[Proc IoM Nat History & Antiquarian Society vol 6 no 2 pp181/191 1961]


MRS. G. E. QUAYLE Presidential Address, 1959-60

ON 19th March, 1862, William Kennish, poet, engineer, inventor,explorer, died in New York. It is by the strangest sequence of circumstances that this Annual General Meeting should fall on 19th March and that William Kennish should be chosen as the subject of this paper.

With the exception of Edward Forbes and William Kennish the Isle of Man has not produced many scientists. The work of Edward Forbes is well-known to this society and is still continued; the work of William Kennish is not so well-known, but it also continues to this day for he was a greater scientist than he was a poet.

He says in his book:

'A manninagh dooie, from the clean I was troggit
Close by the foot of the bridge of Cornaa
Whose keystone was fix'd in the year I was ruggit
Three miles and a half from the town of Rhumsaa.'
(The Manxman's Farewell.)

In other words:

'A Manxman true from the cradle I was reared
Close by the foot of the bridge of Cornaa
Whose keystone was fixed in the year I was born.'

Cornaa, now named the Corony, Bridge was finished in 1799, in which year William Kennish was born in the house of his grandfather,who worked the flax mill, part of which can still be seen. The cottage is still occupied and stands below the main Douglas-Ramsey road on the east side of the foot of the bridge. He attended a school in the cottage home of a kind Yorkshire woman; but she found that his interest was in other things than learning spellings from 'Thomas Dilworth (best of spelling-books)' and making 'Ladles and Pothooks.'

'But this was Greek to my poor brain
For names of cattle and of mountain sheep
Were all that my thick block-head could contain
No foreign subject could it learn or keep.'
(Mona's Isle, Canto II.)

His father farmed Cornaa Farm in the upper Cornaa Valley and the farmhouse is still there and is still occupied. As a lad he joined in all the farming activities but later he went to Ramsey Shipyard and served his time as a ships' carpenter. In his twenty-second year, he was crossed in love and, in great distress, left the Island and joined the Royal Navy.

'When thou prov'dst false and I was slighted
I from my native isle did roam
And on the world became benighted,
Without a friend, without a home '(The False One.)

He cannot have remembered much of the English that must have been spoken in the little school because, as he wrote in the preface to his Mona's Isle:

'He entered the British Navy as a common seaman and learned of his messmates to converse in English, being scarcely able to express himself intelligibly except in his native language, the Manx. He likewise under the same tuition learned to read and write tolerably and made considerable progress in arithmetic, sufficient altogether,to enable him to undertake the duties of a Warrant Officer, in which capacity he served for seventeen years.

'Upon entering the duties of the latter station, he was permitted to mingle with the young gentlemen of the Navy, many of whom being well-educated in the various branches of literature and science kindly volunteered to become his instructors and to them he isi ndebted for whatever literary acquirements he possesses, they being ever as willing to impart instruction as he was to receive it.'

So great was Kennish's natural ability and skill that seven years after joining the Navy he was appointed master-carpenter of the entire Mediterranean fleet with the rank of Warrant Officer.

William Kennish seems to have been the kind of man who could not see a gadget in use but he must try to improve it. In 1829, while on the American service in H.M.S. 'Huzzar,' his attention turned to the ship's guns. Evidently he was not satisfied with the way the ship had to manoeuvre to fire a broadside. Being at right-angles to the side of the ship, to fire the guns, the ship had to be broadside to the target and so became vulnerable to the broadside of the enemy. How much more efficient it would be to move the guns!

The first problem was to estimate the distance of the target: this he did by inventing a theodolite. Having found the distance, he must now devise some method of moving the guns into the required angle of fire and the barrels to the correct angle of elevation. This was childs' play to him: he used wooden wedges. He made a chart for each gun so that the gunners knew exactly the angle of fire and the trajectory and the exact position of the wedges so that the lines of fire converged upon the target. He explained his idea to the officers and it was tried out on a target on an islet in the West Indies and proved successful. He later wrote a pamphlet giving precise instructions, he called it, "A Method for Concentrating the fire of a Broadside of a Ship of War," for which he received the Gold Isis Medal of the Society of Arts and Commerce. It was later chosen by the Admiralty as a textbook for the examination of Naval Officers. His principle of gun-laying is unaltered, although the methods of moving the guns has become mechanical.

