THOMAS PENNANT, an eminent traveller, naturalist, and antiquary, was born June 14, 1726, at Downing, in Flintshire, the seat of his family for several generations. He was the son of David Pennant, and his mother was the daughter of Richard Mytton of Halston. He was educated, first at Wrexham, then at Mr. Croft's school at Fulham, and last at Queen's and Oriel colleges, Oxford, where, however, he took no degree, but was complimented with that of LL.D. in the year 1771, long after he had left the university.
A present of the ornithology of Francis Willoughby, made to him at the age of twelve, gave him a taste for that study, and a love for natural history in general, which he afterwards pursued with constitutional ardour, and great reputation; to such small matters do men of talents sometimes owe their prevailing bias. In 1746-7, he made a tour into Cornwall, where he contracted a strong passion for minerals and fossils. The first production of his which appeared in print, though unknown to himself, was an abstract of a letter which he wrote to his uncle, John Mytton, esq. on an earthquake which was felt at Downing, April 2, 1750. This appeared in the Philosophical Transactions. In 1754, he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, an honour which he resigned in 1760. According to his own account, his foresight at this time was small. "I had," says he, "married a most amiable woman; my circumstances were very narrow, my worthy father being alive, and I vainly thought my happiness would have been permanent, and that I never should have been called again from my retirement to amuse myself in town, or to be of use to the society."
Previous to this resignation, however, in 1754, he visited Ireland; but such was the conviviality of the country, that his journal proved as meagre as his entertainment was plentiful, "so it never was a dish fit to be offered to the publick." In 1756, he published in the "Philosophical Transactions," a paper on several coralloid bodies he had collected at Coalbrook-dale, in Shropshire. In 1757, at the instance of the celebrated Linnaeus, he was elected of the Royal Society at Upsal, which he calls the first and greatest of his literary honours. He kept up a correspondence with Linnaeus, till age and infirmities obliged the latter to desist.
In 1761, he began his "British Zoology," which, when completed, consisted of 132 plates on imperial paper, all engraved by Mazel. Edwards, the celebrated ornithologist, conceived at first a little jealousy on this attempt, but it very soon subsided, and they contracted a great intimacy, which ended only with the death of Mr. Edwards. He devoted the profits of the "British Zoology" to the Welsh charity school, in Gray's inn-lane, London, and supported the far greater part of the expence; but he lost considerably by it, and the school did not gain so much as it might if the work had been printed in a quarto, instead of a large folio size. But he confesses he was at that time inexperienced in these affairs.
In 1765, he made a short tour to the continent, where he enjoyed the company of the celebrated Buffon, who publicly acknowledged his favourable sentiments of Mr. Pennant's studies in the fifteenth volume of his "Natural History." They had afterwards a dispute on branches of their respective studies, but, adds our author, "our blows were light, and I hope that neither of us felt any material injury." At Ferney he visited Voltaire, who happened to be in good humour, and was very entertaining; but in his attempt to speak English, satisfied the visitors that he was perfect master of the oaths and curses which disgrace that language.
During this tour, Mr. Pennant visited also baron Haller, the two Gesners, the poets, and Dr. Trew, a venerable patron of natural history, who resided at Nuremberg. At the Hague, he met with Dr. Pallas, and this meeting gave rise to his "Synopsis of Quadrupeds," and the second edition, under the name of the "History of Quadrupeds," a work received by the naturalists of different parts of Europe in a manner uncommonly favourable. Mr. Pennant had proposed this plan to Pallas, but owing to the latter being promoted at the court of Petersburgh, it ultimately devolved on himself. In 1767, after his return, he was elected fellow of the Royal Society. In 1768, his British Zoology was published in two volumes, 8vo, and the bookseller gave Mr. Pennant £100 for permission to do so, which he immediately vested in the Welsh charity-school.
In 1769, he added a third volume, in octavo, on the reptiles and fishes of Great Britain. In the fifty-eighth volume of the Philosophical Transactions, was published his account of a new species of Pinguin, brought by captain Macbride, from the Falkland islands. In the same year, in conjunction with sir Joseph Banks, and Mr. Loten, who had been a governor in one of the Dutch islands in the Indian ocean, he published twelve plates of Indian Zoology, but that work was afterwards discontinued. Its the spring of this year, he acquired one whom he calls a treasure, Moses Griffith, to whom the public are indebted for numberless scenes and antiquities, and who accompanied Mr. Pennant in all his journeys except that of the present year, which was his first tour into Scotland. "I had," says he, "the hardiness to venture on a journey to the remotest part of North Britain, a country almost as little known to its southern brethren as Kamtschatka. I brought home a favourable account of the land. Whether it will thank me or no I cannot say, but from the report I have made, and shewing that it might be visited with safety, it has ever since been "inondee" with southern visitants." This year, also, he was elected fellow of the Royal Academy at Drontheim.
