Pennsylvania Castle

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Pennsylvania Castle
Pennsylvania Castle - - 527899.jpg
General information
Type English country house
Architectural style Gothic Revival
Location Isle of Portland, Dorset, England
Coordinates 50°32′19″N 2°25′50″W / 50.538514°N 2.430482°W / 50.538514; -2.430482
Construction started 1797
Completed 1800
Client John Penn
Design and construction
Architect James Wyatt

Pennsylvania Castle is a Gothic Revival mansion on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. It is located outside of the hamlet of Wakeham, and overlooks Church Ope Cove. The castle and its attached walls has been Grade II Listed since January 1951.[1] The gatehouse and lodges to the castle were also made Grade II Listed at the same time, although the lodges are now separated in ownership from the castle.[2] Pennsylvania Castle was formerly a hotel, and was returned to use as a private residence at the end of the 20th century. It is now hired out for functions and events.


The castle was built in 1797-1800 to designs by James Wyatt for John Penn, Governor of Portland and grandson of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. Penn had initially discovered Portland through King George III. The king would frequently visit Weymouth and Portland, particularly for sea-bathing. In 1797, on one of these trips, the king was joined by Penn, whose mother Juliana Fermor was a lady-in-waiting of Queen Charlotte. During the visit to Portland the pair visited Church Ope Cove - the beauty of which charmed Penn. Looking for a location to build a mansion, the same year Penn's Gothic revival mansion Pennsylvania Castle commenced construction above the cove, on a natural surface named Church Knaps, situated above the cove. This area, featuring the island's only woodland, was purchased by Penn from the Crown Estate. James Wyatt was hired to design the mansion, and once construction commenced locals within the proximity were astounded by the building of such a grand building. By 1800, £20,000 had been spent building the castle, and it was officially declared complete by one of King George's daughters the same year. A short period after the completion of the castle, the king and queen visited the local area for their wedding anniversary. After a visit to the Old Higher Lighthouse at Portland Bill, they visited Penn at the castle. The day was spent with a festive atmosphere.[3]

Penn spend the rest of his life developing the grounds of his Portland estate.[4] At first this had proved to be difficult due to the land's sloping between the road to Southwell village and the cliff edge. Penn fought to divert the road, and was successful. With this problem solved Penn began expanding the grounds of the castle, and this involved purchasing various cottages situated at the bottom of Wakeham. One local man, Shadrack Stone, refused to move from his targeted cottage, and only agreed to move when Penn offered him one of the finest houses on the island - a Tudor, ex-governor residence known locally as Girt House. With a satisfactory amount of land now obtained Penn would spend much of his £3000 a year state pension on the grounds, including the planting of tres and exotic shrubs, as well as introducing red deer.

In 1805, Penn became Governor of Portland, though his main residence remained in Buckinghamshire. Aside from the attention lavished on his grounds, he also rebuilt the seaward arch of the nearby Rufus Castle, and erected a bridge over the lane leading to Church Ope. Penn also held many entertainments at his castle, much to the confusion of local residents who were not accustomed to such sights. One close friend was Baron Gustavus Nolcken, son of the Swedish Ambassador, and his wife. During one of their stays with Penn, Nolcken died in Ivy Cottage, which was situated within the castle's grounds. Penn had him buried within the churchyard of Portland's St George's Church.[5][6]

In the early 19th century Penn made the decision to enclose Rufus Castle and the ruins of St Andrew's Church, despite major outcry from locals. Beforehand both sites were open for all to visit. During the period of 1800 and 1822, The Court Leet, representing the local population, continued to protest, but were unsuccessful. As such legal battles continued until 1822, when a settlement was agreed upon, with Penn receiving authorisation to keep the grounds enclosed in return for a set annual payment of five shillings. In addition Penn had made a small payment to Portland's rector so that access to the burial ground of St Andrew's Church would remain private.[7] During the early 19th century, Penn built John Penn's Bath below the gardens of the castle towards the cove, for use for sea bathing, but abandoned it following charges by the Court Leet for its use after it was built on Common Land. The remains still exist outside of the castle's property to date.[8] As an experienced horseman, Penn built a 28 acre course on a farm at Wakeham in 1827, and this introduced the island to the equestrian sport of horse-racing.[9]

