Penn Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Penn Surname Meaning

The Penn surname is most likely to be locational in origin. The old Celtic word pen meant “hill” and gave rise to Penn place-names in Staffordshire, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire.

Penn Surname Resources on The Internet

Penn Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England
  • to America (Pennsylvania) and South Africa

England.  The Penns of Buckinghamshire took their name from the village of the same name. James Penn was recorded as early as 1222 as having taken possession of the Seagrave manor. It stayed with the Penn family until the death of the last Penn there, Roger Penn, in 1731.

From John Penn, a mercer in London who died in 1450, came the Penns of Codicote in Hertfordshire. There were also early Penns in Worcestershire and Shropshire.

But the best-known Penns originated in Wiltshire, at Minety on the road between Swindon and Malmesbury. William Penn lived there in Elizabethan times. His line produced:

  • Giles Penn, a Bristol merchant and sea captain;
  • George Penn and his younger brother Sir William Penn, the English admiral;
  • and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.

What has tended to be forgotten is that William Penn returned to England in later life and died there penniless in 1718. Penn’s grandson John, enriched at a later date from his time in America, acquired the Stoke Poges manor in Buckinghamshire and held it from 1775 to 1834.

Later distribution of the Penn name in England showed it in the West Midlands and stretching down into London and the southeast. One family history started with a shoemaker Phillip Penn, born around 1740 in Canterbury, another with the marriage of John and Elizabeth Penn in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in 1742.

In 1800 John Penn started a company in Blackheath which under his son John was to become one of the leading builders of marine engines of the Victorian age. John Penn Street in Greenwich commemorates him.

America. Because of his father’s service to the crown, William Penn the younger received a grant of a vast tract of land in America that formerly had been part of New Netherland.

Pennsylvania.  William Penn arrived in this new territory in 1682 and he and his family were to retain control of what became Pennsylvania until the time of the American Revolution.

The Penns in fact owned much of this land themselves. Their agreement with the Native Americans had stated that no man could claim or buy more land from Native Americans than he could walk in a day and a half.

“In 1737 William’s son Thomas chose the three fastest runners in the province and had them run for the allotted time over the clearest and best lying land that he could find. The runners had pacemakers on horseback to ensure that the maximum amount of land was acquired. One of the runners gave up, another drowned in a river. The third runner kept going over the thirty six hours – thus ensuring that half a million acres of cornfields and hunting grounds came into the Penn family estate.”

Although William married twice and had fourteen children, only two of his sons, William and Thomas, had living descendants. The Penn direct male line ended in fact with the death of the Rev. Thomas Penn in 1869.

Other Penns.  William Penn was not the first Penn in America. Christian Penn was recorded in Jamestown as early as 1621. John Penn, born in Virginia around 1680, died in Caroline county in 1741. He had four sons – John, George, Joseph and Moses – and many descendants. Another John Penn from Caroline county, the son of Moses and Catherine Penn, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence for North Carolina in 1776.

Abram Penn was one of the most prominent citizens of Patrick county, Virginia at the time of the American Revolution. His descendants became active and successful in tobacco manufacture. Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Penn was born into this family.

My Black Mammy, published in 2010, is a story told in Thomas Jefferson Penn’s own words and was his way of honoring a woman that he cared for deeply. The story took place in the 1880’s when Jefferson Penn was a child growing up in North Carolina.”

Penn sold the family tobacco business to American Tobacco in the 1910’s and built the Chinqua Penn plantation house near Greensboro, North Carolina on the proceeds.

Jewish Penns.  Not all Penns in America are of English origin. Some Penns were German from Bavaria, arriving at different times in the 19th century.

One Russian Jewish immigrant family in Massachusetts in the early 1900’s changed their name from Pinon to Penn. Their son was Leo Penn, an actor and director blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He had three sons, the most well-known being the actor Sean Penn. Also from Russian Jewish parents, but this time in Philadelphia, was the film director Arthur Penn.

South Africa. The youngest son of an immigrant Jewish cabinet maker, Jack Penn, born in 1908. grew up to be the doyen of plastic surgery of his time, as well as a highly acclaimed sculptor:

“A bust of General Smuts was commissioned for the Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. His bust of Albert Schweitzer was presented to Strasbourg; while those of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan are in Israel.”

His son John followed in his footsteps as a plastic surgeon.

Penn Surname Miscellany

The Penns of Buckinghamshire.  At a property division in Penn in Buckinghamshire in 1222 the manor was divided into two portions, that part obtained by James Penn retaining the name of Penn Manor.

Seagrave Manor as it became historically belonged to the Penn family.  David Penn came in possession of the manor in 1565.  His wife Sybil Penn was a dry nurse and foster mother to Edward VI and the Lady of the Bed Chamber to his sister Queen Elizabeth.  William Penn was sheriff of the county in 1624, his grandson William in 1656, and Roger Penn in 1706.  Roger Penn never married and in 1735 the manor passed to his sister who had married Lord Curzon. 

William Penn of Minety, Wiltshire.  William Penn of Minety must have been a person of some local importance.  When he died in 1591 it is believed that he was buried in front of the altar at Saint Leonard’s church there.  A plaque commemorating his life was erected in the church.  This William Penn was the forebear of a famous family which included his namesake, the founder of Pennsylvania.