After concentrating the fire from a ship, the idea of using the ship's guns for destroying land objects was a natural sequence. The difficulty was in carrying the guns ashore. Kennish, the practical man,saw that after a short time at sea, the water-tanks were emptied one at a time, so why not use the empty tanks? The guns were strapped to the tanks while still on deck, then lowered into the water by davits and towed ashore.

From a paper read by his son to many learned societies in America,it seems that he discovered local deviations of the compass. It was probably this that led him to invent the first artificial horizon. This is a trough of mercury in which the stars are reflected and it is quite understandable that a picture of the stars before the navigator of a ship was more reliable than a compass where there were likely to be deviations. The same method of studying the stars is used still by astronomers.

At this time, steam was coming into use as a motive power. Kennish submitted designs for steam engines to the Admiralty. He also designed and made a model of the first screw propeller, which, I believe, is to be seen in the Naval Museum in London. Although designed in the early nineteenth century, screw propellers were only brought into general use in this century.

Among his other inventions were: a pneumatic sounding instrument, a hydrostatic diving machine, a hydraulic ventilator and, most important of all and one that is in use by all of us every day, the pneumatic tube. He offered this idea to the English Post Office to hasten the delivery of letters. It was ignored by them, but was taken up by the Americans.

Battleships are now painted grey, but in those days they were all black Kennish advocated the discontinuance of black paint. Nothing seems to have escaped his eager notice.

Knowing human nature, we are not surprised to learn that his rapid progress and revolutionary ideas roused the envy and enmity of his messmates. Many times in his writings he mentions this unpleasantness. He was also soured by the fact that, although he spent time and money on his inventions and models, he received no monetary reward, so that when he was pensioned off by the Navy in 1844, he was without any other resources. In a poem to E. M. Gawne, Kentraugh, he says:

'I've sailed beneath the flag of England's fame
These twenty years to many a foreign shore,
And now my crazy hulk, shatter'd and lame,
Lies up in hope to brave the storm no more_
Trusting that fortune yet may deign to smile,
And bear me to my long-loved native isle.
'On my return to England's happy ground
Fate had decreed to set me once more free
For Esculapian skill my timbers found
Unfit for future services at sea_
Granting me forty pounds-and-five a year
Down life, close-haul'd, upon the wind to steer
With my depending family in tow
And adverse breakers roaring on my lee
While o'er the shoals of life I touch and go
Endeavouring to weather penury.'
In a poem to 'An Honoured Friend,' he says:
'My charts and compass and my sextant too
Lie mouldering upon my cabin shelf,
Tho' their adjustments I can warrant true,
For they were manufactured by myself
On Nature's plan of never-erring truth
Carefully studied from my early youth.
'As here I drift before the storm of fate,
Without an anchor, and my rudder gone,
And all my timbers in a shatter'd state,
Unable thus my barque to steer or cunn,
While, on my lee, life's adverse breakers roar
O'er the shoals of penury's iron shore.

So Kennish came back to his beloved Isle of Man, ill, disheartened, poor - intending never to roam again. In an unpublished poem written at this time and in the possession of his family in America,he says:

'Ha, there is my own native land,
For whose absence so long I've wept;
And there is the wave-beaten strand
On whose bank when a child I've slept.
'Let fate now decree what it may
Since again my own Mona I see
No more from thy rocks will I stray
My Mannin-veg-villish ma cree.
.~)'There I with my own better half
Will thy ancient customs retain,
I'll take up my poke and my staff
Before I will quit thee again.'

It was at this time, 1844, that he had his book of poems, Mona's Isle published: he was encouraged in this by his naval friends as well as friends on the Island. Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Ogle, Bart.,was a true friend. He helped in the publication of his pamphlet and his poems and encouraged him in all his work. It was by his influence that Kennish was asked by the British Government to make a survey of the Isle of Man.

He lived for a short while in a cottage at Cornaa, but, later, moved to 'The Lodge,' Ballasalla, where he opened a school. His advertisement in the Manx Sun gives a list of subjects which would be included in his curriculum - mathematics and navigation, among them. In spite of his book of poems, his school and his surveying, we find in the Manx Sun of February 1846 that he became insolvent and was imprisoned for debt. However, he must have been relieved of his financial embarrassment because we learn that in January 1847 he was delegated by the Manx fishermen to interview the authorities in London to present their case for better harbours. These facts are recorded in consecutive numbers of the Manx Sun. one of which gives the names of the captains who appointed him. In one issue it is stated that he 'proposes to go dressed in keer from top to toe, with baruglash on his head and karranes on his feet.' 'Baruglash' was a grey hat shaped like a limpet. Nothing came of it, for a letter to the paper in 1853 reminds the editor of the petition of 1847.

