The Letters

General Introduction

by Alex Deans and Ffion Mair Jones

To every particular friend and correspondent I send my most cordial thanks, for their candid and unremitted attention to my various enquiries: and for their bearing so long with my yearning after information; and with my uncommon curiosity, without which no writer can proceed without the confidence of accuracy, or ought to lay anything before the public unsanctioned by local information.

Thomas Pennant, Of London (1790), v-vi

Thomas Pennant's extant correspondence comprises some two thousand letters, dating from 1750 to his death in 1798. Written for the most part in English, but with occasional forays into Latin, French and Italian, the letters cover a wide range of subjects, reflecting Pennant's ever-broadening interests and his continual ‘yearning after information’. His determination to find correspondents ready to exchange news, publications and specimens relating to natural history is much in evidence in the early letters, which feature the names of both influential and lesser-known figures such as the fossilist Emanuel Mendes da Costa, the mineralogist and palaeontologist Giuseppe Gravina, the ichthyologist Laurentius Gronovius, and the botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Other scientifically-minded travellers such as Joseph Banks and Peter Simon Pallas, and collectors such as Anna Blackburne and the Countess of Portland also exchanged information and specimens. Some of these were acquaintances made during Pennant’s continental tour in 1765, and would become life-long correspondents.

Pennant’s background in natural history powerfully shaped his use of correspondence networks as a travel writer, combining empirical observations made ‘on the spot’ with materials systematically gathered from local informants and existing sources. During his first Scottish tour of 1769 Pennant’s interests expanded to include topographical and antiquarian subjects, and his circle of correspondents broadened considerably. This can be seen especially in the letters relating to the second Scottish tour of 1772. A key figure here is George Paton, an Edinburgh customs officer with antiquarian interests, who proved an invaluable contact for Pennant, both before and after the journey. Correspondence with other Scottish informants, such as Donald MacQueen of Kilmuir on Skye and Dr John Stuart of Killin and Luss shows Pennant assiduously seeking the type of ‘local information’ (including questions about the Gaelic language and native customs) which would validate his account, and reveal ‘true knowledge of your country, hitherto misrepresented’.

The Welsh tours of the 1770s and early 1780s also absorb and reframe local information gleaned from correspondents, such as the Worcestershire clergyman Treadway Russell Nash, who provided evidence about Owain Glyndŵr, or Pennant's friend, Paul Panton, senior, whose copies of antiquarian documents were included verbatim in the published Tours in Wales. Later in life, while still occupied in producing further editions of his many works, he began compiling what he called his ‘magnum opus’, the ‘imaginary tours’ known as the Outlines of the Globe. Adorned with prints and original watercolours, the twenty-two volumes of this work involved him in quests for information from all corners of the world, as well as for visual records to corroborate it: artists, engravers and printers form another important network in his rich correspondence. In addition to their written content the letters contribute to our understanding of Enlightenment knowledge production as a practice of physical as well as intellectual circulation and exchange, that incorporated verbal descriptions alongside visual representations and natural history specimens.

We gain more personal insights into Pennant as a man through correspondence with family members, including his aunt, Elizabeth Pennant, to whom he writes home from his Irish trip of 1754, and, most notably, his elder son, David, the recipient of a series of paternal letters intended to instruct and advise. These cover David Pennant's school years, his days as a student at Christ Church College, Oxford, and his later continental tours of 1785–92 in Switzerland, Spain, Italy and France. As Justice of the Peace, Pennant also took a close interest in matters of public order in his local area: his correspondence reflects his efforts to set up a Loyalist Association on the model of John Reeves in 1792, his pursuit of suspected felons and his rage at improper behaviour relating to parliamentary representation.

Aims of the Pennant Correspondence Project

Our primary aim has been to produce digital, searchable editions of a selection of Pennant’s letters, focusing on those which shed light on the creation of his published tours. This work is ongoing, and completed edited letters will continue to be added to the Curious Travellers site in the future. A concomitant aim has been to compile a list of the entirety of Pennant’s correspondence, and this work is being done in conjunction with the Oxford Cultures of Knowledge project, Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO). The EMLO database contains thousands of letters from the seventeenth to the early-nineteenth centuries, allowing users to search correspondence networks in a variety of ways. As we continue to add information to EMLO, we are gaining a clearer picture of Pennant’s interests at different points in his life (see The Correspondence of Thomas Pennant).


The letters are preserved in disparate collections. The most substantial is that held at Warwickshire County Record Office, deposited there with the greater part of the Pennant family papers in 1980. Further significant collections are found at the National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland, with smaller deposits dispersed in various county archives, including those of Cornwall, Cheshire, Cumbria, the East Riding of Yorkshire, Flintshire, Staffordshire and Stoke and Suffolk, and in libraries, museums and societies, from the British Library and the British Museum, to Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Lambeth Palace Library, the Linnean Society, the Royal Society, Society of Antiquaries, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Morrab Library, Penzance. Reflecting Pennant's wide geographical interests, some letters are preserved as far afield as the United States (at the American Philosophical Society Library; Houghton Library, Harvard University; James Ford Bell Collection at the University of Minnesota; New York Public Library; Paul Mellon Collection, Virginia; Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass.; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; Pennsylvania State University Libraries); Australia (Mitchell Library, Sydney; National Library of Australia) and New Zealand (Alexander Turnbull Library). Most of Pennant's overseas correspondents were based on mainland Europe but, while letters have surfaced at Uppsala University Library, the possibility of locating material in libraries and archives in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Russia is yet to be fully investigated.

Further reading: existing printed and online editions of selections of Pennant’s correspondence.

Neil Chambers (ed.), The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks: A Selection 1768–1820 (London: Imperial College Press, 2000).
— The Indian and Pacific correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1768-1820
, 8 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008-2014).
Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks 1765–1820 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007).
G.T. Fox (ed.), Memoirs of Marmaduke Tunstall Esq., and George Allan, Esq., Together with Notices of the Works of Thomas Bewick (Newcastle: 1827).
John Nichols, Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century: Comprizing Biographical Memoirs of William Bowyer, Printer, 9 vols., viii (London: 1814).
Carol Urness, A Naturalist in Russia: Letters from Peter Simon Pallas to Thomas Pennant (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967).
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, ed. Anne Secord (Oxford: OUP, 2013).
The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence .
The Linnaean Correspondence Collection .
The Correspondence of Sir James Edward Smith .

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