George Penn the Spanish Merchant.  George Penn, the eldest son of the Penn family, became “an opulent merchant in Spain,”  residing many years in Seville. However, being rich and a Protestant, he was pounced upon by the Spanish Inquisition in 1643 as a heretic, despoiled of all his estate, cast into prison where for years he was subjected to torture and flagellation.  He was finally placed on the rack for four days until in his agony he renounced the Protestant faith.

He was then taken through the streets of Seville to a church where his confession and sentence was proclaimed “in the sight of thousands.”  His property was confiscated; his wife, a Flemish woman, was divorced from him and ordered to marry a Spaniard; and he himself was expelled from Spain.  He was told that if he either renounced the Catholic faith or returned to Spain he would be burned at the stake.

Back in England, Charles II appointed him in 1664 as envoy to reside at the court of the King of Spain in order that he could get satisfaction for his “sufferings, loss and damage.”  But before he could take up the position he unexpectedly died.

Reader Feedback – William Penn’s Aunt.  My mother Jean Hammond Mayhew was a descendant of Elizabeth Penn Hammond, a daughter of Giles Penn, an older sister of Admiral William Penn, and an aunt to William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.

She became a young widow and took her daughters and son Benjamin Hammond to the New World in 1630, landing in Boston.  She then died in 1640 at the age of 39. She was said to have left a large estate in England that her widowed husband William Hammond owned. Any information on the family line, or the location of the William Hammond estate would be greatly appreciated.

Michael Mayhew (

The End of the William Penn Line.  Although William Penn had fourteen children, only William (his eldest son by his first marriage) and Thomas (his second son by his second marriage) had living descendants.  These derived from Christina Gulielma, a granddaughter of William the eldest son, and Sophia Margaret, the daughter of Thomas.

Sophia Margaret’s last remaining brother, who was heir to the Penn fortune, died in 1844 and left all his property to his eldest surviving son Granville John Penn.  The latter on his decease in 1867 bequeathed in turn the family inheritance to the Rev. Thomas Gordon Penn, his younger brother.

This gentle scholar, however, never entered upon the control of his possessions as the Court of Chancery held him incompetent to manage property.  He was skilled in research activities and his lunacy was of a mild type.  With his passing in 1869, the male line from Willam Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, came to an end.

Interestingly, all Penn’s descendants of American nationality were from his first marriage, i.e. his English branch; whilst his English descendants were all from his second marriage.

Penn’s Store.  Penn’s Store in Harrodsburg, Kentucky is said to be the oldest country store in America run continuously by the same family.

Jack Penn was the first Penn to own the store sometime around 1850. In the 1870’s ownership passed to his Dick who was born in 1852. He married Isabelle May and they lived in a little house next to the store.

Dick Penn was truly a man of many talents. Among his professions were being a surveyor, dentist, druggist, and postmaster.  He was the community’s first postmaster and Penn’s Store was site of the first post office in the area known as Rollings, Kentucky.  Around 1910 the post office moved to Gravel Switch to be close to the train which would stop in the town to get gravel from the creek.

After Dick’s death, his son Martin became the new store keeper. Martin Penn, with the help of his five sons, farmed while also tending to the store.  However, one day in 1933, while raking hay with a team of horses, the team got spooked and ran off with him.  Martin’s legs were entangled in the reins and he was dragged along the creek bed near the store.  Shortly thereafter he died from massive injuries.

His wife Sue, known as Mammy, became the new storekeeper. Along with all of the children she kept the store running.  She lived onto the age of 92 and died in her sleep in 1972.

The Chinqua Penn Plantation House.  The Chinqua Penn Plantation House is an English manor home mansion near Greensboro, North Carolina that was built by Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Penn and his wife Betsy in the 1920’s. The name Chinqua Penn was derived from the chinquapin, a species of American chestnut once plentiful in the area but destroyed by a chestnut blight in the 1930’s.

Chinqua Penn reflected their lifestyle of entertaining, traveling, and collecting art and furniture from around the world.  The historic landscape evolved into an exotic horticulture collection, changing with each season. The Penn’s love of the beautiful and artistic was manifested in the use of both native and imported plant material at Chinqua Penn, maintained throughout the Penn’s tenure by their gardener Charlie Talley.

Jeff died in 1945 but his wife Betsy continued as the mistress of Chinqua Penn for another fifteen years.  Bob Boyles, her chauffeur at that time, remembered her as a perfect lady from the old school.

“While it was my job, I never once opened a car door for Mrs. Penn that she didn’t thank me.  I lost a real friend when she died.”

Penn Names

  • William Penn, arriving in 1682, founded and gave his name to the state of Pennsylvania.
  • John Penn of John Penn & Sons was one of the leading marine engine builders of the 19th century.
  • Jack Penn was acclaimed in South Africa as being the doyen of plastic surgery, as well as a notable sculptor.
  • Arthur Penn was the American film director best known for his 1968 classic Bonnie and Clyde.
  • Sean Penn is a well-known American actor.

Penn Numbers Today

  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Essex)
  • 6,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Penn and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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