Part of the scheme for better harbours included his idea for a harbour of refuge in the Sound. He suggested that a sea-wall should be built joining the Calf to the mainland by way of Kitterland and Thousa, and a breakwater be built out from the Calf toward Spanish Head. This would form a deepwater shelter for ships. As we know,nothing was done toward implementing the idea.

Notwithstanding his firm intention never to leave the Island again,in 1849 he sailed with his family for America. His only son was already there, evidently in a good position, because we find that William Kennish was given a position with the Hope Association of New York, which operated for the furtherance of commerce between the United States and New Granada, the present state of Colombia in South America. His concern was to examine the auriferous tracts of New Granada prospecting for gold. In pursuit of this he climbed mountains 9,000 feet high where white men had never trodden, and, for four months, was surrounded by hostile Indians. Trouble was brewing in the United States between the Northern and the Southern states, and it was decided by the Hope Association that work in New Granada should be discontinued for the time. During his travels, Kennish had heard of a valley that stretched across the Isthmus of Darien, or Panama, as it is now called, and he seized this opportunity to search for this valley and find an easy track across the Isthmus. With a small party of white men and one large negro, he set out to explore.

This coast, as we know, was most unhealthy. The negro fell ill and nearly died; the white men, also suffering from the terrible climate, decided to return home. Kennish refused to leave the negro,he stayed and nursed him back to health. When Kennish, himself succumbed to the tropical fever, the negro sought help from the native Indians, who fed them and administered herbs that stayed the fever. However, Kennish was blind. The Indians and the negro took him by ship to the nearest post where there was a doctor, who told him that the blindness was the usual consequence of the fever and that it would clear with good food and rest. After his recovery, Kennish and the negro went on their travels again. In all he crossed the Isthmus eleven times.

He never found the valley, but he discovered that the River Atrato, that rises in Colombia, divided in its course and that it had two mouths, one on the Atlantic Ocean and one on the Pacific. He also discovered that the two oceans were on the same level, whereas previously it had been asserted that the level of the Pacific was higher than the Atlantic. As a sailor, he knew the hazards of the long voyage round the Horn and he conceived the idea of a canal through the Isthmus, linking the two oceans by joining the two parts of the River Atrato by means of a tunnel cut through the mountain. He sent his suggestion to the United States Government. The river should be widened to 200 feet and deepened to 30 feet, the tunnel would be three miles long and there would be no locks, gates nor dams. The cost, he estimated, would be 130,000,000 dollars. The U.S. Government was deeply impressed and granted 25,000 dollars for Kennish to take a party of experts, which included Baron Friedrich von Humboldt, to report on the scheme. Humboldt was a great German traveller, naturalist and geologist: he made many scientific discoveries and his name was given to the ocean current that flows from the Antarctic Ocean through the Pacific, near the western coast of America. On his return to the United States, Humboldt wrote that he confirmed Mr. Kennish's report in all essential particulars.

About this time de Lesseps was Vice-Consul at Alexandria and in 1852 he submitted his plan for the construction of the Suez Canal to the Egyptian Government. The Suez Canal Company was formed in 1866. I have no way of discovering if Kennish knew of this scheme before he conceived the Panama project; but it seems unlikely, as Humboldt died in 1859 and, in all probability, Kennish was in the wilds of New Granada when de Lesseps' plan was made known. Be that as it may, even if he had heard of the Suez Canal scheme, it is still a marvel that a raw, uneducated country lad from the hills of the Isle of Man should have had the brains, courage and endurance to evolve such a project, especially at the age of over 50 and after being discharged by the British Navy as medically unfit.

As we know, de Lesseps started work on the Panama Canal, but it had to be stopped because of the appalling death-rate of the workers. At a banquet at Delmonico's in New York in 1880, 18 years after Kennish's death, in honour of de Lesseps, 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 zoo feet wide, 30 feet deep, including a tunnel three miles long through the Cordilleras.' It is understood that the Kennish scheme of 1855 was largely incorporated in the canal finally adopted.

