Bristol Borough was born out of the indebtedness of the English king

William Penn’s father was so wealthy he could have bought 10 Downton Abbies if he had been so inclined. Or maybe just three. Either way, King Charles II in London turned to the legendary Royal Navy admiral for a loan of £16,000 (equivalent to over £2 million today). Charlie 2 needed money to resupply its navy. Papa Penn provided everything he needed in exchange for an IOU. This document is why Bristol, Bucks and all of Pennsylvania exist today.

It happened something like this:

Admiral Penn neglected to collect what was owed to him before his death in 1670. The executor of his estate – his son, William Jr. – discovered the IOU and approached the king. “Oh, that,” the monarch shrugged. Willie insisted that His Lordship up the ante. It was the right thing to do in English.

Penn the Younger, 36, suggested a reward the king could accept: give Willie an uncharted expanse of wilderness in North America where he could establish an independent Quaker civilization. This would square the books. Charlie 2 liked the idea because it would rid the British Isles of pesky Willie and his herd of dissident Quaker fanatics. For William, it fulfilled his dream of creating a new nation based on religious freedom, ethnic tolerance, and a fair court system where juries of peers rendered verdicts.

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The deal was made in 1681 with a charter for a new British colony to be named after the beloved admiral. “No, no, no,” Willie replied. “How about New Wales? The king was not pleased. “OK then, how does Sylvania sound?” answered Willie. “After all, the desert is just trees.” Again the king hesitated, offering an alternative. “Let’s call it PENNsylvania – to honor your old man.” Young Penn was disappointed. The colonists will think that the colony bears his name in contradiction to the principles of Quaker humility. Charlie 2 insisted. So it was Pennsylvania.

Only known portrait of William Penn made during his lifetime in 1695.

The king laid down certain rules in case young Penn thought of establishing some sort of hippie Quaker colony. There would be a colonial system of government modeled after Connecticut and New Jersey. The “proprietor” (the king’s word for William) “would divide the country into towns, hundreds and counties, and erect and incorporate towns into boroughs and boroughs into towns, and make and constitute fairs and markets therein, with all the others privileges and convenient communities.

I had to search for “Centaines” and “Munities”. The latter signifies unique rights granted to citizens by the local government. The “hundreds” represent the division of a county (Pennsylvania county) into defined area administered by the county.

The replica of the Swedish tall ship Kalmar Nyckel moored in Bristol last September represents the type of ships that once frequented the port in the late 1600s.

When William landed on Dock Street in Philadelphia in 1682, he set to work designating cities and boroughs. In Bucks, an unincorporated river port had sprung up around a ferry landing about 7 miles downstream from the owner’s Pennsbury Manor being built in Falls. The colonists called the colony Buckingham in a roughly defined township of New Bristol.

Market days were every Thursday. Biannual two-day fairs involved the sale of livestock and general merchandise amid the “joy and hilarity” of live entertainment, including horse racing and gambling. Spiraling crime and unruly mobs became serious concerns, but nothing could be done under the king’s charter. It was not until the provincial assembly authorized Buckingham to establish a council of government in 1696 that ordinances were passed to ensure public safety.

This revamped Mill Street boutique in Bristol is where old times aren't forgotten in the state's third-oldest borough.

During this time, municipal boundaries and streets were formalized. Residents elected two bourgeois (town administrators), a pound keeper to control pets, and a high constable to keep the peace. In addition, a treasurer, a roadmaster and an overseer of the poor took office. In 1715 the residents requested incorporation. It took another five years before the Governor of Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1720, accepted the request for the creation of the borough of Bristol, “formerly called Buckingham”.

Bristol has seen steady growth as a gateway for domestic dollars for imported goods and exported agricultural products. From its beginnings it was a center for shipbuilding which lasted nearly 200 years until the mid-1800s. Its largest shipyard near Mill Street, near Wood, was a two-storey brick building with a long pointed roof and a 30-foot-tall smokestack built in 1740. There owner William Davis made magnificent schooners and sloops famous for their speed under sail. His schooner “Morning Glory” holds speed records on the Delaware.

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The Jones Ship Yard, on the river near where St. Mark’s Elementary School is, has built ocean-going schooners for many years. These were two-masted ships 100 feet long, including the George Washington in 1840, the Adele Felicia in 1852 and the Buchanan in 1856. By then Bristol had emerged from a savage outpost in 1681 with a roadhouse (now King George II Inn) and river wharf to become the thriving seat of government for Bucks County for 100 years and the third oldest borough in Pennsylvania – an idea born out of a recognition of royal debt to London.

King George II Inn proclaims its history dating back to when Bristol was known as Buckingham.

Sources include “Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania” by George MacReynolds published in 1942; “William Penn: A Life” by Andrew Murphy published in 2019 by Oxford University Press, and “William Penn”, a biography of the founder of the state published by Pennsbury Manor and available on its website, pennsburymanor.org. Thanks also to Douglas Miller, Director of Education at the mansion, for his assistance.

Carl LaVO can be reached at [email protected]