William Penn in West Sussex

By Martin Hayes, County Local Studies Librarian

Copy of image of William Penn, wearing a black tricorner hat, white wig and simple 17th Century clothing
William Penn portrait, taken from the Sussex County Magazine, vol 4, 1930, p134

William Penn is best known as the founder of Pennsylvania, among the most successful of all American colonies, and as a leader of the fledgling Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. He was the only man in the 17th century to achieve as much in ‘Olde England’ as in New England. He promoted causes and ideas which were well ahead of their time, notably religious toleration, participatory government, civil liberties, good race relations, international peace and economic enterprise.

Most of Penn’s connections with West Sussex are not generally well known even though he owned a home here for over 30 years. He was involved in many day-to-day Quaker activities in the County and his presence had a life-changing impact on local people as so many emigrated to the New World.  

The 2,600 known individual documents relating to Penn make him one of the best recorded individuals of his time and he appears also in many more general records such as minutes of Quaker meetings. Extracts from these help us understand almost every aspect of his life and in this blog I have included some documents held here at West Sussex Record Office.

This blog summarises his significant connection with over a dozen places in Sussex. My lecture on Tuesday 24th September will use documents to describe Penn’s life and his local links in more detail. Interwoven with the man’s personal life will be the story of his unsuccessful campaign for religious toleration and consequent funding of a place of safety for Quakers and other non-conformists across the Atlantic, finishing with his departure from West Sussex and his final years of suffering, both personal and financial.

Copy of map includes land belonging to William Penn
Warminghurst estate map, 1707, by Francis Hill, © British Library Board Add. Mss. 37420

Warminghurst, near Storrington

In 1676 Penn bought a mansion near the parish church of Warminghurst, located between Thakeham and Ashington. It became his principal family home until 1696, and continued to be lived in by his children William (Billy) junior and Letitia (Tish) and grandchildren, until it was sold in 1707. It was a relatively modern (early 1600s), red brick mansion, with a view of the Downs to the south. The house saw visits by many prominent Quakers such as George Fox the founder, John Burnyeat, George Keith, Isaac Penington and Robert Barclay. Secret illegal Quaker meetings, both for worship and for administrative purposes, were held here and some of the former were large open-air gatherings (see Arundel below).

It was here at Warminghurst between 1680 and 1682 that William worked on the Constitution for Pennsylvania, which was to become, in many respects, the basis for the American Declaration of Independence, and Constitution, a century later.

Most of Penn’s significant family events happened here. Four of Penn’s eight children and two grandchildren were born here, and his wife Gulielma Maria may have died here as did her mother Mary Penington (nee Springett). In early 1696 he took his ailing eldest son Springett on carriage rides in the area, in an unsuccessful attempt to cure of him an illness, probably tuberculosis. Penn’s children William junior (Billy) and Letitia continued to live here from 1696 to 1707 and he was a frequent visitor.

Finally the ultimate irony was that with Penn’s house purchase came an advowson, that is, in this case, the right to appoint the vicar of Warminghurst parish church!


Extract of entry from the Arundal Quarter Sessions of 1685 detailing William Penn's accusations
QR/W173 – Arundel Quarter Sessions for 1685

Magistrates at the Court of Quarter Sessions held here on 13th/14th January 1685 ordered Penn’s arrest as a “factious and seditious person……[who] doth frequently entertain and keep unlawful assembly and Conventicles in his Dwelling House….usually….assembled to the terror of ye King’s Liege people and in contempt of ye King and his laws…. ”


Here in 1679 Penn campaigned unsuccessfully for the election to Parliament of his friend and republican Algernon Sydney, part of an ineffective attempt to achieve religious toleration.


Drawing of the Thakeham Blue Idol Meeting House
Thakeham Blue Idol Meeting House, drawing taken from Some Records of the Early Friends in Surrey and Sussex by T.W. Marsh (1886)

It was here that Penn, with Benjamin Hayler, oversaw the conversion of John Shaw’s timber-framed house, Little Slatter, into a permanent Quaker meeting house between 1691 and 1694. William and his family were regular worshippers here, being located in Oldhouse Lane, near the hamlet of Coolham, at the northern end of Thakeham parish and only around 4 miles from his home. His daughter Letitia was married here on 20th August 1702 and laid to rest in the burial ground in 1746. Penn’s unnamed daughter who died soon after birth on 26th March 1683, may have been buried here too. This is now better known as the Blue Idol, so named after the blue wash on the plaster infill and its period of inactivity (idle-ness) in the 18th/19th centuries. It is still used by the Society of Friends as a meeting house.

