‘THE house itself has little to boast of. I fortunately found it incapable of being improved into a magnitude exceeding the revenue of the family. It has a hall which I prefer to the rural impropriety of a paltry vestibule; a library thirty feet by eighteen; a parlor capable of containing more guests than I ever wish to see at a time […] I have Cowley’s wish realized, a small house and large garden!’ [Pennant, History of the Parishes, p.7]
On 28 September this year Thomas Pennant possibly received more guests than he would have wished to see at one time. I hope, though, that he might have overcome his reluctance to mingle once he realised that these were congenial spirits. We were there at the kind invitation of the proprietors Ann and Jim Wragg, and through the good offices of the Thomas Pennant Society, visiting the vestiges of Downing Hall with Dr Edwin Rose, who would deliver the annual Thomas Pennant Lecture in Holywell later that evening.
In the wake of storm Agnes we had feared rain and wind, but there was watery autumn sunlight on the piles of brick and rubble that mark where the Pennant family home stood until it was almost destroyed by fire in 1922, and demolished in the 1950s. It is a strange site – the house itself now an invisible presence against the tall dark trees of the dingle, set back from the narrow road, fronted by rolling open fields. For someone who spends so much time in the eighteenth century I have a surprisingly poor historical imagination, but Edwin had brought a copy of the floor plan and, with Jim and Ann, who know the site intimately, we had a very convincing guided tour of the absent house.
The best-preserved part of Downing, and the place most visitors remember, is the cellar. Much of it was filled with rubble after the demolition, and the Wraggs have gradually, with much labour, cleared out the original space. The vaulted ceilings and damp walls make it feel like being in a cathedral crypt, but animated discussion of its alcoves, shelves, stalls and recesses soon filled it with cheeses and hams, jars, kegs and bottles, and busy feet on the different flights of stairs, fetching and lifting or storing safely away. One of those staircases, its stone steps worn away by footprints, now leads evocatively up into the open air.
Like many small estates, Downing would have been run as a mini economy, growing, making and preserving much of the food needed for the family and staff – perhaps up to hundred people at one time, judging by the accounts. Among the more curious items kept down there, alongside old bottles and the fragments of broken crockery, is an impressive chunk of a plant fossil which – surely! – must once have been part of Pennant’s natural history collections.
Above ground, there are a few precarious walls bursting with ferns, mosses and seedlings, and still areas where you can see the floor-tiles and work out the entrances to different rooms. We had no trouble identifying the library, which still has part of the fireplace at the far end. This was Pennant’s favourite room:
‘THE library is filled by a numerous collection of books, principally of history, natural history and classics. My own labors might fill an ordinary book-room; many of them receive considerable value from the smaller drawings and prints with which they are illustrated on the margins, as well as by the larger intermixed with the leaves; among the latter are several drawings of uncommon beauty, by that eminent hand Mr. Nicholas Pococke. These relate either to the Ferroe isles, or to Iceland, others to the distant Tibet or Boutan. […] Among my own labors, I value myself on my MS. volumes of THE OUTLINES OF THE GLOBE, in xxii. volumes, folio, on which uncommon expence has been bestowed, in ornament and illuminations.’
Edwin (who, to our amusement, had been clutching his briefcase all the while) now pulled out his personal copy of David Pennant’s annotated edition of his father’s British Zoology. In typical Pennant fashion, this book is a riddle of scribbles, additions, corrections, and advice from trusted correspondents for a future edition. He opened it for us with a smile. This, he said, is the first time this book has been back in this room for well over a hundred years. We were all moved.
The house lives on in various pictures and sketches by Moses Griffith (and his son, Moses Junior), and in letters and accounts by those who visited during Pennant’s time: Wordsworth remembered being shown the beautiful manuscripts of the ‘Outlines of the Globe’, while Katherine Plymley, whose party stayed for several days, lamented that ‘time did not permit us to see nearly all the numberless drawings, & curiosities that Mr Pennant has collected’. Later sepia photographs show the dining room and library as they would have been at the beginning of the twentieth century – filled with polished furniture, stuffed animals, and books, many from Pennant’s time. This invisible library in which we all stood would have been filled with objects from Pennant’s own collections. Our project hopes to create a kind of Virtual Cabinet of Curiosities, drawing on the many specimens and artefacts which have ended up in the Natural History Museum and other archives and repositories – pulling them back into a different imagined space, a regrouping of objects, but also the beginning of new stories.
Edwin shared some of those stories later in the evening during his lecture, when he traced the journeys of a few specimens through Pennant’s astonishingly effective web of collaborators and correspondents. He showed us the stages, from living creature to type-specimen in a box, via sketch, watercolour, copperplate engraving, and page in a printed book – plants and creatures examined, represented, described and discussed. These processes all form the eighteenth-century’s contributions to the precise biological classifications, the careful descriptors, which allow us to measure the rich variety of species on our planet – and, increasingly, to reckon the measure of our losses.
With grateful thanks to Ann and Jim Wragg, Edwin Rose and the officers of the Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society.
You can see further pictures of the estate here: Downing Estate – Downing Hall (wraggbusiness.co.uk)
You can learn about Edwin Rose’s recent work on Pennant and other eighteenth-century collectors here: Edwin Rose | People | HPS (cam.ac.uk)
You can learn about the activities of Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society here: Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society
The best account of Downing Hall can be found in the opening pages of Pennant’s History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796). See also M. Bevan Evans, ‘Thomas Pennant and Downing’ (Flintshire Historical Soc, 1953-54) 72-79. The article has numerous pictures and plans, and was written shortly after the demolition.