style and manner of the author, we shall insert it here. "The title page announces the termination of my authorial existence, which took place on March 1, 1791. Since that period I have glided through the globe a harmless sprite; have pervaded the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and described them with the same authenticity as Gemelli Careri, or many other travellers, ideal or real, who are at this day read with avidity and quoted with faith. My great change is not perceived by mortal eyes. I still haunt the bench of Justices; I am now active in hastening levies of the generous Britons to the field. However unequal, I still retain the same zeal in the service of my country; and twice since my departure have experienced human passions, and have grown indignant at injuries offered to my native land; or have incited a vigorous defence against the lunatic designs of enthusiastic tyranny, or the presumptuous plans of fanatical atheists, to spread their reign and force their tenets on the contented moral part of their fellow creatures. May I remain possessed with the same passions till the great Exorcist lay me for ever. The two last numbers in the following pages are my post-existent performances. Surviving friends, smile on the attempt! Surviving enemy, if any I can now have, forgive my errors!

Tu manes, ne laede meos.


It was now imagined that the pen of our author had been "hung up for ever;" this however was not the case, notwithstanding his own allusion to the archbishop of Grenada, for the year 1795 ushered in The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell. In Mr. Pennant the arts found a constant encourager and most munificent patron, in respect to book-prints, he indeed remains unrivalled, as perhaps the works of no English author ever contained an equal number of the same kind and size. In the British Zoology, folio edition, we find one hundred and thirty-two; the quarto possesses no less than two hundred and eighty-four; the Tour in Scotland has one hundred and thirty-four, and that in Wales fifty-three. In his Literary Life he reckons up eight hundred and two, and these, when added to his works since that period, will amount to near nine hundred. In his diet and manner of life Mr. Pennant was very simple. He retired to bed by ten, and rose both winter and summer by seven, when he instantly shaved; he enjoyed a few glasses of wine after dinner, but carefully avoided supper, which he considered as "the meal of excess." It was in this manner that life glided away, and that he enjoyed a "green old age," assailed by but few ailments, until his seventy-second year.