Trafalgar to Folkestone. Gilbert and Mary Sophia Kennicott.

A story from Folkestone Old Cemetery – written by Rob Moody

The ‘Friends’ stumbled across a thin rib of stone deep in the grass, then carefully cut away turf. Two words leapt out: Trafalgar and Kennicott. Brushing revealed:


J.P. of Folkestone. Died July 29th 1874. Aged 87 Years.

He entered the Royal Navy in 1803. Was at the Battle of Trafalgar Oct. 21st 1805

There he lost his right eye & received many severe splinter wounds.

After a brief wince at the thought of all those foot-long slithers of oak scything between the decks of a wooden battleship, we examined the other side of the pent-topped stone:

Sacred to the memory of MARY SOPHIA, beloved

Wife of Capt. Gilbert Kennicott. R.N. J.P. who died

August 19th 1867. Aged 71 years leaving 3 daughters

Mrs Alexr. Swan, Mrs Col. Calder & Harriet Kennicott

With all these clues to personal stories, we were soon searching online Census records and archives. The family appeared in 1841 living at The Battery, Coastguard Station. Then there are Naval records….

Aged 14, First Class Volunteer Gilbert joined the navy in 1803. HMS Venerable, 74 guns, part of the Channel Fleet was his first ship. He’d be hoping that a post would become available so that he could work towards being an officer. Although born at Kingsbridge, Devon, his uncles at Newcastle appear to have known Admiral Collingwood. The Admiral sponsored Gilbert and kept an interest in him. At the beginning of October 1805, Midshipman Kennicott joined the Admiral’s flagship Royal Sovereign, 100 guns, off the coast of Spain.

When the French and Spanish fleets sailed from Cadiz, both British fleets had joined to intercept them. Nelson hoped to use his crews’ slightly greater experience and firing rate by approaching and cutting through the French line of ships in two places – a risky plan. It would expose the lead ship in each column to heavy bombardment before they could use their broadsides.

Royal Sovereign was in the van as they slowly approached the enemy line. Battered by shot, they broke between their foes by the three-deck Santa Anna, then fought her for several hours. Other vessels engaged Royal Sovereign’s other side and her three masts were shot away. The small frigate HMS Euryalus took her in tow and turned the damaged ship for her heavy guns to bear. Collingwood left the smashed ship to take command of the whole British fleet, Nelson being dead. A storm caught the ships, but Euryalus managed to keep Royal Sovereign away from the shore. Gilbert was one of the 93 heavily wounded aboard; another 46 officers, marines and sailors were killed. Having lost an eye and suffered 40 other wounds, the sixteen-year-old was offered a small pension, provided he stayed on as a Petty Officer.

As the Napoleonic Wars dragged on, Gilbert had eventful service on the various ships watching Mediterranean ports. In 1809, on HMS Seahorse, 38 guns, Midshipman Kennicott was put aboard a captured vessel with a small ‘prize crew’. In storms they were blown to Cyprus and grounded on rocks. The Turkish garrison kept them captive until late in the year. Then, in 1810, as Lieutenant on HMS Minorca, 16 guns, Gilbert was put aboard another prize, a captured American blockade runner. With the connivance of some sailors, the Americans broke out of the hold and re-took their ship; reports mentioning pistols being fired near faces. The blockade runner slipped into Marseille, where Kennicott was thrown into the common prison for some time.

As a prisoner of war, he was later transferred to Verdun Fortress, where officers, as well as civilians who’d been travelling in France, were kept. He was ‘sur parole’, so with an allowance from the French, would have been permitted to ‘lodge out’ in the neighbourhood, provided he signed the register regularly. With peace in 1814 and release of prisoners, Kennicott returned to the Navy. He now served on small sloops in the South Atlantic; finally HMS Leveret, 10 guns. This was on the St. Helena station, watching over the island where we’d imprisoned Napoleon, being determined that he would cause no more loss of life. Gilbert’s health now broke down and from the end of 1817, aged 30, he is ashore, retained on half-pay. In 1818, we find him married to Mary Sophia, baptising their children at Dartmouth.

The trail went quiet for a while, just the births of Charles and Sophia in Devon during 1818; then of daughter Harriet born at St Servan, by St Malo, the Brittany seaport, in 1829. The Navy List shows him appointed to the Coastguard in 1836, then the 1841 Census puts the Kennicotts at The Battery on Folkestone’s Bayle: Gilbert 50 – Navy H P; Mary 40; Sophia 20; Harriet 11 – b. France; Maria Collins 20 – b. France; and a female servant Harriet Bayley 20. Later census information had Gilbert born in 1789, and his wife born in London.