Kennish's son joined the army of the north in the American Civil War, 186I-5, and shortly afterwards Kennish's health broke down as the result of the sickness, exertion and exhaustion in the unhealthy climate of Panama. He died 98 years ago today, unwept, unhonoured and unsung by his fellow countrymen in the Isle of Man. He had squandered time, energy, health and fortune with no reward but a gold medal. Sun satellites and moon-rockets from fixed guns; aeroplanes from screw propellers; rubber tyres on everything from babies' prams to jet-planes from his pneumatic tubes (the difference is in scope, not in principle), yet he was impoverished all his life. It is just one of fate's cruel jests that a hydraulic, hydrostatic engine that he sent to an international industrial exhibition in London in 1862, should have been taken up, patented and manufactured by a Yorkshire firm in Wakefield- after he died. His life was a succession of failure and triumph: rejected by his sweetheart, he joined the Navy and became an inventor; rejected by his messmates, he became a poet; rejected by the Navy, he came home and became a surveyor; rejected by his countrymen, he went to America and became a prospector; rejected by his trading company,he became an explorer. He gave to the world some revolutionary ideas that have made the age of speed as it is today; he gave to his native land a little book of verse that is an accurate, concise, beautiful series of word-pictures of the life, work, play, customs, beliefs and folk-tales of the people of the Island 150 years ago.

Kennish was an unhappy man. For seventeen years while he was a Warrant Officer he was lonely; the barrier of class kept him from his intellectual equals, while he had to endure the hatred of the men by whose initial teaching he had been able to rise to the highest position possible without being commissioned. In the centre of the emptiness of sea and sky, surrounded by an island of friendliness among his former friends, his cabin became a refuge where he could wrap himself round with the memories of the affection of his family and childhood friends and imagine the snug little valley guarded by his beloved mountains. He recalled in verse the days spent cutting turf, his eager anticipation as he watched his Mother prepare the food for 'this yearly picnic,' 'the three-legged pot to boil of good hung beef that graced the chimney-cheek the winter through amongst the turfy reek; and cowry, juice of oatmeal's husky seed, that in this mountain banquet takes the lead: the oaten bannock, staff of Mona's food, she next prepares in segments thick and good: of new laid eggs are packed full many a score, and good fresh butter churned the day before.' He remembered the setting out before dawn, how the men chose the best turf to cut into blocks while the women set out the food; the chafffing and singing round the feast on the heather and reverent grace before setting off again to their work. He thought of his small boy's task of stacking the turves to dry and how tired and weary he became and how he wished that every barrow-load might be the last.

In the hills again he helped to gather the sheep and lambs to keep them in the yard, the cows were fastened in the cowhouse and the horses in the stables while willing hands put crosh-kerns in every stall, even on the animals' tails, and strewed the floors and doorsills with the golden bulugh, king-cups or marsh marigolds. Every gate and door was bolted and barred in the house and outbuildings and bulugh scattered around, for this was May Day Eve when evil spirits cast their wicked spells. When all was safe, off to the hills again to fire the gorse to protect the land from the buitch.

When the hills became a white desert of snow in the wintertime, 'The husbandmen toward the mountain wade thro' heaps of snow,with their long, probing poles, whilst Fly directs them to their breathing holes with many a bark along the wasteful plain, where desolation now appears to reign.' A perfect little picture of the search for buried sheep.

But the centre of his longing was the farmhouse and his Mother's love. He pictures Sunday mornings when, too little to take the long walk to Maughold Church, he stayed at home and had his Mother all to himself in the country kitchen that he later described so well.

This room is the shrine of his devotion: it is the background to all the vignettes of life that he recalls. The Harvest feast is held there after the triumphal, noisy procession from the field with the Queen of the Harvest dancing in the lead, holding aloft the 'Corn Maiden' plaited from the last sheaf cut by her sweetheart and presented to her and so making her the queen. Haggis was the principal dish eaten at the feast. This is the first time I have heard of haggis being a Manx dish.

Later, the young people danced in the open air to the scrape of the fiddle while

'The dame now made her exit with the sire_
Leaving the youths to love and merriment
And sat them snugly by the kitchen fire
Rehearsing over how to pay their rent.'
(Mona's Isle, Canto II.)

