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Pownall of Barnton, Cheshire. He is said to have been born at Lincoln in 1722, and to have possessed property at North Lynn in Norfolk. He was educated at Lincoln, and graduated B.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1743. Soon afterwards he obtained a place in the office of the board of trade and plantations, to which his elder brother, John Pownall, was secretary, and he speedily acquired the confidence of his chief, George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax [q. v.] On the nomination of Halifax's brother-in-law, Sir Danvers Osborn, to the governorship of New York, Pownall was appointed his private secretary. Either then or at a later date he received the commission of lieutenant-governor of New Jersey, the governor being old and infirm. They sailed from Portsmouth on 22 Aug. 1753, and arrived at New York on 6 Oct.; but a few days later Osborn committed suicide. The late governor's papers were at once demanded by the council of the province, but Pownall refused to surrender them until the temporary successor had duly qualified, and informed his superiors in England that he would permanently retain any secret papers. He remained in America, and in June 1754 was a spectator at Albany of the congress of the commissioners of the several provinces in North America which was held for the purpose of adopting some common measure of defence against French aggression. It was at this congress that the proposition of taxing the colonies was first put forward by the English authorities, and to its meeting many politicians attributed the beginning of the subsequent revolution. Pownall himself on this occasion for the first time ‘conceived the idea, and saw the necessity, of a general British union.’

About 1755 Franklin drew up, at the request of Pownall, a plan for establishing two western colonies as ‘barrier colonies’ in North America (Franklin, Works, iii. 69), and in February of that year William Shirley, governor of Massachusetts, sent him to solicit the aid of the colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York in driving the French from the continent of America. His heart was in his work, for his policy was that of Pitt: to put an end to the strife in America with France by depriving that country of all its North American possessions. He obtained the assistance of the colony in the projected expedition against Crown Point, and took an active part in forwarding the military operations. In January 1756 he went to England, but in the following July returned to America with Lord Loudoun, the new commander-in-chief of the military forces. Shirley had seemed to him to be deficient in vigour, and the new commander met with equal disapproval. Pownall again repaired to England, and in February 1757 was appointed governor of Massachusetts, in place of Shirley. On 2 Aug. he arrived at Boston, where his liberal views and his knowledge of American affairs made him at first very popular, and directed all his energies to the vigorous prosecution of the war. On 31 Aug. Belcher, the governor of New Jersey, died, and on the strength of his old commission the duties were assumed by Pownall; but in about three weeks he returned to Boston, finding it impracticable to retain the administration of the two colonies at the same time. In Massachusetts he took into his confidence the popular leaders, but this proceeding alienated from him the opposite party. He succeeded, however, in raising no less than seven thousand fighting men for the war, and he himself, in May 1759, commanded an expedition to Penobscot river, where he built a fort, closing against the French this passage to the sea. His journal on this voyage is printed in the ‘Maine Historical Society Collections’ (vol. v.). This expedition secured for the states at the peace of 1782 ‘a large and valuable portion of territory.’ But, with all his efforts, Pownall could not acquire the confidence of the old governing class, and he did not escape calumny and ridicule from the friends of Shirley. It is alleged that his habits were rather freer than suited the New England standard (Hildreth, United States, ii. 476); from his love of gay attire and social life he was called by one of the stern puritans ‘a fribble.’ His vanity was undoubted, and he was satirised by Samuel Waterhouse in proposals for a ‘History of the Public Life and Distinguished Actions of Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Brazen, in thirty-one volumes in folio, by Thomas Thumb,’ which were issued at Boston in 1760.

Pownall wished to retire from this irksome position, and made application to England for his own recall; but the request was met in November 1759 by his appointment to the more lucrative and less irksome position of governor of South Carolina. He was still bent, however, on going to England, and on 3 June 1760 he quitted America, when the two branches of the legislature of Massachusetts showed their respect by accompanying him to the place of embarkation. On his arrival in London he resigned his colonial governorship, and during 1762 and 1763 he acted as director-general, or comptroller of the commissariat, for the active forces in Germany, receiving with it the rank of a colonel in the