Cheltenham Township, as it exists today, is the product of over 300 years of history. The interactions of numerous generations have created a tapestry of events and people that have shaped both the physical and cultural development of the Township. The story of Philadelphia’s first suburb is filled with names of local, regional, and national significance. The physical manifestation of this history is the unique building stock that lends Cheltenham its sense of place and character. It is the express desire of the Township to promote and preserve these historical artifacts through the expansion of regulatory tools and historic preservation efforts.
Cheltenham Township was created in 1682 as part of Philadelphia County. It was not until September 10, 1784 that Montgomery County was formed and Cheltenham became its smallest Township. William Penn deeded land grants to fifteen fellow Englishmen. Each was deeded a small parcel of land in the City of Philadelphia and a larger area, comprising of between 100 and 500 acres, in Cheltenham Township.
Two of the “First Purchasers,” Tobias (Toby) Leech and Richard Wall, settled in the Township and became instrumental in its early beginnings. They are considered to be the Township’s Founding Fathers. Both were actively involved in the religious, political and social growth of the new community. Toby Leech was a successful businessman and was involved in many enterprises upon his arrival in Cheltenham. He established a corn and fulling mill along the Tookany Creek, which gave Mill Road its name. One of the structures built by Leech across from his tannery and bake ovens was used to house his enslaved workers. It still stands today on Church Road. Another house Leech built for his grandson Abraham remains at Old Soldiers Road and Ryers Avenue. In addition to the tannery and bakery in Cheltenham, Toby Leech was involved in land transactions in Philadelphia, Delaware and Chester Counties.
Richard Wall’s house stands at the entrance to Wall Park. The original section of the house is dated 1682 and additions were completed in 1727 and 1800. It is the most historic building in the Township and, until 1978, was the oldest house in continuous residence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Wall name was lost when Sarah Wall, Richard’s granddaughter, married George Shoemaker. The Shoemaker name is another name mentioned quite frequently in association with early development in the Township. Their daughter-in-law developed the Shoemaker Mill on the Tookany Creek, and Shoemakertown (now part of Elkins Park) developed around it.
Humphrey Morrey (also referred to as Merry) was another significant First Purchaser. He was heavily involved in politics and served as the first mayor of Philadelphia between 1691 and 1701. His only surviving son, Richard, inherited this land grant, in addition to other land that was acquired by Humphrey Morrey. Richard Morrey was one of the first Americans to free his slaves and distribute land to them.
The area in which they settled, which was one of the first African-American settlements in the country, became known as Guineatown because many of the slaves had originally come from Guinea. Later the area would become known as Edge Hill, named after the Revolutionary War battle that was fought nearby in Abington Township. Most recently it has been considered as part of the Glenside district.
Richard Morrey fathered five children by his mistress, Cremona, who was herself one of Morrey’s freed slaves. After his death, Cremona Morrey later married John Frey. Upon her death, the Morrey children contested the land. Eventually, it was agreed that the land would be sold and the proceeds divided among her children. Cremona Frey Jr., Cremona’s daughter by John Frey, settled on a portion of the remaining land and the house that was built there still stands, although much altered, on Limekiln Pike near Waverly Road.
The Mather family is another notable name in Cheltenham’s history, though no one in the family was among the First Purchasers. Joseph Mather came from England as an indentured servant and upon the completion of his servitude, married Elizabeth Russell, whose father, John Russell, was one of the First Purchasers. The centrally located original 300 acre tract purchased by John Russell was divided over successive generations of Mather descendants, which through intermarriage, would also come to include descendants of the Wall and Leech families. The house built by Bartholomew Mather in 1781 at the northeast corner of Church Road and Washington Lane is of note for its historical significance. During the Revolutionary War, a spring on the property was used as a watering place by American and British troops fighting in the Battle of Edge Hill. During the Civil War, the house was used as a stop along the
Underground Railroad. The house was later demolished.
Cheltenham has two districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The first district, La Mott, is a post-Civil War residential development known historically as the location of the first training grounds for African-American troops. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 31, 1985 and contains 35 units. The second district, Wyncote, is a late nineteenth/early twentieth century wealthy suburb noted for its architectural significance. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 16, 1986 and has 178 units.
National Historic Landmarks
• Grey Towers of Arcadia University
• Beth Sholom Synagogue
National Register of Historic Places (Township-owned)
• Henry W. Breyer Jr. House (Township Administration Building)
• Curtis Hall and Arboretum
• Glenside Memorial Hall
• George K. Heller School (Cheltenham Center for the Arts)
• Benjamin Rowland House (Shovel Shop)
• Wall House (Richard Wall House Museum)