Newtown's history begins with William Penn. He was many things: son of a wealthy and prominent English admiral, a Quaker leader, a political theorist and writer, a visionary, and founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania. In that last capacity, William Penn was what we would today call a real estate developer.
In 1681, he was granted a large parcel of undeveloped largely wooded real estate, about 45,000 square miles, which King Charles II insisted be named after Penn’s father, hence, Penn’s Sylvania. A real estate developer wants to improve his property, add infrastructure improvements, such as roads and water and power facilities, and then carve it up into smaller pieces to be offered for sale to the general public.
Penn was by then a dedicated Quaker, a new religion whose adherents were routinely jailed and persecuted for their beliefs. Penn had the supply of land, and saw the natural demand for it in the thousands of persecuted English and Welsh Quakers who might want to start a new life in a country that would welcome them and tolerate their religious beliefs. Penn the visionary wrote on the day after being granted the charter, “It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation.”
Penn drafted the first constitution for the new land, a Frame of Government, in which religious tolerance was the first of several protected rights of the citizens, which also included trial by jury, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and free elections and representative government. Then he set about selling his idea of utopia to the Quakers and others who would be interested in escaping the rather rigid social and feudal structures of England for a new life in this new nation that Penn envisioned.
A developer starts with a set of plans, showing the outline of the parcel, and then showing the improvements to be made to the parcel, and the subdivisions of the main parcel. Penn hired a surveyor, his cousin Captain William Crispin, to come to Pennsylvania to begin to survey the first portions to be developed, but emblematic of the risks entailed in ocean travel in that era, Crispin died on the journey over. Penn then wrote to another surveyor of his acquaintance, a Quaker from Ireland, Thomas Holmes. Holmes came to Pennsylvania in 1682, and Penn appointed him Surveyor General for the colony. Penn and Holmes sat together and worked out the basics of the initial development plan.
The capital city, Philadelphia, was laid out, and Holmes mapped out the parcels that would be sold in his first Philadelphia map of 1683, which was called “A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America“. Their plan is still evident today in the crisp straight lines of the streets of Philadelphia, which form an easy to navigate grid. Open spaces were planned in Penn’s city, and largely survive today in Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square, Washington Square, and Franklin Square. A fifth square was plotted right in the middle of the city, Centre Square, and remained open space until 1871, when construction began on the enormous city hall building that occupies Centre Square today.
Having planned the city, Penn and Holmes then turned to the outlying areas. The results of the collaboration of Penn and Holmes in those early years are shown in that first subdivision plan, the “Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pennsylvania in America, Divided into Countyes, Townships and Lotts” that was published in 1687.
To lure buyers to the countryside, they developed a plan so that if you bought a minimum number of acres in the country, you also received more valuable plots in the new city.
In the countryside, the townships were laid out with natural boundaries where possible, with rivers and creeks forming the boundaries. The creeks, besides being defining lines on a map, also provided the means to power mills, and were sources of transportation. Having different owners on both sides granted those rights to twice as many parties as well.
Prior to that time, cities simply grew up from small settlements generally situated near transportation hubs such as crossroads, natural harbors and the confluence of rivers. Penn and Holmes were doing something completely different – they were planning their city, and then planning how the surrounding area would develop as well.
The 1687 map shows them experimenting with different ideas. One development idea was to have a township that was bisected by straight north-south roads. The lots would border on those straight roads, providing access to transportation, with the opposite boundary extending east and west to the township borders.
This plan of development is reflected in the 1687 map for Concord, Newtown, Radnor and Nether Providence, each bisected by a “straight road”. This north-south road was actually built in Newtown (Delco), and is called Newtown Street (i.e. straight) Road today.
Penn's New Town in BUCKS County
Another new development idea was incorporated into the first two new Towns that were planned in the west and to the north of the city. In the new town to the north of the city in Bucks County, the development was planned like a wagon wheel, with the actual town in the middle, where would be located a market, a meeting house and perhaps an inn.
The private lots would each border the town, running like spokes from the central hub of the town. Each lot would thus have direct access to the town.
Penn's New Town in CHESTER County
In the new Town planned for the west, in what was then Chester County, the marketing plan for Philadelphia was followed – if you bought a larger parcel outside of the planned townstead, you also were entitled to a smaller lot in the town.
The town was located at the main crossroads intersection along the straight road that bisected the township. Like developers and planners to this day, Penn and Holmes simply assigned a place holder to these new towns they had planned in Bucks and Chester County. The towns are identified on the 1687 Holmes Map simply as “New Town” at each location. Presumably once the marketing effort started in earnest, they would be given new names with a little more flare – Chester Mews, Darby Creek Estates, Indian Manor Homes, something with some marketing appeal.
And yet today, more than 300 years later, those first inland new towns still bear the name of the place holder given on the 1687 map. Newtown in Bucks County is a beautiful borough of about 2500 people surrounded by a township of the same name. It was the county seat of Bucks County in the early years, from 1726 to 1813, and it has preserved its colonial buildings and protected them by designating its entire commercial area for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
To the west, the new Town in Chester County subsequently ended up in Delaware County when the former was split into more manageable sections in 1789. The new Town planned along the crossroads of Newtown Straight Road and Goshen Road actually grew up at that location, with an inn located right at the crossroads, with its identifying sign being a carpenter’s square.
The Sign of the Square eventually lent its name to the first post office for the town, Newtown Square. However in the 19th century a better road, the West Chester Turnpike to the new Chester County seat, was located a mile to the south of the original town, and the better road surface and convenience of travel took the traffic and business away from the old Square intersection.
Newtown Square thereafter grew up along the Turnpike, and the old Square Tavern ceased being a tavern, and was used for years as a home. The tavern building still graces that crossroads, preserved by several recent owners with the involvement of the community. Newtown Square is still the post office and settlement for the township of Newtown, in Delaware County.
So the next time a local visitor wonders why there would be two towns with the curiously nondescript name “Newtown” in suburban Philadelphia, you can tell them to blame the developer, William Penn, and his surveyor, Thomas Holmes. They get an A in planning, but someone from Marketing apparently never got the memo!