Having found no further records, we doubt if Charles survived infancy. Maria Collins, born in France, became less of a puzzle after she’d married a Scottish engineer, Alexander Swan, at Uphill, Folkestone. Her birthplace was given as Verdun on Meuse, but the year was open to conjecture, and she is described as ‘step daughter’. Swan continued as an engineer, with pupils in Folkestone, until they moved, with their three daughters, to Greenock and finally Kinghorn, on the Fife coast.

But, that ‘born at Verdun’ had set us on a search; making contact with a distant descendant in Australia, while James and Carole battled with French online records. A whoop from the three of us around the computer screens came with the Verdun 1813 register of births:

Maria Mary Ann Collins – born 1st May – to ‘Marie’ Sophie née Evans Hoare

widow of James Collins captain of the merchant ship, The Diane of London

Then, in a different section of 1813’s records we found the death of James Collins – 23rd April – aged about 29. His vessel is described as a Brig ( two-masted ) and of 140 tons burthen; implying about 100 feet length, a beam of 20’ and drawing maybe 7’.

Our Australian contact, Maryann M., dug deeper into records, finding a brief account in an Oxford newspaper of 1809 about the loss of ‘The Diana’. It seems that the merchant vessel was returning from Lisbon when it foundered during a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Two rowing boats got away, but one was soon lost. James tried to get clear of Ushant to reach the Channel, but the weather was against them. After enduring several days with no drinking water they put into the coast near Brest, where the French Navy cared for them.

However, the long march to Verdun, stopping in many prisons, saw them mistreated, with James protecting his young wife with a knife at times. Records of British prisoners in Verdun show that Maria Sophia, was given a small allowance from a charity as she received no funds from the French. Being a woman, she wasn’t a prisoner of war. John Groves, mate, and John Kelly, seaman, both from The Diana, also appear on the prisoners’ list.

We found marriage records for daughter Sophia Kennicott. In 1841, the 22 year old was at Windsor Castle where an uncle was pensioned as a Military Knight, having distinguished himself in the Peninsular War. She met with 44 year old Captain William Calder, of the 8th Regiment, and as the family story goes: “Together they climbed to the top of Windsor’s Round Tower where he asked her to marry him.” Their wedding was two months later. Moving between garrisons in England and Ireland, they produced five daughters and a son. William retired as a Colonel, then took his family to live in Boulogne for a few years.

Folkestone was certainly changing in 1843, with the railway being built and harbour developing. Mayor, David Major, often had to deal with brawling, drunken navvies outside The Rodney Inn. One Sunday evening it was decided to arrest the ringleaders, but the first detained was released by his friends, who then took over the inn. The Magistrate’s Clerk read the Riot Act, ordering them to go home, with no effect. Next, Gilbert Kennicott with his 40 coastguards, equipped with cutlasses and muskets arrived. Luckily the navvies gave in.

On ‘retiring’ in 1846, Gilbert’s rank increased to Commander and eventually Captain in 1859. Mentioned as helping set up a local militia, he became a JP, mayor of Folkestone and was involved in floating a hotel company. However, less prosperous times came, and he moved to smaller abodes, to the extent that his friends wrote to London papers about his circumstances. After living in Mill Hill and Grace Hill House, his last address is given as being 3 Shellons Place.

It was when we checked Gilbert’s youngest daughter Harriet’s birth records from St Malo in 1829, that they gave us her mother’s age as 33. ( The birth record is signed by two Royal Navy commanders. ) Helped by the earlier discovery of Maria Sophia’s maiden name, we could make a guess that Gilbert’s wife was baptised in Holborn, where a James Collins is also listed. So far, we have no sign of her marriages. Harriet, remained unmarried, living with her parents. A Trafalgar Medal, bearing Queen Victoria’s image, was awarded to her father many years after the event; the tiny pension that went with it coming down to Harriet after her parents’ deaths, when she moved to be with her stepsister in Scotland.

So, a family’s adventure story, ending in quieter times at Folkestone. There are still details we’d love to clarify: When and where did Gilbert marry the young widow? Was it to protect the teenage mother? Were there many RN officers living cheaply at St Malo? …. However, the uncovering of the grave by ‘The Friends’ started an intriguing search, and I’m sure there are many other family stories to discover in the cemetery. Maybe, you have one?

This article should not be reproduced without permission from the author Rob Moody.

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