On 30 November 1829 Penn became subject to blackmail and a death-threat when he discovered a letter left within a gap in one of his ground walls. The letter demanded £50 was to be left on a seat in the grounds or it threatened the governor's life would be taken. Despite the warning, Penn refused to cooperate and called a public meeting, where he offered a £100 reward to any local who could find the offender. The individual was discovered, who was a young lady friend of Nolcken. In 1830 Penn was injured when horse-riding at his home in Buckinghamshire, and he spent his time recovering at the castle. During this time he held another public meeting in attempt to convince local residents on the island to put Portland under the command of the Mayor of Weymouth in case of an emergency, if the island found itself without a leader. John Penn died on 21 June 1834, with no heirs.[9] The castle later appeared as "Sylvania Castle" in Hardy's 1892 novel "The Well-Beloved".[10]

During the late 19th century, John Merrick Head, Portland's county councillor owned the castle. At the turn of the 20th century, the quarryman Henry Samson became the owner. Having been appointed manager of the Bath Stone Firms in 1899, Samson found himself in a powerful position as a stone agent, and this allowed him the opportunity to purchase the castle.[11] In 1900 the castle was enlarged. During July 1912, a party of people embarked onto Church Ope Cove's beach from a paddle steamer. This unusual event was for a fete held within the grounds of the castle, as part of the fundraising for the All Saints Church, built between 1914-17 at Easton. The Victorian era saw many notable visitors to the castle.[12]

It has been claimed that Churchill and Eisenhower planned part of the D-Day invasion at the castle.[10] Following the allied victory of World War II, the island's role in the D-Day landings was celebrated with a grand ceremony on 22 August 1945, when American Ambassador John D. Winant unveiled a commemorative stone in Victoria Gardens to mark the embarking of 418,585 troops and 144,093 vehicles. Afterwards the Samson family entertained the ambassador with tea at the castle.[13] In 1949 the castle was sold to a business-owner who had made considerable profit with a successful cafe at Portland Bill. The purchase of the castle came with the idea of turning it into a hotel. In 1950 it became The Pennsylvania Castle Hotel.[12] It was owned by Mr and Mrs Wyatt, and a Mr and Mrs Hall, and run by Richard Cope, the son-in-law of the Wyatts. At the time of opening as a hotel, the only other private hotel that had been on the island was the 18th-century Old Rectory house at Old Hill.[14]

The castle later became a private residence once more in 1994, before being sold in 2011 by the widow of the former owner, Stephen Curtis, a solicitor with business interests in Russia, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2004. This castle sold for £4 million, its asking price, to a buyer from Australia.[15][16] After the brief spell as a private home from 1994 to 2011, the castle was made available as a holiday home, also catering for weddings, private and corporate functions and other events.[17] The castle has attracted many prestigious guests – from Hollywood stars to British TV personalities. It was used as a backdrop to an episode of Made in Chelsea in 2012 - a reality TV show following the lives of several young affluent socialites.[18]


The castle is of two and three storeys, and was originally a rectangular block constructed of squared and coursed Portland stone, with a small rectangular tower at each corner, projecting corner turrets, embattled parapets and a circular tower adjoining the north-east corner. The roof is covered with slate. Later additions were made to the south end and the west side. The castle maintains a Gothic appearance by pointed arches, pointed lancet windows and intersecting glazing bars. A gallery is situated along the eastern front and this links to a dining room in the round tower to the drawing room, which is located in the lower part of the south-east tower. The entrance hall is at the north end. The castle is reached through a stone gateway. In the late 20th century it was extended to the south by a flat-roofed block in two storeys and a glazed full-width conservatory. There was also a late 20th century addition at the south front. The castle has a series of individually landscaped gardens, seven bedrooms, an indoor pool, a triple garage and a helicopter landing pad.[10][19]


  1. ^ "1203103 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". 1951-01-16. Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  4. ^ Morris, Stuart (1990). Portland Camera. Dovecote Press. pp. Photo 70. ISBN 978-0946159796. 
  5. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 47, 48. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  6. ^ "Annual Register - Google Books". Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  7. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 47. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  8. ^ "Penn's Bath, Portland, Dorset". Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  9. ^ a b Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  10. ^ a b c "Detailed Result: Pennsylvania Castle". Pastscape. 2009-08-11. Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  11. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 112. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  12. ^ a b Morris, Stuart (1990). Portland Camera. Dovecote Press. pp. Photo 73. ISBN 978-0946159796. 
  13. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 140. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  14. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  15. ^ "BBC News - Pennsylvania Castle in Portland sold for £4m". 2011-01-20. Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  16. ^ "7 bedroom house for sale in Portland, Dorset, DT5, DT5". Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  17. ^ "History - Pennsylvania Castle". Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  18. ^ "Made in Chelsea cast visit Portland for hit show (From Dorset Echo)". 2012-11-07. Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  19. ^ "Facilities - Pennsylvania Castle". Retrieved 2014-06-10.