John Hewson: Kensington's Revolutionary War Hero
by Kenneth W. Milano
John Hewson was born in 1744 in England, the son of a London woolen draper. His father, Peter Hewson, was descended from C ol. John Hewson, a supporter of Oliver Cromwell and implicated directly in the execution of King Charles I. Col. Hewson was a sometime governor of Dublin and a member of the Cromwellian House of Peers. Like his famous ancestor, and to the dismay of his parents, young John Hewson held extreme political views. Republican tendencies did not fare well under King George, and the elder Hewsons sought the help of that most famous of Philadelphians, Benjamin Franklin, to enable young John to emigrate to America.
Franklin, while in London acting as an agent for the colonies, boarded at the home of Dr. William Hewson, a famous British doctor of the day and a possible relative of John Hewson and his parents. On one occasion the family asked Dr. Franklin if he would be able to take John and his dangerously republican ideas to America with him. Franklin agreed and in the Spring of 1774 John Hewson arrived in Pennsylvania. He moved on the property of William Ball where he rented land on the northern side of Gunnar's Run, the same place where Dyottville would later be located.
John Hewson occupied the same dwelling house that later was occupied by Dr. Thomas Dyott, the founder of Dyottville, and all the ground on which the buildings were erected, excepting the lower part of it. There was a road that formerly went down from the Point Road (Richmond Street) to the dwelling-house, and then went up along the shore and separated the two properties (the lower part and the part occupied by Hewson).
The upper part of Ball's property, perhaps an acre and half, was occupied by Hewson. Hewson later rented the lower portion of Ball's property as well, sometime about the year 1792 or 1793 and the road dividing it from the upper portion of the property was closed so as to not allow people to cross through Hewson's premises. Previous to renting this lower part, a Scottish dyer by the name of Clark had rented the place. After taking over this lower portion, Hewson put a dye or copper-house, and took down the little building that had previously been built there. The dye house built for Clark, now became the batch house.
Hewson was trained as a printer of calico fabrics and had worked for Talwin & Foster, a leading English textile printworks, at Bromley Hall near London.He very likely brought his equipment to Philadelphia, and perhaps half a dozen workmen as well. He opened a calico printing factory in 1774, near the Delaware River at the foot of Gunner’s Run, now Aramingo Avenue. At that time Richmond Street was called Point-no-Point Road, and Hewson’s address was listed on the Point Road. As closely as we can currently estimate, Hewson’s place was located where (surprise! surprise!) Hewson Street, named for him, begins today.
Not only was Hewson the first calico fabric printer in the colonies, his work was also of the highest quality. According to scholars of textile history, Hewson’s textiles were unmatched in America at that time, and rivaled those of Europe. His chintz fabrics made him famous and were printed with wood blocks; a different one was used for each of the seven colors in his palette; pink, red, blue, yellow, black and brown. Green colors were added by “pencilling” in blue and yellow dyes. Hewson’s textiles were expensive and highly sought after for dresses, furnishing fabrics and handkerchiefs. He is most known for his realistic and finely detailed classical urns of flowers, which were printed as medallion panels for bedcovers, it is believed. Women sewed these square panels into the center of a quilt, surrounding it with many frames of floral garlands, or borders of pieced stars or triangles and squares. Bedcoverings could be made this way; 100” X 100” or larger, was a common size for quilts then. To make the coveted chintz panels go further, women would cut out the birds, butterflies, flowers and other motifs. Using an appliqué stitch, the pieces were reapplied, spread apart onto a large plain background. Blank spaces were filled with less expensive chintz or calicos and intricate quilt patterns. Today he is still considered one of the finest craftsmen in textile printing history.[1}
In 1775, General George Washington and his wife Martha passed through Philadelphia on his way to take charge of the Continental Army in New England. Mrs. Washington’s relative, William Ball, who owned the property on which Hewson’s factory stood, lived near Hewson. Mrs. Washington had heart of Hewson’s fabrics and paid him a visit to commission an image on a handkerchief of her husband on horseback. Mrs. Washington eventually became a regular patron and visitor of Hewson’s calico printing factory.
Hewson, already a vocal supporter of the Patriot cause, enrolled in the 1st Republican Grenadiers in 1775. After this group disbanded, he was commissioned an officer, formed a company of men out of his factory workers and had himself attached to the county militia. Hewson had to flee Philadelphia for New Jersey when the British landed and occupied the city in 1777. A local Tory gentleman of the city heard that Hewson had formed a company of men and immediately offered a bounty for the printer’s head. Deeply offended that Hewson, after only a few years in America, would take up arms against England, he made sure that Hewson’s description was forwarded to the invading British Army. British soldiers sacked Hewson’s office and factory, and he narrowly escaped with some of his tools, machinery, and animals by taking a boat off the Kensington shore.
An excerpt from his diary, in the collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, tells the story of his escape:
"When the British Army approached near to the city I removed with my family to the Jerseys about 4 miles from Cooper’s Ferry; with my household furniture and as many of my manufacturing utensils as the shortness of the time would permit me to take, such as Copper boilers, and a large leaden vessel used in souring the goods we printed weighing several hundred pounds with as many of my valuable prints, mahogany printing tables, blankets, tearing tubs, broadcloth, sieves, brushes, etc, as I could hurry off with also 3 cows and 2 horses and poultry, such as fowls & ducks plenty, which we shut up in boxes, chests, and by time we got over the river they half died for want of air to breathe in while we were loading a large boat at the wharf, we was obliged to have a person on the top of the chimney to look out the van of the army being at Frankford, I was under the necessity of leaving a great many things behind me."