In the winter

'The country folk from labour hard retire
And form a circle round the kitchen fire
The lads bring in the reedy hemp to peel,
While lasses pass the band around the wheel.
'And perhaps the neighbouring swains would gather in
To card the wool each for his lass to spin
And tell their tales of innocence with glee . . .'
(Mona's Isle, Canto III.)

These tales of haunted thorn-trees; of ghostly animals with blazing eyes; of shadowy forms, ghastly and immense, standing between him and the thorn fence, made a deep impression on the small boy so that he was afraid to leave the company and go to bed. The Manx Ilvary at Maughold Church on Christmas Eve is recalled with a reminiscent chuckle at the fun and horse-play after the curate had conducted the service and retired The girls, having filled their pockets with dried peas in readiness, enlivened the proceedings when they grew too dull, by shooting the peas at the boys, who promptly returned them.

'By custom taught for ages back,
The lasses brought their pease,
In pockets full each Ilvary
The bachelors to tease,
By taking opportunity
When they were least aware
To throw their pulse artillery
And make the rustics stare.'
(The Manx Ilvary.)

Nowadays such behaviour would be regarded as juvenile delinquency and might merit police intervention.

'Now when each chanting candidate
Had done his best to please
And lasses tired of the sport
Created by the pease
They'd all agree with one accord
To take the dreary road,
Re-passing through each haunted glen
Ere all reached their abode.
'But on that merry-making eve
There is no cause to fear
Nor ghosts, nor witches, for 'tis said
They dare not then appear.
Upon each road a half-way house
Was ready to receive
Each courting pair on their return
From church on Christmas Eve.'
(The Manx Ilvary.)

The 'Brumish-Veg' was the inn favoured by Kennish and his friends,it stood on the banks of the Cornaa River and there they had some refreshments before climbing to their mountain homes.

'Each lad would see his lass safe home
Whose parents would invite
Him in, and sanction his request
To stop with her the night,
While they would go unto their bed
And leave them to themselves,
With a good fire upon the hearth
And plenty on the shelves.
'Thus they would pass the happy night,
Still daring not to stride
O'er Hymen's bound'ry, or attempt
What virtue has denied
Observing the old adage still
Which they were wont to say
To keep the feast strictly preserved
Until the festal day.
(The Manx Ilvary.)

So even sooreying was included in his memories.
Do you want the story of the witches of Crag-na-Mult; of the Buggane, Gob-na-Skute; of the vengeance of the little people; of the work of Ballawhane, the witch-doctor? His book of poems, Mona's Isle, contains them all. It is a remarkable book in that it is the only record of Manx country life, work, play, customs and beliefs written by a Manx countryman about his own experiences. It is first-hand information, not just hearsay told to oblige collectors of folk-lore. We can be thankful that it is written in verse because his prose is in the style of his time and is stiff, stilted and formal. It is not great poetry, but he chooses his words with care and is economical in their use. Not all Kennish's poetry is folk-lore; some of his poems are just copies of the great English classical poetry, as, for example, the poem with the clumsy title of: 'An elegy of An Ancient Burying-Ground,Bearing no trace of its origin. Situate near the source of the River Cornaa, Isle of Man.' It might be unkind to call it a parody of Grey;but it is a worthy imitation - Grey with a Manx accent. These are the last three verses:

'Then sleep in peace, my honour'd, ancient race,
Your earthly cares are now for ever fled
Leaving behind no mark for man to trace
Your faults or virtues to your lonely bed.
'And tho' no sculpture decorates your tomb,
Nature shall dress, at each returning spring,
Your lonely mansion with the heather bloom
While mountain larks around your shrine shall sing.
'And when no more the rays of summer smile.
But winter storms from the bleak north emerge
And wrap in gloomy vest your native isle
The osier reeds shall sigh your fun'ral dirge.'

Nothing as yet has been done to commemorate the memory of this remarkable man. All that is known of his appearance is that his son said that he was tall and fair and Viking-looking. His great-granddaughters paid a fleeting visit to the Island in 1898 when on a concert tour of Europe. They intended to return and give a concert in each of the four towns in the Island and give the proceeds toward a memorial plaque in Maughold Church. They did not do so. But it is not yet too late. In two years the centenary of his death will occur and it would seem most fitting that some form of memorial, perhaps a monument near the farmhouse in which he lived, should be considered as a tribute to his memory.




see Manx Worthies Chap 6 p118 for associated pages

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
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