East Grinstead

In a warrant for his arrest from the Assize Court held at East Grinstead on 20th March 1682 Penn was charged with trespass and contempt against the statute for discovering, and repression of, Popish recusants. The charges were dropped when he convinced the authorities that he wasn’t a Catholic.

Long strip of paper written in old handwriting for the arrest of William Penn
Add Mss 37,103 – Number 8, the East Grinstead arrest warrant from 1682


George Keith, former head of the Quaker School founded by Penn in Philadelphia, split with the Quakers, returned to England and became rector of Edburton parish church from 1705 to 1716.


Founder of the Quakers, George Fox was imprisoned here for non-conformity between April and July 1655. Penn first stayed in the town on 1st October 1672 during his missionary ‘Journey on Truth’s Account Through Kent, Sussex and the Skirt of Surrey’. He attended the Quaker Horsham Men’s Monthly Meeting at least four times in the 1670s-80s and his Declaration to marry second wife Hannah Callowhill was heard before them on 11th December 1695. Penn’s daughter Letitia made her Declaration to marry William Aubrey, a London merchant, before the same body 0n 8th July 1702 and the Horsham Women’s Monthly Meeting were given a letter about the same.

Ifield near Crawley

Ifield Meeting House, drawing taken from Some Records of the Early Friends in Surrey and Sussex by T.W. Marsh (1886)
Ifield Meeting House, drawing taken from Some Records of the Early Friends in Surrey and Sussex by T.W. Marsh (1886)

This was the location of the County’s very first Quaker meeting for worship in 1655 and where the earliest permanent meeting house was built in 1674/75. Penn attended at least one ceremony here: the wedding of Edward Blackfan and Rebecca Crispin in October 1688.


William stayed with Briant Wilkinson at Sedgewick Park, or Nuthurst Lodge, during his missionary ‘Journey on Truth’s Account Through Kent, Sussex and the Skirt of Surrey’ in 1672.


Penn owned part of the manor of Kingston Bowsey (Bucci) near Shoreham through his marriage to Gulielma Maria Penington in 1672. Some land in the area was sold by the couple on 3rd June 1676 probably to fund their purchase of Warminghurst. It was from Shoreham Harbour that William sailed into a three year period of exile from February 1691 following the issuing of arrest warrants for treason.


In 1678 a Quaker meeting house and burial ground was established here, in Horsham Road opposite the junction with Mouse Lane. Penn is known to have preached here in 1678. Sir John Fagg of Wiston House (see below) may have helped fund the purchase and conversion of the building which has reverted to a private home named Penn House.


See also ‘Coolham’ above.

At least 16 Friends (Quakers) from the Thakeham area emigrated to Pennsylvania with William aboard the ‘Welcome’ in 1682.

Penn is reputed to have preached from a large prominent stone on the green near the pond adjacent to Abingworth Hall [now Hotel].


Wiston House was the home of Sir John Fagg, prominent Parliamentarian soldier  during the Civil War, MP for Steyning 1660-1701 and a non-conformist. He protected a small Quaker community (at least 4 people in 1676) and became friends with Penn who lived only 4 miles away at Warminghurst. William was a regular guest at Wiston House, particularly during the Sidney election campaign in 1679 (see also Bramber above).


Estate map shows William Penn's home, with little chimney pots and a front gate
Close up of the Warminghurst estate map, 1707, © British Library Board Add. Mss. 37420

In September 1682 before crossing the Atlantic to America, the ‘Welcome’, with Penn already aboard, hove to off Worthing to collect at least 16 Sussex emigrants and further supplies.

On his return, Penn landed on 3rd October 1684 “within 7 miles of my home at Warminghurst”, probably off Worthing or Shoreham.

Our new project Transatlantic Ties, funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation in New York, offers us the opportunity to explore in detail the many America related documents held at the Record Office including some records involving William Penn and local Quakers.



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