SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: In the tumultuous 18th Century, a time of trade, international war and revolution, Croydon’s links with America were many and varied, as DAVID MORGAN’s latest researches have discovered
One of the names that I have found in the burial registers of Croydon Minster is Philadelphia Swift. She died on February 1, 1794. Her husband, Richard Swift, had died on June 26, 1789. Both lived to be 76 years old.
“Philadelphia”, today, seems an unusual first name.
Wondering whether or not the lady buried at what was then known as Croydon Parish Church had any more of a connection with the city in Pennsylvania, the first capital city of the new republic of the United States in the 18th Century, I began a search.
And it wasn’t long before I came across a house called Croydon Lodge in Bensalem, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and it is from here that this tale starts.
The building, now standing ruined and surrounded by a security fence, was built by Thomas Barnsley, a major in the British Army stationed in what was then the American colonies.
Major Barnsley arrived in New York in 1756 with the Earl of Loudoun, who had been appointed by William Pitt (“the elder”), the British Prime Minister, as the commander-in-chief of the British Army in north America. This was the time of the Seven Years War, a conflict with the French mostly over imperial, territorial claims in north America.
Barnsley served with 60th Royal American Regiment of Foot. Completing his military tour in 1760, at first he returned to England to retired from army life. But Barnsley decided to go back to America to seek his fortune. With his wife Bersheba and his nephew, James, Major Barnsley voyaged back across the Atlantic Ocean.
His dream was to build a mansion similar to the ones he had seen in Virginia, but to construct it using red bricks. While sailing upstream on the Neshaminy Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, Barnsley saw a heavily forested hilltop in Bensalem, opposite the village of Newportville. He purchased the 537-acre site and in 1763 started building his dream home.
This was 250 years before there was any television shows featuring the likes of Sarah Beeney or called Grand Designs, but Barnsley’s bold project could have been exactly the kind of thing modern-day producers will have been keen to feature.
Barnsley had to ship his red bricks for the walls of his Colonial mansion all the way from Yorkshire. The house provided four large rooms on the ground floor, with six on the second and three attic rooms. High ceilings and many large windows added airiness.
A black walnut staircase set off the grand entrance hall. Barnsley was wealthy and well-connected. George Washington was one of his guests there.
Next to the house, Barnsley had a carpenter’s shop, a smoke house, a flax and wool house, two barns, a granary, a coach house and a stable for up to 30 horses. One wing of the house contained two large kitchens. Elegant gardens were laid out and an orchard was created using grafted trees, while meadows extended down to Newportville.
Visitors arriving by boat were suitably impressed. Barnsley, according to an American article, liked to dress in a “scarlet coat, buff breeches and gold knee buckles in the style of a retired Royal Officer”.
Barnsley died in 1771 just eight years after his return to America. His wife, Bersheba, had died in 1767. Both of them were buried in the churchyard at St James Episcopal Church in the nearby town of Bristol.
The house and grounds that Barnsley had created so painstakingly were sold in 1772 by the executors, as there were no children to inherit the estate. Four people benefited from the sale, including nephew James, who had come over from England.
James Barnsley went on to side with the Americans in the War of Independence, and was at General Washington’s side at the Battle of Princeton, driving a horse-drawn ammunition wagon along their lines to supply their troops.
The estate was purchased by John Swift for £3,955 – close to being worth £1million today – and was renamed Croydon Lodge. The property remained in the ownership of the Swift family for the next 110 years, until a local physician bought it in 1882.
John Swift was born in Bristol in England and emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1737 with his brother Joseph, sister Mary and his father, also called John. They has been invited to live in America by John Swift’s mother’s brother, John White. Son John was 17, his sister Mary 11 and Joseph just six. Once the children were settled with their uncle, John Swift senior got back on a ship to sail back to England and home in Croydon.
It was the young John Swift who grew up to became a prominent figure in society, business and politics.
John White had set himself up in business in Pennsylvania with another British émigré, Abram Taylor, describing themselves as “Merchant Adventurers”. Young John Swift proved himself to be such a capable associate that four years later, in 1741, White decided he would leave the business and return to England himself, leaving his niece and nephews in the care of Taylor and his wife.
