[taken from Chapter 6 Manx Worthies, A.W.Moore, 1901]

WILLIAM KENNISH (b. 1799, d. 1862),

who was a poet, and an inventor, as well as a practical engineer. We have placed his name under the heading of "Science," as he was certainly more distinguished as an engineer and an inventor than as a poet, though he is best known to his countrymen, on this side of the Atlantic, in the latter capacity. Born in the parish of Maughold, " close by the foot of the bridge of Cornay," or the Corrany Bridge, as we now call it, he was, in his own words, "a Mannanagh dooie"-a true Manxman. His father was a small farmer, and his early years were spent partly in following the plough and partly in learning the trade of a ship carpenter at Ramsey. It was not till his twenty-second year that he entered the Royal Navy, doing so, it is said, because he had been jilted. At that time he could scarcely speak any English, and was unable either to read or write. So great, however, was his natural ability and his technical knowledge of his trade that, in the short period of seven years, he rose to the position of master-carpenter of the whole British fleet in the Mediterranean. During this time he acquired not only the rudiments of education, but a considerable knowledge of science, as was soon to be shown by his contributions to it.

In 1829, when on board H.M.S. "Hussar," on the North American station, he invented " a method for concentrating the fire of a broadside of a ship of war,"' for which he received the thanks of the Admiralty and the Isis gold medal of the Society of Arts and Commerce. An account of this was published in a pamphlet, together with a description of two of his other inventions, viz. : "A method for Floating Guns on shore by means of Water Tanks," and "A Fuse intended to burst the shell on striking the object without reference to distance". He also sent the society communications respecting " an artificial horizon ; a Automatic sounding instrument ; a method of drowning the magazine of a ship of war ; an hydraulic ventilator ; discontinuing the use of black paint on ships ; a hydrostatic diving machine," &c. In 1832, the committee appointed by the Admiralty to report upon naval inventions, recommended his pamphlet as a text book for use in the navy. " It was at this time," says his son, " that steam was seriously thought of as a propelling power in the navy, and the fertility of Mr. Kennish's inventive mind is proved by the fact that he devised several marine steam engines and submitted them to the consideration of the Lords of the Admiralty. He also urged the adoption of the screw propeller, one of which he also designed, and submitted a model of."1 Another -invention of his, a pneumatic tube. which he suggested to the Admiralty for the transport of letters in 1845, was not accepted then, but a similar tube "is now used for the conveyance of of mails to the General Post Office in London About 1840, KENNISH retired from the navy and settled at Ballasalla, where, "to while away the tedium occasioned by the abandonment of his scientific pursuits,"2 he took to composing poetry. This poetry is, as its author remarks in his preface, distinctly "rude" but it portrays many of the most characteristic Manx customs and superstitions with truth and vigour.

In 1845. he became a schoolmaster, announcing his intention of doing so as follows: "William Kennish, R.N., author of the ' Method for concentrating the Fire of a ship's Broadside,' and of other mathematical and mechanical inventions now in use in the British Navy, also of 'Mona's Isle and other Poems,' begs to inform his countrymen of the southside of the island that he has taken charge. of the Parochial School at Ballasalla, where he intends teaching." The list of subjects which he proposed to teach was a truly ambitious one, and yet, at the same time, he was able to make a survey of the Manx coast for the British Government, together with a plan for a harbour of refuge.3 To form this harbour, he proposed to join the mainland and the Calf by way of the Thousla and Kitterland islets, and to throw out a breakwater from the Calf towards Spanish Head. In 1849, he emigrated to America in search of a larger field for the exercise of his talents, and he seems to have speedily obtained congenial employment in exploring the auriferous tracts in New Grenada. When there, he was attracted by the problem of a canal across the isthmus. Into the story of his repeated journeys we cannot enter here, and it must suffice to say that they were accomplished at terrible risk to his life, and with the greatest gallantry and skill.

His final survey, in 1855, was highly approved by the United States Government, and he then submitted, both to it and various scientific bodies, a scheme for a canal which was to join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by channels and a tunnel in connexion with the rivers Atrato and Truando. In this remarkable scheme he designed the canal without locks. "He was the first to assert," says his son, " that the oceans were upon a level. . . .Up to this time no canal had been projected without locks -it was an entirely new thought; but to accomplish it he had to make one of the boldest suggestions in the history of civil engineering namely "to cut a tunnel through the dividing ridge, of sufficient capacity to admit of the largest vessel passing, through without interruption." That his scheme was considered a practicable one was shown by the fact that at the De Lesseps banquet in New York, in 1880, a public tribute was paid to WILLIAM KENNISH as an "able engineer," and the discoverer of "the first and only feasible route without locks, gates, or dams, for a ship canal, two hundred feet wide, and thirty feet deep, including a tunnel three miles long through the Cordilleras."4 The length of this canal was estimated at 130 miles, and its cost at one hundred and thirty million dollars. Who can say that it will not be the Manxman,, scheme which may ultimately be adopted ? This scheme was duly set forth by him in a pamphlet entitled, " The Practicability and Importance of a Ship Canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans."4

Nor did his mechanical inventions cease, since he sent an "hydraulic and hydrostatic engine" to the international exhibition at London in 1862.5 Both of these inventions were afterwards patented and manufactured by a Wakefield firm.

1 Preface to poems.
2 Paper by his son. This was read before several societies in America (published in the Mona's Herald of Sept. 14, 1890). Our readers are referred to it for further particulars
3 See the Paper by his son.
4 G. F. Nesbitt & Co., New York. Publishers.
5 These machines were brought over to England by his son-in-law, Mr. C. S. Dawson, who has approved. of. the above sketch. We are glad to learn that Mr. Dawson proposes issuing a new and largely increased edition of Kennish's poems.

see also article by Mrs E G Quayle Proc IoMNHAS vol 6 no 2 p181/191 1961


Mona's Isle

A Manxman's Farewell
The bard's lamentation
Awake my muse
Dobberan Chengey-ny Mayrey Ellan Vannin Lament of the Mother Tongue (another english translation - Mannin Vol 1 pp49/50)

Other References:

View of Cornaa Cottage
The Gob ny Scuit Boagane Manx Soc Vol 21 p193/4.
Ny Kirree fo-Sniaghtey Manx Soc 16 p126/133
Oiel Verry Manx Soc 16 p157/165
Memorial for Harbours of Refuge
A Manxman to the very last (William Kennish b. 1799) IoM FHS special issue Vol 11 p17/19 1989 (description of biographical film)
Manx Liberal, 20 May 1840 p4, Letter re his employment at Woolwich (in Civil Architect dept) which work does not agree with him and that he is looking to return to the Island..

Robert W. Stimpson William Kennish Manninagh Dooie - True Manxman Lily: Isle of Man 2011 (ISBN 978-1-90794508-3) - a truely impressive and comphrehensive biography which include reprints of all known publications and poetry


Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001