The Correspondence of Thomas Pennant

Primary Contributors:

Curious Travellers Project

Thomas Pennant (1726–1798), engraving, after a 1776 portrait by Gainsborough, from the Extra-Illustrated Tours in Wales. (National Library of Wales; source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Pennant (1726–1798)

Thomas Pennant (1726–1798) was a naturalist, writer and antiquarian well known for his published accounts of pioneering tours throughout the British Isles. He was born and lived at the family estate Downing Hall near Whitford, Flintshire, in north-east Wales. He was educated in Wrexham and Oxford.

Pennant’s publications on natural history include such works as British Zoology, the History of Quadrupeds, and Arctic Zoology. He was a fine observer in the field, and collected specimens of plants, minerals, birds, and animals. But his knowledge of the natural world also came from a wide international network of leading scientific figures of his day — his correspondents included figures such as Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks, and Gilbert White of Selbourne. He was a passionate antiquarian, with an interest in the Roman remains and artefacts around Chester and a deep curiosity about the British past. An enthusiast for economic improvement and a champion of burgeoning industry (he opened a lead mine on his own estate) Pennant was politically conservative, becoming more reactionary in the decade of unrest after the French Revolution. His writings nonetheless reveal a thoughtful and generous-spirited man with a social conscience, who was deeply moved by the conditions of poverty he encountered on his travels. Pennant published accounts of tours in several parts of Britain, but he is best known for two consecutive Tours in Scotland made in 1769 and 1772, and the Tour in Wales, published in parts between 1778–1784. He travelled on horseback, on foot, and, in the Western Isles, by boat, and it is this immediacy of experience combined with his many and varied interests which make these tours such fascinating reading. Hugely influential on later travellers to Wales and Scotland, they are rich in observations and descriptions which bring the vibrant complexities of eighteenth-century Britain to life. His long-standing patronage of the artist Moses Griffith and others such as John Ingleby and Paul Sandby ensured that these written descriptions were matched with a superb range of landscapes and miniatures, many painted directly into lavish extra-illustrated versions of the tours.

He was married twice: in 1759 to Elizabeth Falconer (d. 1764), and in 1778 to Ann Mostyn of Mostyn Hall, the adjacent estate to Downing. He had two children from each marriage, and his eldest son David inherited the estate. When he died at the age of seventy-two he was a recognized literary figure — and had become, by a nice irony, a ‘feature’ on the itinerary of his own Tour.

Partners and Additional Contributors

An on-line edition of Pennant’s correspondence, being compiled currently by the AHRC-funded project Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour 1760–1820, will offer a selection of fully edited letters. The EMLO database will contain short abstracts of these letters, together with records for many hundreds more in the correspondence, allowing researchers to follow Pennant across his many wide-ranging interests.

Metadata for letters displayed in the catalogue at present are taken from the EMLO’s Bodleian card catalogue (and were published initially in EMLO in 2012 by the Cultures of Knowledge project and the Bodleian Libraries), from Pennant’s correspondence with Horace Walpole located at the Lewis Walpole Library (Yale University Library), and his correspondence with Carl Linneaus, and with James Edward Smith, both in the care of the Linnean Society, London. Metadata for these batches of correspondence were collated by EMLO Editorial Assistant Charlotte Marique (Horace Walpole letters) and Digital Fellow Laura Lawrence (Carl Linneaus letters).

Metadata for the letters to collated by the Curious Travellers project will be supplied to EMLO by Dr Luca Guariento and are to be taken from the transcriptions created by Dr Alex Deans and Dr Ffion Mair Jones, and other members of the Curious Travellers project team, which is run jointly by the University of Wales Centre for Advanced and Celtic Studies and Glasgow University.


Pennant’s correspondence reveals the intriguing stories behind the planning, writing, and publication of his tours in Scotland and Wales. As well as drawing on his own experiences as a traveller, Pennant constructed his tours from information fed to him by a vast network of friends, experts, and local sources; he prepared his works for the press and revised those he had previously published by gathering rich stores of textual and visual material. However, the scattered distribution of Pennant’s letters among various archives and libraries has meant that the insights they offer into the creation of his tours — as well as the scientific, antiquarian, artistic, and literary cultures of the eighteenth century — have remained largely inaccessible.

The 172 letters recorded in the care of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, each with a short abstract, date from between 1756 and 1789, although several remain undated. They cover a range of matters antiquarian, topographical, scientific and political, and correspondents include a sequence of early letters about natural history specimens to the curator of the Ashmolean, William Huddesford, as well as a small number to the topographer William Hutchinson. Over a hundred letters from the early 1770s are to the antiquarian Richard Gough, detailing many of the objects and buildings Pennant encountered on his tours.

Scope of Catalogue

The majority of the metadata for the Pennant correspondence contained in EMLO at present derives from the Bodleian card catalogue, which, given the history of its piecemeal compilation, may not be described as consistently reliable. In the course of the academic year 2018–19, these letters will be consulted, the metadata checked and updated, and it is hoped transcriptions of a significant number will be created and made available to users. The catalogue will be supplemented by records for the letters worked on at the Curious Travellers project and it is hoped that a full calendar listing of Pennant’s surviving correspondence will be collated and published.

Further resources


Mary-Ann Constantine and Nigel Leask, eds, Enlightenment Travel and British Identities: Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Scotland and Wales (London and New York: Anthem Press, 2017).

R. Paul Evans ‘Thomas Pennant (1726–1798): “The Father of Cambrian Tourists”’, Welsh History Review/ Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 13 (Janurary 1986), pp. 395–418.


Related Resources

For further information about Thomas Pennant and the Home Tour, please see the Curious Travellers project webpage.


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