John Penn (engineer)


John Penn (1805–1878) was an English marine engineer whose firm was pre-eminent in the middle of the 19th century due to his innovations in engine and propeller systems, which led his firm to be the major supplier to the Royal Navy as it made the transition from sail to steam power. He was also president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on two occasions.

Early life

John Penn was born in 1805 in Greenwich, the son of engineer and millwright John Penn (born in Taunton, Somerset, 1770; died 6 June 1843). The senior John Penn had in 1799 started an agricultural engineering business on the site at the junction of Blackheath and Lewisham Roads (close to modern-day Deptford Bridge). It grew in two decades to be one of the major engineering works in the London area. The focus of the firm was mainly in agriculture and more specifically mills for corn and flour. Although John Penn senior lived in Lewisham he stood as a reformist candidate for Greenwich (UK Parliament constituency), Greenwich in the 1832 United Kingdom general election, December 1832 parliamentary election.


Penn entered his father's works at an early age and became a partner in the early 1830s whereupon the firm became John Penn and Sons. When his father died in 1843 the sole possession of the works passed to Penn, although for some years previously he had had sole management of the works. Penn was an inventor of engines and one of the earliest engines he produced was the grasshopper beam engine, a six horsepower version being the first steam engine to power the machinery at the works. Penn shifted the focus of the works to marine engines. His 40-horsepower beam engines were fitted in the paddle steamers 'Ipswich' and 'Suffolk', and it is likely these were the first marine engines to be designed and built by Penn. He then focussed on improving the marine steam engine#Oscillating, oscillating engine from the version patented by Aaron Manby (ironmaster), Aaron Manby in 1821. In 1844 he replaced the engines of the British Admiralty, Admiralty yacht, HMS Black Eagle, HMS ''Black Eagle'' with oscillating engines of double the power, without increasing either the weight or space occupied, an achievement which broke the naval supply dominance of Boulton & Watt and Henry Maudslay, Maudslay, Son & Field. His enhanced reputation due to this notable advancement was further augmented by Penn's introduction of marine steam engine#Trunk, trunk engines for driving screw propellers in vessels of war. HMS Encounter (1846), HMS ''Encounter'' (1846) and HMS Arrogant (1848), HMS ''Arrogant'' (1848) were the first ships to be fitted with such engines and such was their efficacy that by the time of Penn's death in 1878, the engines had been fitted in 230 ships. Initially, ships were adapted to incorporate these engines, but in 1851, the Navy ordered its first ship specifically designed as a steam-screw auxiliary, HMS Agamemnon (1852), HMS ''Agamemnon''. In 1852 the new owners of Steam Ship, SS ''Great Britain'' decided to recognise the rapid advances in propeller engine technology, and replace the original engines with a pair of smaller, lighter and more modern oscillating engines, designed and built by John Penn and Son. These advancements were coupled with a reputation for quality and reliability and this led to Penn becoming the major engine supplier to the Royal Navy as it made the transition from sail to steam. Penn was also responsible for introducing wood bearings for screw-propeller shafts which became vital to the worldwide use of steam-powered ships. This development of the lignum vitae stave bearing, stern bearing which enabled screw propeller ships to make oceanic voyages without wearing out their stern glands came in collaboration with Francis Pettit Smith. Other notable associations include his work on the application of superheater, superheated steam in marine engines. Penn also produced the trunk engine for HMS Warrior (1860), HMS ''Warrior'' and during construction was requested to develop an engine design for the RN gunboats being readied for the Crimean War. Penn chose his trunk engine design and subsequently produced 90 sets of what were the first mass-produced, high-pressure and high-revolution marine engines. At the Admiralty's insistence, they also used the Whitworth measurement standards throughout; Penn was a great friend of Joseph Whitworth, and employed the precision instruments and tools developed by him. The association with Whitworth was important in the development of mass-produced marine engines, as is clear from the obituary to Whitworth from ''The Times'' of 24 January 1887: The engine recovered from the wreck of the SS Xantho, SS ''Xantho'' is of the gunboat type. Built (or assembled) in 1861, it is the only known example, and in being recovered intact was found to have all its fittings and fixtures attached including Penn's nameplate. It is on display at the Western Australian Museum. John Penn's firm was a major employer in the Greenwich area with 1800 employed at its Greenwich and Deptford works at its peak. John Penn and Sons was considered the best-equipped marine engineering works and Penn a model employer. He recognised the value of skilled employees through pensions and awarded Christmas gifts. His works also provided the education for a whole generation of marine engineers.

Later life

John Penn became a Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1848 and served as its president on two occasions (in 1858–1859, and again in 1867–1868). In June 1859 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; the citation said: In 1860 Penn was a founder member of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects. In 1872 Penn's two elder sons entered into the firm's partnership, and Penn became less active in the business, eventually retiring completely in 1875. Towards the end of his life Penn became paralysed in his lower limbs, and later he became blind. During his retirement, he visited France, Belgium, Holland and Italy by steam yacht. He died at his home, The Cedars, Lee, London, on 23 September 1878, survived by his wife, and was buried nearby at St Margaret's, Lee, St Margaret's Church, Lee, on 29 September. The ''Kentish Mercury and Greenwich Gazette'' wrote of him as 'Greenwich's greatest son'. By the time of his death the firm had built engines for 735 ships, ranging from river ferries to battleships. Aside from the advancements made in marine engineering, John Penn is remembered in Greenwich through street names and buildings. John Penn Street in Greenwich, which once ran down one side of the works site, remains, as do the Penn Almshouses in South Street, built in 1884 in memory of the second John Penn. He is also represented in Deptford, such as the arched riverfront of the boiler works, and in Lee, south of Blackheath, John Penn's grand house The Cedars still stands, although now converted into flats.

Personal life and family

In 1847 Penn married Ellen English, the daughter of another London engineer, William English of Municipal Borough of Enfield, Enfield. She was 21 years his junior. They had four sons John Penn (MP), John, William Penn (cricketer), William, Frank Penn (cricketer, born 1851), Frank and Dick Penn, Alfred (Dick). In 1872, he handed over management of the works to his two eldest sons, retiring altogether in 1875. His eldest son John became MP for Lewisham (UK Parliament constituency), Lewisham in 1891 and served until his death in 1903 and his sons Frank, William and Dick all played cricket for Kent County Cricket Club, Kent. They had two daughters of whom Isabella married Frederick Stokes (rugby player), Frederick Stokes and Ellen married Joseph Fletcher Green, both England national rugby union team players whom they married in 1877. Penn's sister Charlotte married William Hartree in 1839; Hartree was probably already an apprentice with the firm of which he became a partner in 1848. Hartree's sister Maria married John Matthew who became an apprentice with the firm in 1840 and during that decade chief designer and the third partner of the firm. William Hartree was the great grandfather of mathematician and physicist Douglas Hartree; John Matthew's daughter married Sir Trevor Lawrence.





* * * {{DEFAULTSORT:Penn, John 1805 births 1878 deaths 19th-century British inventors British steam engine engineers Machine tool builders Screws Fellows of the Royal Society Presidents of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers British marine engineers People from Greenwich 19th-century British engineers Engineers from London 19th-century English businesspeople