Hewson was eventually captured in New Jersey, but by that time the man who had offered the reward had left Philadelphia with the evacuating redcoats. After spending some time in the Walnut Street Prison, Hewson was transferred to New York. After a brief imprisonment there, he managed to escape and return home.
When the war was finally over, Hewson set about restoring his business . Because of his patriotism and his daring escapes, he was seen as a local war hero. During the Grand Federal Procession on July 4, 1788, the Hewson family was honored in the parade, traveling at the center of the manufactures float. As reported in the Pennsylvania Gazette on July 9, 1788:
"The carriage of the manufacturers in length 30 feet, in breath 13 feet, and the same height, neatly covered with white cotton of their manufacture, and drawn by ten large bay horses: on this carriage was placed the carding machine, worked by two persons, and carding cotton at the rate of 50 lbs. Weight per day; next a spinning machine of 80 spindles, worked by a woman (a native of and instructed in this city) drawing cotton suitable for fine jeans or federal-rib; on the right of the stage was next white livery lace; on the left a man weaving jean on a large loom, with a fly shuttle; behind the looms was fixed the apparatus of Mr. Hewson, printing muslins of an elegant chintz pattern, and Mr. Lange, designing and cutting prints for shauls; on the right was seated Mrs. Hewson and her 4 daughters, penciling a piece of very neat sprigged chintz of Mr. Hewson’s printing, all dressed in cottons of their own manufacture; on the back part of the carriage, on a lofty staff, was displayed the calico printer’s flag, in the center 13 stars in a blue field, and thirteen red stripes in a white field; round the edges of the flag was printed 37 different printes of various colours, one of them . . . colours, as specimens of printing done at Philadelphia. Motto – “May the Union government protect the manufactures of America."
In 1790 the Manufacturing Society awarded Hewson a gold medal for the best example of calico printing in the state. He retired from his business in 1810, letting his son John Hewson, Jr., take over. Hewson senior died eleven years later and is buried on the north side of the Palmer Cemetery, near the Montgomery Street gate.
On Sunday, October 10, 1999, the Kensington History Project was treated to a visit from the descendants of John Hewson. The Hewson group came on the 178th anniversary of John Hewson’s death on October 11, 1821 to pay their respects at Hewson’s resting place at Palmer Cemetery (Kensington Burial Ground), as well as to attend service at Old Brick Church (Kensington Methodist Episcopal Church) on Richmond Street, an institution their ancestor had helped to found.
Many Hewson descendants still live in the tristate area, though some came from farther away. Sue-Ann Jacobson, a Hewson descendant from Billings, Montana, traveled the farthest, followed by southerners John and Barbara DeAngelo of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Grace and Charles Daniel of Warner Robins, Georgia. Michele Bruno of Norristown, Joe and Barbara Petrille of Kimberton, and Todd and Marion Fielding of Paoli, were the Pennsylvania representatives, while Nelson and Laura West of Bear, Delaware and Camie Morrison of Cherry Hill, New Jersey rounded out the group. A number of these folks once lived in and around Philadelphia, but jobs and family had pulled them to opposite ends of the country. The Hewson descendants are avid genealogists and have been tracing their family’s history for a number of years. Kensington is important for the Hewson family because it is here that the family got its start in America.
The Kensington History Project was delighted to share their knowledge of John Hewson’s story with his descendants. KHP also would like to thank the family publicly for their kind contribution to the society’s research fund.
[1.] Kimberly Wulfert, Ph.D., webmaster of New Pathways into Quilt History; www.antiquequiltdating.com; interview with Dr. Wulfert via email correspondence May 18, 28–31, 2002.
Known locations of surviving calico printsbyJohn Hewson as of October 4, 1999, compiled by Dr. Kimberly Wulfert and Todd Fielding
1. Cincinnati Art Museum
2. The Daughter’s of the American Revolution, Washington, D.C.
3. The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Mich. (Destroyed by fire)
4. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.
5. The York County Heritage Trust, York, Pa.
6. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pa.
7. The Saint Louis Museum of Art, St. Louis, Mo.
8. The Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C.
9. University of Kansas Museum of Art
10. The Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del.
11. Two pieces (possibly) in private collections
This article first appeared in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s “Pennsylvania Legacies, Volume 2, Number 2, November 2002.”
Bibliography of Sources:
Alcock, Sarah. A Brief History of the Revolution with a Sketch of the Life of John Hewson. Philadelphia: Published by Mrs. Sarah Alcock, 1843. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Gillingham, Harrold E. “Calico and Linen Printing in Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 52 (1928): 97–110.
Hewson, Col. John. Part of His Diary About His Escape from British to N.J. Sept. 20, 1778. Society Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Montgomery, Florence M. Printed Textiles; English and American Cottons and Linens, 1700–1850. A Winterthur Book, New York: The Viking Press, 1970.
Genealogical notes are from Todd Fielding.
Photograph of John Hewson is taken from "Annals of the Kensington Methodist Church, Philadelphia," Compiled by Rev. W. Swindells, D.D. May 1st, 1893." Picture faces page 10.