Abraham Taylor was certainly an influential figure in Pennsylvania. He married in 1731, Philadelphia Gordon, the daughter of the Deputy Governor. Taylor went on to become great friends with Benjamin Franklin and served in the militia during the War of Independence.
White sold his share of the business to Taylor for £7,000 – almost £2million in today’s money. The two would remain close friends and corresponded for the rest of their lives.
White retired to Croydon, where he was joined in 1747 by his 16-year-old nephew Joseph Swift, who returned to England for the final part of his education at university. Young Joseph was impressed with his uncle’s house and standing. That October, Swift wrote to Governor Bedford of Pennsylvania describing “the indolent and luxurious life in Croydon”.
When Joseph Swift returned to Philadelphia, by now proficient in French and Latin, he joined forces with his older brother John in a trading partnership. Joseph was later to become a signatory to the Non-Importation Agreement of 1765, when an agreement was agreed with the local Crown official that he would do nothing to enforce the provisions of the hated Stamp Act.
Meanwhile, Abraham Taylor and John White were exchanging letters regularly, keeping each other aware of the growing difficulties over trade, as well as the changing political and military scenarios. Taylor wrote in 1744 about some recent troubles he had endured. Not only had he lost one of his ships which had been taken by the French, he also bemoaned the loss of a privateer, The Tartar, a new ship in which he had a share.
Eighty crew members drowned and Taylor lost £1,000 in the disaster.
John Swift also kept his uncle up to date with developments. In July 1748, John Swift wrote from Philadelphia that they had heard about the cessation of hostilities between England and France. He hoped that this would be a “forerunner to peace” but was concerned that the treaty didn’t appear to be a very advantageous one. “The giving up of Cape Breton will be a great mortification to the people of New England and indeed to all North America.”
John White never married and looked upon his nephews as his own. Some years before he died, he made over his fortune to them on the condition that they had to pay him an annual sum. This they duly did, and when their uncle made a request for an additional payment, they gave him double what he asked for.
When White died in 1767, he left a will that reads like an inventory. As a document, it has provided historians with an interesting glimpse of what a “gentleman’s house” of the time might contain.
In the “Red Room” he listed: “A feather bed, bolster and two down pillows, four blankets, two cotton counterpanes, a bedstead with sacking bottom and mahogany posts, harrateen curtains and two window curtains, double chest of drawers with a mahogany front. Four cherry tree chairs, a mahogany night chair, a brass hearth, brass shovel, tongs, poker and fender, three chintz curtains, a side carpet.”
In the last section of White’s will, he asked to be buried in the Quaker’s burial ground in Croydon and that the funeral service should be conducted by John Stedwick, the undertaker, with his two friends Charles and Richard Bedford being requested to attend.
But what of Richard and Philadelphia Swift, the husband and wife whose burial entries at Croydon Parish Church prompted this search?
Records show that they were married in 1753 in St George’s, Hanover Square. It was Richard Swift’s second marriage. Described as a gentleman, he clearly had a good deal of money. In his will, he left his wife Philadelphia a cash sum, shares and the use of all his household goods, including his brewing utensils…
He also left her his gold watch, made by Sargent of London, and a diamond. He named a granddaughter, Elizabeth Johnson, and a grandson, Edward Swift-Johnson, who each received considerable bequests. His sister, Harriot Rumsey, and her husband, Thomas, also received gifts in the form of shares.
When Philadelphia Swift wrote her own will five years later, everything was left to her niece, Mary Turner, a spinster. No Swift family members were mentioned at all.
No special mention was made of the gold watch or the diamond. Philadelphia wed a Swift but never married into the family. Her first name was a common one in that era and she had no obvious link with the American city.
What this quest has shown, again, are the particularly close links between Croydon and Colonial America in the tumultuous 18th Century, a time of trade, international war and revolution.
There are three places named Croydon in the United States. The one in Pennsylvania, plus one in Utah, and a third in New Hampshire.
I feel more searches coming on!
Other articles by David Morgan:
- Pioneering Croydon cricketer who led the way against Australia
- Banker from Waddon who helped finance independent America
- American refugees given a welcome in 18th century Croydon
- From Massachusetts to the Minster: Americans in Croydon
- Kelly’s heroics and the tale of a soldier’s hard life and death
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
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