Portrait of 19th century woman holds links to Revolution, Crozer past

A first glance of William Hillyer’s 1834 oil painting of Margaret Gray Knowles shows a discerning, aging woman in black and gray clothing set before a neutral earth-tone background.

Knowles was born Nov. 28, 1766, the daughter of George Gray, former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and Martha Ibbitson.

Gray, of Gray’s Ferry, was sent with her mother, brother and sisters to the “country” in Thornbury to avoid the advancement of the British. However, they soon discovered they were within earshot of the Battle of Brandywine.

When the family returned to Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-78, the women in the family tended to the Continental soldiers in the British prison. This is where it’s believed the term “the gray ladies” originated.

At about this time, Margaret’s older sister, Elizabeth, married Thomas Leiper. Then, on Dec. 16, 1790, at Whitby Hall, Margaret married a wealthy farmer, James Knowles, son of John Knowles of Knowlesborough, now known as Glenolden, and Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas and Ann Tatnall, English Quakers who emigrated to this country in 1725.

The family owned what now is Glenolden and Norwood boroughs, and they had five children.

On Jan. 31, 1854, 87-year-old Margaret Gray Knowles died at the residence of her son-in-law, John Price Crozer, in Upland.

Crozer, who married the Knowleses’ daughter, Sallie Levis Knowles, on March 12, 1825, was born in the house where noted American artist Benjamin West was born.

Crozer was a cotton goods manufacturer, and after years of struggle, sometimes in collaboration with George Gray Leiper, son of Thomas Leiper and a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he became very successful. In 1850, he built the Chester Academy, followed by Upland Baptist Church in 1852 and the Upland Normal School in 1858.

He also was a large contributor to Lewisburg University, which was later named for his son-in-law, William Bucknell. The Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, which bears his name, was founded in 1867 by his family as a memorial to him.

The painting of his mother-in-law, Margaret Gray Knowles, once hung in the home of Florence Crozer Knowles on Warwick Road in Wynnewood. It was donated to DCHS by Robert C. Alexander.

The Knowles portrait and many others can be viewed at the home of Delaware County Historical Society, located at 408 Avenue of the States in Chester. It is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 1 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Parking is free in lot behind the building or across the street in the city’s municipal lot.

For more information or for ways to get involved, call 610-359-0832.

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