Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 132,597 pages of information and 209,979 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
John Penn (1770-1843) Founder of the business which became John Penn and Sons
Father of John Penn
1824 John Penn, Greenwich, Civil Engineer, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
1844 Obituary 
Mr. John Penn, M.Inst.C.E., was born near Taunton, in Somersetshire, in the year 1770, and was apprenticed to a millwright at Bridgewater, whence he travelled to Bristol, and worked there as an operative; he soon became the foreman of an important work, when only twenty-two years of age, and was celebrated for his theoretical and practical knowledge of the forms of the teeth of wheels, which branch of construction was, at that period, only imperfectly understood by mechanics.
He removed to London about the year 1793, and after working at and being a foreman in several works, he commenced business on his own account in 1801.
His attention was at first chiefly directed to the construction of flour-mills, in which he made many improvements, particularly in the substitution of metal, for wood framing.
In consequence of the injudicious proceedings of the Millwrights’ Union, he was induced to oppose a determined resistance to their demands, and by the introduction of self-acting tools, and the instructions given by him to another class of workmen, the millwrights lost many of the privileges they had previously enjoyed.
The tread-mills for prisons’ were first constructed at Mr. Penn’s works, and latterly he (in conjunction with his son) manufactured many marine engines, particularly those with oscillating cylinders.
Mr. Penn was well versed in general science; he was an amateur astronomer, and possessed some valuable instruments; much of his leisure time was devoted to horticultura1 pursuits, which led to several improvements in the methods of heating conservatories and forcing houses.
He died suddenly on the 6th June, 1843, in the 73rd year of his age, having enjoyed for many years the confidence and esteem of a large circle of friends.
From The Engineer 1874/10/16
"JOHN PENN.- Towards the close of the last century the first John Penn was working for Messrs. Hall, the engineers of Dartford, and whose establishment is still in vigorous life. John Penn had something more than ordinary human clay in his composition. The records of Messrs. J. and E. Hall, to whom reference has just been made, demonstrate that their young workman, Penn, besides being an excellent mechanic, was studious and thoughtful, beyond his years. Undoubtedly he very early discovered that one's truest friend, materially speaking, may be carried in one's own pocket. "Put money in thy purse," said Shakespeare, and young Penn complied, as far as he could, with the mandate; in fact, whilst working at Dartford he paid his way, and saved a few pounds into the bargain. The ambition to become master, instead of man, had taken possession of his mind; and although, by no means penurious, he was wisely careful. At the commencement of the present century John Penn bade adieu to Dartford, and having heard of a "village smithy" to be let at, or rather near to Greenwich, he become its tenant. At that period Penn's forge was surrounded by the country seats of city merchants, and the gardens pertaining thereto. The young smith found employment for his head in devising heating apparatuses for the conservatories of his wealthier neighbours, and employment for his hands in constructing and setting them to work. Soon his diligence and skill met their reward ; he obtained a small contract for the supply of biscuit baking apparatuses in the Royal Victualling Yard at Deptford. Financially he was assisted in this venture by friends who knew his ability and honesty of purpose. This contract was the real starting point of the subsequent success which he achieved. The smithy was transformed into an engineering workshop, and it was supplied with such rude mechanical appliances as were then available. Little by little the factory, at the junction of Lewisham-road with Blackheath-hill, grew and extended itself. Gardens disappeared, and sheds and buildings arose on their sitea. The nucleus of the gigantic establishment which now exists in the same locality, and which has monopolised about seven acres of original garden ground, was thus securely completed. Penn became associated with the engineering notabilities of the time, and obtained a large share in the works of which the first half of the current century saw the advent. He, in fact, was a thriving man; and on one occasion - under the aegis of the celebrated William Cobbett - he offered himself as a candidate for a seat in Parliament for the borough of Greenwich. His efforts were unsuccessful, perhaps, because of the extremely liberal or advanced views of his friend and patron Cobbett. This parliamentary campaign was engaged in after the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832. Nearly thirty years before that period Penn had married, and about 1810, his son the present distinguished and universally respected head of the firm, was born. Fortunately the son had all the mechanical and scientific proclivities of the father. He had also, to commence with, a better scholastic training. At an early age the fine arts were cultivated by the young engineer, and had he not by force of circumstances come to wield the hammer and ply the jack-plane, he might have figured as a Royal Academian in place of being a civil engineer. Mr. Penn determined to work, as his father had done, with his own hands, and, indeed, to pass through the noviciate of an ordinary apprentice. He had no faith in mere paper engineering; thus to a very great extent may be attributed the success which has constantly attended upon the firm from the date of its foundation. - London Iron Trade Exchange"