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Thomas Wynne
Founder of Philadelphia*

‘I do believe God will make these westarne parts the Glory of the later dayes...Herbert’s prophesie is already found true.’

 

So spoke Thomas Wynne, the Ysceifiog born barber-surgeon of Caerwys, committed Quaker and a founding father of the New World Province of Pennsylvania in 1683, a year after arriving in North America.  His journey from apprentice cooper in his native Flintshire to being the first Speaker of the Philadelphia Assembly requires some explanation.

 

He was born in July 1627, probably on his family’s Bron Fadog estate in Ysceifiog, and baptised at St Stephen’s in nearby Bodfari on the 20th of that month.  His heritage is confused and remains a matter of some debate, which is perhaps not a surprise given his rather inauspicious start.  But, given his surname, all manner of mooted connections have been made, including to the Wynn’s of Gwydir and even to Owain Gwynedd, if you please.  But, whatever the truth, frankly such suggestions of a noble heritage do not seem to rightly fit with our Thomas Wynne of Ysceifiog and Caerwys, since in truth he was a man seemingly determined to seek his own path at all times, whatever the cost, whoever may be slighted.

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Bron Fadog on the outskirts of Ysceifiog

It is well known that Wynne was believed to be William Penn’s personal physician.  How he came to be aboard the Welcome with Penn, the religious thinker and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania is quite a tale.  But Wynne’s rise to such influential heights is an illustration of the considerable depths of his determination.  His father had died when he was young, leaving the family, however possibly renowned, in considerable financial difficulty.  Despite medical aspirations, including truanting school to watch surgeons at their work, the money for such an education was beyond his mother.  Instead, he was apprenticed as a cooper.  However, it seems Wynne was not to be denied his ambition, and by his own account took every opportunity to study during his spare time.

 

His medical ambitions were aided by the generosity of his fellow Quaker, Richard Moore of Shrewsbury, who became his mentor and to whom Wynne effectively apprenticed himself.  It would seem that Wynne showed considerable ability in the field, and was qualified as a barber-surgeon in 1659, after displaying his talent before Doctors Needham and Hollins by creating an accurate wooden skeleton.  He set up in private practice in the nearby town of Caerwys, even creating his own coinage, tokens which could be used by his customers in the locality in the absence of small change - a sign of both his ambition and business acumen.

 

Richard Moore’s support of his fellow Friend was a sign of the close knit nature of those that followed the Quaker faith.  Thomas Wynne had been born in the Protestant faith, but had been much affected by the religious turmoil of the 17th century, and thrown into the depths of doubt and confusion.  But between 1654 and 1656, John ap John, the Ruabon born and the first known Quaker in Wales, known as the, ‘Apostle of Quakerism in Wales’,  had embarked on a preaching tour and established a foothold in north east Wales, especially it seems, in the Wrexham area.  His message struck a profound chord with Wynne, who converted to the Friends at some point in 1655, marrying the Quaker, Martha Buttall, daughter to the Wrexham blacksmith, Randle Buttall in the same year.  Wynne’s conversation was absolute, and he almost immediately became active in promoting the Quaker faith, writing books and pamphlets on the matter and even being imprisoned in 1661 for his efforts, spending, it is thought, six years in Ruthin Gaol for his efforts.  But even then, the indomitable Wynne refused to relent his energetic promotion of the faith, and made himself a considerable thorn in the Anglican flesh of north East Wales.  In the early 1680s, Wynne debated his religious beliefs with William Lloyd, the Bishop of St Asaph.  There would seem to have been a considerable amount of mutual respect between the two, neither accepting the other’s point of view, but separating on good terms after lengthy debates, and Lloyd chose to suspend action against Wynne, so impressed had he been.  All this makes clear how influential Wynne had become in north east Wales.

 

Yet, despite the fact that Wynne retained the respect and friendship of his neighbours in Flintshire, the continued persecution of the Quaker faith was a cause of real pain.  In the March of 1681, the Quaker William Penn received a charter from Charles II, bestowing upon him the Province known as Pennsylvania.  The charter was issued as settlement of a debt to William’s father, Admiral William Penn, after whom the land was named.  Despite objections to the name, Penn fearing that people would think he had named it after himself and preferring the name ‘New Wales’, the king refused to allow a change.  It was clear from the outset, that Penn was determined that Pennsylvania was to be a ‘New Jerusalem’ of religious freedoms, but also of economic opportunities - and despite the unworldly demeanour of the Quakers, they were certainly ambitious in advancing the financial interests of themselves and others of their faith.  They were, after all, extremely loyal to one another.  It is telling that Wynne, before leaving for Philadelphia in 1682, took the son of his old mentor, Richard Moore under his wing when the young man sought a medical education of his own.

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Penn chose to advertise plots within the Province amongst the brethren, including amongst Welsh Quakers, of which there was a growing number.  The interest utterly astonished Penn - with the land being taken up with alacrity.  Thomas Wynne and other Welsh Quakers such as John ap John, bought thousands of acres of Pennsylvanian land, acting as agents for other Welsh settlers.  Wynne himself retained an estate of some 250 acres in the newly named Radnor district, and real estate within Philadelphia itself.  It is clear that he was intending to leave north east Wales and travel to North America - was, in fact, determined to do so.  And it is clear that it was the constant religious harassment and persecution that convinced him that emigration was necessary. However, it would be wrong to believe that Wynne did not also see the economic opportunities that a move to Pennsylvania also made possible.  It would seem also that he saw himself as a pioneer - a crusader in helping to create a land welcoming to the oppressed peoples of Europe.  He fully bought into Penn’s mission, a belief that the New World was an opportunity for mankind to be reborn, believing fully in the Welsh born orator, priest and poet George Herbert’s (1593-1633) declaration that,

 

‘Religion stands on tip-toe in our land

Readie to passe to the American strand’

 

Wynne left Britain in the August of 1682 aboard the Welcome, a 284 ton ship out of Deal, captained by Robert Greenway.  On board was William Penn himself, along with 100 other passengers, made up of farmers, craftsmen, servants and their families.  Most of Wynne’s family were with him on the Welcome, including his second wife, Elizabeth Rowden (Martha had died some years previously) and children from both marriages.  Some of his children had possibly sailed before him, others would follow.