In 1770, he published 103 additional plates to the British Zoology, with descriptive additions; and in 1771, he printed, at Chester, his "Synopsis of Quadrupeds," in one volume, 8vo. In May of the same year, he was honoured by the university of Oxford, with the degree of doctor of laws, conferred in full convocation. About the close of the year, he gave to the public his "Tour in Scotland," in one 8vo volume, ornamented, as all his works are, with plates. A candid account of that country was such a novelty, that the impression was instantly bought up, and in the next year another was printed, and as soon sold. In this tour, as in all the succeeding, he laboured earnestly to conciliate the affections of the two nations, so wickedly and studiously set at variance by evil-designing people; and he received several very flattering letters on the occasion. In the Philosophical Transactions of this year, he has an account of two new species of tortoises.
On May 18, 1772, he began the longest of his journeys in our island. This was his "Second Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides." "My success," he observes on this occasion, "was equal to my hopes: I pointed out every thing I thought would be of service to the country it was roused to look into its advantages; societies have been formed for the improvements of the fisheries, and for founding of towns in proper places: to all which, I sincerely wish the most happy event; vast sums will be flung away; but incidentally numbers will be benefited, and the passions of patriots tickled, I confess that my own vanity was greatly gratified by the compliments paid to me in every corporated town. Edinburgh itself presented me with its freedom, and I returned rich in civil honours."
In 1773, he published the 8vo edition of "Genera of Birds," and performed a tour through the north of England, where his companion Mr. Griffith made a great many drawings of antiquities, &c. several of which were afterwards used by Mr. Grose, in his "Antiquities of England." In this tour he contracted an acquaintance with Mr. Hutchinson, the historian of Durham, in a singular manner, which we shall give in his own words: "I was mounted on the famous stones in the church-yard of Penrith, to take a nearer view of them, and see whether the drawing I had procured, done by the rev. Dr. Tod, had the least foundation in truth." Thus engaged, a person of good appearance, looking up at me, observed "what fine work Mr. Pennant had made with those stones." I saw he had got into a horrible scrape; so, unwilling to make bad worse, I descended, laid hold of his button, and told him, "I am the man!" After his confusion was over, I made a short defence, shook him by the hand, and we became from that moment fast friends." An account of part of this journey, Mr. Pennant left in manuscript, illustrated with drawings by Mr. Griffith. Mr. Pennant performed all his journeys on horseback, and to that he attributed his healthy old age. He considered the absolute resignation of one's person to the luxury of a carriage, to forebode a very short interval between that, and the vehicle which is to convey us to our last stage.
In 1774, he published a third edition, with additional plates, of his "Tour in Scotland," in 4to, and his Voyage to the Hebrides in the same size. In the same year, had visited the isle of Man, and journeyed through various parts of England. In 1775, appeared his third and last volume of the "Tour in Scotland," performed in 1772. These tours have been translated into German, and abridged in French. In 1777, he published a fourth volume of the " British Zoology," containing the vermes, the crustaceous and testaceous animals of our country.
After several journeys over the six counties of North Wales, in which he collected ample materials for their history, he published the first volume of them in the form of a tour in 1778; and in 1781, the second, under the title of "A Journey to Snowdon." In the same year a new edition appeared of his "Synopsis of Quadrupeds," in 2 vols. 4to, with considerable improvements. The liberties which the country gentlemen, in the character of deputy-lieutenants, and militia-officers, now and then took with their fellow-subjects, urged him about this time to publish "Free Thoughts on the Militia Laws."
In this year, 1781, he was elected an honorary member of the society of Antiquaries at Edinburgh. In the Philosophical Transactions of the same year, was published his history of the Turkey, which he made appear was a bird peculiar to America, and unknown before the discovery of that continent: also a paper on earthquakes felt in Flintshire. In 1782, he published his "Journey from Chester to London." In 1783, he was elected a member of the Societas Physiographica, at Lund, in Sweden. In 1784, appeared his "Letter from a Welch Freeholder to his Representative." The same year he published his "Arctic Zoology," two volumes, quarto, containing the classes of quadrupeds and birds. This work gave occasion to his being honoured, in the year 1791, by being elected member of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia.
