With the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton dominating the news, we here at PhillyHistory.org have been reflecting on the historical ties between Philadelphia and Great Britain, many of which are captured in our photo collections. As a former colony of Great Britain, the United States has always maintained a special relationship with its mother country and, in many ways, Philadelphia and Great Britain have their own special relationship as well. A brief survey of writings on Philadelphia and Great Britain shows that historians have explored topics as diverse as trade relationships, the Quaker influence on British abolitionism, architecture, industrialization, and theater and popular culture, just to name a few. Moreover, the historical ties between Philadelphia and Great Britain do not end with the colonial era but rather extend over centuries and have had an enduring impact on the city that Philadelphia was and the city it has become.
From its inception, the connections between Philadelphia and Great Britain were literally laid into the foundations of the city by virtue of the grid system that William Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme designed. In hopes of staving off the overcrowding, fire, and disease that plagued European cities, Penn envisioned Philadelphia as a city modeled after an English country village, with ample space separating homes and businesses and an abundance of gardens and orchards. Published in 1683, Holme’s A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania, 1683 brought Penn’s vision to life, laying out the city on a grid system of wide streets intersecting at right angles between the Schuylkill River to the west and the Delaware River to the east. Also visible on the 1683 map is perhaps the best known feature of Penn and Holme’s design, the four squares of dedicated parkland that Holme envisioned as “for the like Uses, as the More-fields in London.” Further proof of the English influence on Philadelphia’s topography, Moorefields was a public garden that notably evoked the “well-ordered spaces” of public recreation that, according to William Penn, would bring a sense of moral discipline and healthful living to the city. Along with Centre Square (later the site of City Hall), the four original squares of dedicated parkland were Northeast Square (now Franklin Square), Northwest Square (now Logan Square/Logan Circle), Southwest Square (now Rittenhouse Square), and Southeast Square (now Washington Square). Notably, while Philadelphia’s five squares have largely endured in one form or another, Penn and Holme’s careful, English-style planning did not; as early settlers began to populate Philadelphia, they largely ignored the grid design and crowded by the Delaware River, which remained the city’s de facto economic and social hub for more than a century.
Even as Philadelphia did not develop according to William Penn’s original vision, the city did emerge as a principal colonial trading port and, as the social and geographic center of the original thirteen colonies, was once the second-largest city in the British Empire. Of course, Philadelphia was also a key site of political and military activity during the American Revolution, including the British occupation of Philadelphia, then the national capital, during the winter of 1777-78. While many historians have highlighted the Philadelphia campaign as a turning point that eventually led to the defeat of the undermanned British forces at Saratoga and France’s entry into the war, the British occupation of Philadelphia also has a more subtle cultural legacy. As it had done in New York City the winter before, the British army staged theatre productions during its occupation of Philadelphia both for general amusement and to benefit the widows and orphans of British army and naval officers. Performed at the Southwark Theatre at Fourth and South Street, productions ran throughout the winter and into the spring and included several Shakespearean dramas, as well as such lesser known works as Duke and No Duke and The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. Interestingly, the spectacle of British theatre performed in Philadelphia continued even after the Revolution, as the scarcity of American texts in the new nation caused British dramas to dominate Philadelphia theatre productions in the early nineteenth century.
As America established itself as an independent nation, larger cities like New York and Boston increasingly overshadowed Philadelphia, which nonetheless became a popular destination for British tourists. Recounting travelers’ impressions of the United States between 1840 and 1940, historian Richard L. Rapson observes that of the cities along the Eastern seaboard British tourists found Boston more English than other cities, but Philadelphia was often complimented for being pleasant and “clean.” And, with its wealth of historic sites and attractions, Philadelphia has remained a prime destination for tourists and dignitaries alike – from King Hussein of Jordan and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to Queen Elizabeth II of England.
In 1976, Philadelphia memorably played host as the first stop on a six-day state visit by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip in celebration of America’s Bicentennial. On July 6th, an estimated 5,000 Philadelphians greeted the British royals at Penn’s Landing, where they arrived aboard the 412-foot royal yacht Britannia. Wearing a dress with white and navy blue stripes, a matching coat, and white straw hat, the Queen was greeted by Mayor Rizzo who then received the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at City Hall. The royal couple also took in a panoramic view of the city from the Penn Mutual Building and hosted a luncheon party aboard the Britannia where 54 V.I.P. guests dined on lobster and eggs, lamb cutlets, and apple caramel.
Following the luncheon, the Queen and her husband toured Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell pavilion, but the centerpiece of the Queen’s visit to Philadelphia was the official presentation of the Bicentennial Bell. Cast in London’s Whitechapel Foundry where the original Liberty Bell was cast in 1752, the six-and-one-half ton Bicentennial Bell was a gift from the British people in commemoration of the 200-year anniversary of American independence and bore the inscription “For the people of the United States from the people of Britain 4 July 1976. Let Freedom Ring.” Delivered to Philadelphia in June 1976, the Bicentennial Bell was installed in the bell tower of the Independence National Park Visitor Center where it still resides today. At the ceremony, the Queen signaled for the bell to be rung for the first time and spoke about Independence Day as a day of mutual celebration for America and Great Britain, two nations bonded by the common cause of freedom. An estimated crowd of 75,000 witnessed the afternoon’s festivities, and the royal visit to Philadelphia concluded that evening with a dinner and reception at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
From street design and theatre performances to visits by British tourists and even the royal family, Great Britain has left its mark on Philadelphia and vice versa. The historic ties between our mother country and the City of Brotherly Love add yet another dimension to Philadelphia’s reputation as a city rich with history and tradition, a legacy so vividly captured here in PhillyHistory.org’s photograph collections.
“Queen Calls 1776 a Lesson that Aided Britain.” The New York Times, July 7, 1976.
Charlton, Linda. “Queen Gets Rousing Welcome as Visit Begins in Philadelphia.” The New York Times, July 7, 1976.
Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network. “A portraiture of the city of Philadelphia in the province of Pennsylvania in America, 1683.” Accessed April 27, 2011, http://www.philageohistory.org/rdic-images/view-image.cfm/HOL1683.Phila.001.Map.
Milroy, Elizabeth. “‘For the Like Uses, as the Moore-fields:’ The Politics of Penn’s Squares.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 130:3 (July 2006): 257-282.
Pattee, Fred Lewis. “The British Theater in Philadelphia in 1778.” American Literature 6:4 (January 1934): 381-9.
Rapson, Richard L. “British Tourists in the United States, 1840-1940.” History Today 16:8 (August 1966): 519-527.