 

The voyage was blighted by an outbreak of smallpox which, given the claustrophobic confines of the ship, was particularly virulent.  It is not clear what difference Wynne, the barber surgeon could or indeed did make in the face of the virus, but it is said that his presence was a boost to morale, if nothing else.  In truth, the fact that many of the passengers were farmers or country folk, and hence had likely developed a cowpox immunity, was likely the reason the Welcome arrived in North America as something other than a ghost ship.  Still, it is thought that some 30 passengers died of the illness.  Was it aboard the Welcome that Wynne became the personal physician to Penn, in the face of the virus?

 

The Welcome arrived on the Delaware River on the 27th October 1682, and Wynne found that his real estate in Philadelphia amounted to property on Claypole Street and High Streets which, it seems, quickly became known as Wyne Street after his arrival.  Penn chose to rename the streets of Philadelphia after ‘the things that spontaneously grow in the country’, and Wynne Street became known as Chestnut Street, which remains its name to this day.  However it was named, Wynne seems to have been unhappy with the area he had been assigned, having wished to be assigned somewhere closer to the developing centre of business on the Delaware front, in order to open a practice as a barber surgeon amongst a greater number of potential customers. With some effort, Wynne eventually managed to secure a plot in the docks area. The notion of Wynne practicing medicine in the little town of Caerwys in the August of 1682, to then doing so amongst the burgeoning populace of Philadelphia, a town he had helped to found, in the October of the same year, is quite the thought.

 

Wynne was true to his ambitions and not only developed his business interests, but took an active role in the government of the town of Philadelphia.  He sat on a variety of committees tasked with building the infrastructure of the town, and in the March of 1683 became the first Speaker of the Provincial Assembly - this despite three days earlier being brought before the judge for indulging in, ‘strong liquors by retail’ without a licence to do so.  It would seem that despite Penn’s desire to build a New Jerusalem of religious freedoms, this did not extend to political freedoms, and while Wynne’s position was prestigious, it was not particularly powerful.  Wynne worked hard, with others, to enhance the democratic, as well as religious freedoms of the town.

 

It is worth mentioning here, that a casual glance at the town plans of Caerwys and Philadelphia, certainly in their 17th century incarnations shows a quite startling similarity.  Caerwys is an Edwardian town, and its streets adhere to the Edwardian philosophy of urban planning, with its grid iron layout...very similar to Philadelphia’s layout, as it happens. Can we read anything into this?  Did Wynne’s experiences of Caerwys inspire Philadelphia’s urban planning?  It’s tempting, and it would be delightful if it were true, but it’s unlikely, of course, since the evidence would suggest a large dose of Penn pragmatism, rather than Wynne’s past was the true motivation.

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While tempting to see the similarities between the urban planning of Philadelphia and Caerwys as a result of Wynne's input, it's more likely to have been a consequence of the planning of the surveyor, Thomas Holme.

It seems Wynne was quite settled, but in August 1684 he returned to Britain.  The one child of his that had not made the journey to the New World with the rest of the family, Tabitha, had married, in Wynne’s words, ‘a villain as is hardly to be found unhanged in a country’.  Tabitha and her husband had tried to seize Wynne’s remaining properties in Bron Fadog, claiming to all and sundry that her father had died in Pennsylvania.  Much of the attempt had been prevented by the swift intervention of a good friend of Wynne’s, Piers Pennant.  Wynne was forced to return to Britain to put right his affairs in the Old Country.

 

It is not clear if these matters were cleared up to his satisfaction, but what is known is that he spent some time in London - and more than he had intended.  With many others, he had attended a funeral of a fellow Quaker, William Gibson, in the City, and was accused of all manner of fairly jumped-up charges.  So many Quakers in one place seems to have caused a frothing at the mouth for the authorities, and Wynne found himself in Newgate Prison for six months.  On his release, he travelled back to North Wales for the summer, and found himself before the judge on several occasions for refusing to attend church.  The strength of the Quaker faith in Wales had declined significantly in his absence.

 

It is not surprising, then, to find that Wynne was eager to return to Philadelphia and did so in August of 1686.  Yet, eager he may have been, but it is clear he retained a deep affection for his homeland, despite the persecution of his faith.  He speaks of a, ‘testimony of my endeared love’ for the peoples of the British Isles.  Still, return to America he did, and in his two year absence, Philadelphia had grown considerably, as had the political divisions.  Wynne, it seems lost patience with these arguments, and it was not long before he chose to sell his properties in Philadelphia and Radnor and settle in Lewes, in Sussex County, some 120 miles down river on the Delaware Bay.  He did not give up all political involvement in the Colony he helped to found, and was a provincial judge in the county he now called home until his death in March 1692.  He was buried at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House in the Old City neighbourhood of Philadelphia.

 

It is incredible to think, as you wander through the quite beautiful little town of Caerwys and village of Ysceifiog, that here was born, raised, practiced and preached a founding father of Pennsylvania.

* ....amongst others.