In May 1784, he was elected member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Stockholm; and in January 1785, an honorary member of the Edinburgh Society for promoting of natural knowledge; of the Society of Antiquaries at Perth; and the Agricultural Society at Odiam, in Hampshire. In l787, he published a Supplement to the Arctic Zoology. As in 1777, he had again married, he discontinued his tours until the spring 1787, when he visited the dockyards, and travelled by land from Dartford, following the coast to the Land's-end.
Besides these greater works of our author, he at several times gave the public some trifles, which he collected some years ago, and printed for the amusement of his friends, thirty copies at a private press. The principal was his "History of the Patagonians;" which, with some others, be gave to the public, along with his "Literary Life."
In 1790, he published his "Account of London," the antiquities of which he had studied with great attention. Of this work he says, "I had so often walked about the several parts of London, with my note-book in my hand, that I could not help forming considerable collections of materials. The public received this work with the utmost avidity. It went through three large impressions in about two years and a half." Many additions were made to the second edition.
In 1793, he published his life, under the whimsical title of "The Literary Life of the late Thomas Pennant, Esq. by himself." In the advertisement he states, that the termination of his authorial existence took place on March 1, 1791. He came to life again, however, in 1797, and published "The History of the parishes of Whiteford and Holywell;" and in the last year of his life, he gave the public his "View of Hindostan," 2 vols. 4to, for which he thus accounts: "A few years ago I grew fond of imaginary tours, and determined on one to climes more suited to my years, more genial than that to the frozen north. I still fund, or fancied that I found, abilities to direct my pen. I determined on a voyage to India, formed exactly on the plan of the introduction to the Arctic Zoology, which commences at such parts of the North as are accessible to mortals. From London I follow the coasts southern to part of our Island, and from Calais, along the oceanic shores of Europe, Africa, and Asia, till I have attained those of New Guinea. Respecting these I have collected every information possible from books ancient and modern; from the most authentic, and from living travellers of the most respectable characters of my time. I mingle natural history, accounts of the coasts, climates, and every thing which I thought could instruct or amuse. They are written on imperial quarto, and, when bound, make a folio of no inconsiderable size: and are illustrated, at a vast expence, by prints taken from books, or by charts and maps, and by drawings by the skilful hand of Moses Griffith, and by presents from friends. With the bare possibility of the volume relative to India, none of these books are to be printed in my lifetime; but to rest on my shelves, the amusement of my advancing age." Of these manuscripts there were in all twenty-two volumes originally but Mr. Pennant, as we have mentioned, printed in his life-time that which relates to India. We may add, in his own words, "Happy is the age that could thus beguile its fleeting hours, without injury to any one; and, with the addition of years, continue to rise in its pursuits."
His useful life at last terminated, Dec. 16, 1798, when he left a private character in all respects irreproachable, as a son, husband, and father. He had great public spirit, and rendered himself eminently useful in his county. In his political principles he was a whig of the old school. His fortune, as well as time, was liberally devoted to learned pursuits. He married first, in 1759, the sister of the late Thomas Falconer, esq. of Chester, and of Dr. Falconer of Bath, by whom he had a son, David and a daughter; and secondly, in 1777, to miss Mostyn, sister to the late sir Roger Mostyn, who survives him.
Few men have so unceasingly devoted themselves to the promotion of useful knowledge, or published so many volumes, especially on subjects of natural history. His works have been so generally read, and are in such high esteem with the public, that it would be unnecessary in this place to enter into their respective merits. It is seldom that works so expensive run through so many editions; but Mr. Pennant had the happy art of relieving the dullest subjects by enlivening and amusing digressions: and his tours and his account of London are distinguished by a fund of anecdote, an easy familiarity of style, and that pleasant turn for research which engages the reader's attention because it agreeably refreshes his memory, and supplies him with information at a small expence of trouble.
Dr. Johnson said of him, when some objections were made to his tours, that "he had greater variety of inquiry than almost any man; and has told us more than perhaps one in ten thousand could have done, in the time that he took." In 1800, his son published the third and fourth volumes of "The Outlines of the Globe," the title which Mr. Pennant gave to his imaginary tours, and which were the continuation of his "View of Hindostan." This work was accompanied by an elegant tribute to his memory by his affectionate Son, who also published, in the following year, Mr. Pennant's last work, left by him nearly finished for the press, entitled "A Journey from London to the Isle of Wight," 4to.