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Main Line Chew family maintains their ties to Cliveden House

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

For most of us, imagining what it was like to live in a colonial mansion is a part of the dream that takes us to historic sites. But for a family of Main Line residents, it brings back memories of Christmas and Thanksgiving: “I remember coming here to Cliveden as a youngster for holidays, such as Thanksgiving,” says John Chew, a St. David’s resident who is a seventh-generation descendant of the original Benjamin Chew. This Chew served as William Penn’s colonial lawyer. At the time of John’s visits, the house was owned and occupied by his Great Aunt Bessie, who presided over the family until her death at 95 in 1959. At that time John’s uncle, Samuel Chew III, moved in.

Most of the Chew family had already moved to Radnor several generations earlier to their estate, Vanor. This property had come into the family through marriage when Mary Johnson Brown, wife of Samuel Chew (1832-1887), and her sister Martha inherited it from their father David Sands Brown, who died in 1877. The family calls that Samuel “Centennial Sam” to differentiate him from other “Sams” in the family. He earned the nickname by being very involved in America’s Centennial celebration, which was held in Philadelphia.

According to Elizabeth Chew Bennett Betty at that time Vanor was a very large estate. “It included practically all of Radnor, and was divided by what’s now Route 30,” she says. The farm there provided milk to Radnor Township, she says of her childhood home. For several generations there were three Chew properties: a townhouse in Philadelphia, which had been the original household. Then came the Chew or Cliveden House, begun in 1763 as a family summerhouse in the heights near the village of Germantown, northeast of Philadelphia. A century later, the Main Line estate was acquired. Cliveden House is now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the Philadelphia house is no longer in the family. And although some of the family, like Betty, still lives on what was part of the Radnor property it too is gone. According to Betty, the Vanor estate was broken up and sold in 1941 for very practical reasons. “The original house had 56 rooms and during the war my mother couldn’t get the 80 tons of coal it took a year to heat it,” she says.

What has remained is the family. There are four generations still around. Betty represents the fifth generation removed from Chief Justice Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) the founder of the Philadelphia branch of the Chews. The family’s American history actually begins in 1622 when John Chew stepped off the ship “Charitie” in Jamestown, Virginia, accompanied by three servants from Chewton, Somerset, England. The sixth generation is represented by John and his 10 siblings and cousins. The seventh currently has eight members and there is a lone member of the eighth generation, Taylor Chew, born last year.

The family history
Two names are associated with much of the history of the Chew family here — Benjamin and Sam. There have been several of each, and many events surround these men. The original Benjamin came to Philadelphia from Maryland by way of studying law in London. His fortune came from his association with the Penn family. Originally a Quaker, he and his father left the Society of Friends to become Anglicans. Once free of the simple life, Benjamin began to purchase elaborate furniture and affect the upper-class English attitude. He also owned slaves, a practice more common in Philadelphia than history usually notes. Although he signed the colonies’ non-importation agreement protesting taxation, he refused to give up his post as chief justice of colonial Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, even when revolt was inevitable. He spent a year of the war under house arrest in New Jersey because he was considered a loyalist.

After the war Benjamin returned to public life as an avowed American. Revisionist histories have downplayed the fact that at the beginning of the revolution public opinion was, at best, split, with a rather large percentage of Americans committed to the loyalist cause. Many chose to emigrate from American at the end of the war. For a rich and important man to side with the British was thus less scandalous.

The Battle of Germantown reduced the family’s house there with a severe level of damage, although the structure was intact. Chew began renovating it, but sold it in 1779 at the ebb of his political fortunes. In 1797 he repurchased the house, having rejoined the elite of Philadelphia society.

In 1810 Ben Chew Jr, inherited Cliveden and expanded it to a 66-acre working estate. After his death in 1844 the family fought bitterly over Cliveden’s ownership. The villain of the piece was “Bad Ben,” the son of Ben Jr. Bad Ben removed and sold many of the most important family heirlooms. The family heroine was Bad Ben’s sister Anne who saved the family’s home and honor. Her nephew, “Centennial Sam,” helped in the effort by finding and repurchasing many of their family treasures. Sam saw the house and its association with the Battle of Germantown as an important link between the Chew family and American history.

Sam’s passion for history led him in his desire to rewrite the Loyalist history of the Chew family. After 100 years, it was easy to forget or forgive. Sam emphasized his family’s colonial splendor and the great event that tied it firmly to the American Revolution. By emphasizing the historical importance of their home’s structure, he worked tirelessly to recast the family as colonial aristocrats. His wife Mary Chew was more interested in preservation efforts beyond the family, starting the trend today’s John continues. She served on the Centennial Celebration’s women’s committee. After her husband’s death she was a part of the restoration of Independence Hall and was enrolled in the newly formed Colonial Dames.

