Edward Burton Penny (1804-1872) 

Edward Burton Penny was born on 27th October 1804 in Wimbledon, Surrey. He was the second son of James Stubbington Penny (1772-1861) and his wife Martha. Penny and his older brother, James, were to be the first of thirteen children. 

The Penny family history can be traced back to James Penny (1741-1799). Edward’s great-uncle made his fortune out of transporting enslaved people. He was one of several Liverpool traders who spoke in favour of slavery at a parliamentary inquiry into the slave trade set up in 1788. He continued to trade in enslaved people at a time when other Liverpool merchants had ceased to do so. He died in 1799. 

By 1832, Edward Penny and his brother James, with offices in Liverpool and Mexico, were an established company trading in jalap root. Jalap (l.purga), native to tropical Mexico, is an upright herb with solitary reddish flowers. Its apple-sized turnip-shaped roots are the source of an ancient medicinal purgative, or laxative, which is still in use today.

In the 18th century, jalap root was almost as much sought after as America’s silver, emeralds and tobacco. Under Charles III the Spanish court gave away hundreds of kilograms of medicinal plants, including jalap, as ‘gifts’ to foreign ministers and allied courts. By the time Penny & Co was trading, jalap was among the basic supplies stocked in the pharmacies of Europe’s cities. 

The 1851 census records that an E.B. Penny was living in ‘Altamira Lodge’ in Topsham, Devon. Penny commissioned the building of the house and named it after Altamira a port city on the Gulf of Mexico. The size and grand stature of the house and grounds reveal that he was a wealthy man.  

Unlike his brother, who married four times, Penny only married once and late in life at the age of 61. His wife, Ann Judith nee Brown, was the youngest daughter of the late Rev. Waller Brown, Canon, Canterbury Cathedral. They had no children. 

He died on 1st March 1872 at the age of 67.   

‘It was with deep regret we announced on Saturday the death of Edward Burton Penny, Esq. who died at his residence, Altamira, on Friday morning at three o’clock after a very short illness.’ – The Western Times, Exeter 

Penny’s widow, Ann, donated a Mexican embroidered deerskin coat and boot gaiters to RAMM in 1872. To help explain the means of acquisition, it is believed these items were presented to Penny as part payment for a trade deal. There is no evidence to date to confirm this. However, his wealth and his family connection to the trade in enslaved people is of no coincidence.