Women vital to Cliveden
The women of the Chew family played an important part in the history of Cliveden. In the 1890s Mary rebutted a Congressman’s 1890 attempt to formalize government stewardship of the Cliveden property that the estate was to remain a family home. With the exception of sporadic public events held in the house, it was maintained as a family residence. Mary passed stewardship to her daughter Bessie Elizabeth Brown Chew who was a spinster. It was she who lived in the house until her death in 1959, though ownership formally belonged to her brother, Samuel II, who bequeathed it to his very young nephew Samuel III. The house tended to remain in the possession of the Benjamins and Samuels of the family. But Aunt Bessie lived in the house for more than the first half of the 20th Century, and was its caretaker and keeper of the faith. By the time of Bessie’s death, it was becoming clear that it was difficult to maintain the house. When Samuel III moved into the house, he made changes to make the house livable without changing the nature of the Colonial monument it had become. He and his family lived there until 1972, when he led the family in transferring ownership of Cliveden, the remaining six acres of parkland and the collection of artifacts to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Why the house went to the nation
“There were a couple of reasons, economic and the timing, but the overwhelming principle was a sense of responsibility of doing the right thing. We wanted to get it to somebody who could take care of it and open it to the public,” John says.”In essence it was a family-wide decision,” says John. The family did not arrive at this desicion lightly. “It wasn’t a casual decision. We are pretty sure, for instance, that Sam would have discussed the matter with James Biddle, who was both his friend and at the time head of the National Trust,” says Sam’s sister Betty.

Personal and logistical matters most likely also were factors for Sam. 1972 was a tragic year for him: “Our brother Ben died that year, and then shortly afterwards Sam’s wife died. I don’t recall if it was the same year, but Sam’s daughter also died at about that time,” says Betty. John sees other family matters playing on the decision. “My generation – the kids at the time – was going away. There were nine of us, and most were on our way to college and jobs, so we were increasingly not around,” he says. In 1970 there was a fire in the carriage house, and the original doors that had withstood American attacks during the Battle of Germantown were, as well as a coach from the period were lost. The family’s concern for maintaining the history and heritage of the house and their family, plus increasing security worries as Germantown urbanized also had an influence.

More than stone and wood
“One extraordinary thing is that there are more than 200,000 documented pages of material saved by the family over the generations. Our family has a genetic predisposition not to throw anything away,” says John. “So one of the major advantages to the Cliveden House was that there were records of everything that had happened over the past 200-odd years included with the stone and wood of the house,” he says. These archives were given to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1981. “It’s a treasure trove of how life was lived then, says Chris Kepford, executive director of Cliveden House. “So not only is this a neat old building, but we have the documentation of a battle site, and through the National Trust the house also. We are leading in the preservation efforts of America’s history,” Kepford says.

That is an important part of why Cliveden House is now one of 19 National Historic Trust houses in the United States. “That is the hook for me being part of a larger movement for preservation,” John says. Part of the arrangement with the National Trust was that a member of the family would be on the governing board. In John’s case it has been more than a chore or obligation, it’s become somewhat of a cause. “I was first involved by my father in 1981 when I joined him on the board. Currently he is vice chairman, but also served as chairman. While chairman, he was elected the chairman of the national group of Historic Site leaders, and that included sitting on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for four years.

That allows him to take a larger view of Cliveden as being more than a house museum. “It has the big advantage of being a battle site in the Revolutionary War and has been a repository for hundreds of years,” he says.

Betty is still active on behalf of Cliveden, serving on the advisory council, and acting as the living historian of the family. Another of Betty’s generation, Richard “Dickey” Berringer has been guiding tours at Cliveden for 10 years. “I tell them I’m a Chew, and as a former history teacher, it gives me something to do,” he says. He is the son of Anne Sophia Penn Chew Berringer.

John’s interest goes beyond board meetings and he’ll often be found fussing with the computer system or helping to ensure the day-to-day tasks of running the facility go smoothly. He has become a proponent of historic preservation far beyond the family grounds of his ancestors. He may never get to spend another Thanksgiving at the estate, but he’s got something better than that: People come to visit his family’s house and touch their pasts through his. That beats turkey and stuffing anytime.

Cliveden is a National Trust historic site located at 6401 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia, Pa. 19144. Hours of operation are from noon until 4pm Thursday through Sunday from April 1 until December 31. For more information call 215-848-1777.