[From Manx Quarterly, #3 November 1907]
Died September 20th, 1906.
The following eloquent appreciation of a character well known in the Isle of Man, and also to thousands of visitors to the Island, will be read with interest. " Old Pete" or John Kennish, lived on the Ballure-road, and it is said that he was the original of "Pete Quilliam " in Hall Caine's celebrated novel, "The Manxman." We have the permission of Mr W. Ashton, the editor of "The Southport Journal," to include this memoir in the MANX QUARTERLY.
Cheery, honest, loquacious, learned old Pete has come to the end of his tether, and ever since the news was announced reminiscences of an acquaintance extending over a dozen years have been passing through my mind. Let me unload some of these on the reading public.
To thousands of visitors to Ramsey the name of John Kennish was a strange one, but the name of Pete was one more familiar probably, not only in Manxland, but to the entire English-speaking public, than that of any Manxman alive excepting only that of the author of " The Manxman " himself. To Mr Hall Caine, in fact, Pete owed whatever celebrity he possessed beyond the limits of his Island home. To the natives round about he continued to the end to be known as " Jackie-Ballure."
It seems cruel to shatter so widely-cherished a delusion, but if, in the face of a strong temptation to do otherwise, one throws up one's cap for the simple truth of the matter, Pete's connection with the character of Pete Quilliam in " The Manxman " was of but a slight and accidental character. When the first American edition of the book was being prepared, Mr Caine went down to Ramsey and consulted Mr G. B. Cowen, the well-known photographer there, as to a suitable photograph of a cottage to illustrate Pete's cottage in the book. He suggested to Mr Cowen " Jackie's " cottage up the Ballure-road, and the suggestion was acted upon. What more natural than that American and other visitors, when they identified the cottage, should couple the old man who had lived there for a generation or so, with the Pete of the book? There is no evidence to show that Pete himself ever fostered the illusion in fact, he frequently repudiated it. As, however, it brought many thousands of visitors from almost all parts of the world, whose calls were not altogether without profit to him, one can well understand how his attempts to annihilate the fiction gradually wore themselves out.
So that in large part Pete's greatness was thrust upon him. Yet his was a character so strongly individual that it seems a pity that some present-day Dickens has not immortalised the actual man in fiction. Certain traits in his character and mode of speech would have lent themselves admirably to such treatment.
I came to know him well as the result of countless talks with which he favoured me on my visits to Ramsey. One's interest in him was never in danger of running down. Prior to making acquaintance with him the encyclopaedic extent of his knowledge had been duly impressed upon me. And indeed it was extensive in its area if less so in its depth. It was the social position of the man and his isolation in a humble cottage on a Manx mountainside, which probably caused so many to gape in wonder at the variety of topics folk lore, geography, Bible history, politics, social changes, evolution, languages, floriculture, the habits of birds and animals, astronomy, etc., etc. upon which he could talk both freely and well; and yet he was wholly self-taught. Not until he was thirty, it is said, had he even been able to read. He taught himself chiefly by spelling out the words on hoardings, and by poring over the Bible on Sundays. But once started on the path of learning, he rapidly got together quite a respectable shelfful of books,which bore unmistakable proofs of much usage.
A wonderful memory was, perhaps, his strongest gift. Every item of fresh knowledge was eagerly taken in, and seemed ever after to be accessible at a moment's notice.
A lady and gentleman lately returned from a tour in Egypt, and staying at the house at which I usually put up, decided to test his knowledge on this topic. ` Well, you have been to Egypt, and you saw the pyramids, of course. You would see the pyramid?" " Yes." "Can you tell me the height and size of that pyramid?" Inability to do so was confessed. Pete at once humbled them by stating the exact dimensions, its distance from Cairo, and other particulars.
I once started him on an Arctic exploration, and he was able to give me the names of every commander of every important Arctic expedition which had set sail during the previous forty years, and to state the degree. of latitude which each had reached.
To a gentleman from Peru he could tell pretty well as much about that country as the visitor himself knew. On Bible history I think to could have shamed many a professor of theology.
On the young men of the neighbourhood he exercised a helpful and mentally stimulating influence. He reminded me when I found him as I often did on a Sunday evening, with a group of young men standing or sitting around the cosy open hearth, listening with close attention to the old man's never-ceasing flow of informing talk of some Greek sage, a Plato or Socrates, orally dispensing wisdom to all who cared to receive it.
Although his worldly belongings were of the slenderest, Pete had attained according to the Ruskinian gospel to the wealth of the true philosopher. He was in many respects, as I told him, the wealthiest man of my acquaintance, and his cheery good nature would never let him dispute that he had much cause to be thankful. A few shillings a week must have sufficed for all his material needs. Gifts from callers formed quite a little income of themselves, but from myself he would never take anything. In early life a gardener by trade, later on he took to carpentry and the making of. nick-nacks and spinning wheels, which he sold to visitors.
The trials of those who have the ordering of servants were never known to him; nor was he ever married, one reason he gave being that " he was born stupid, and never could make any arrangements with ladies." His appearance was that of a short man inclined to stoutness; his face was a strong one, with its deep furrows, heavy jaw, and piercing eyes. The expression was kindly. He had been a cripple from early boyhood, one leg being quite useless. His dress invariably consisted of a Glengarry cap, an open vest, no coat, and breeches that bore as many patches on them as he himself said as Joseph's coat had colours in it.
The site of his cottage might have been determined by its command of as fair a view as the most critical lover of nature could desire. The hillside on which it was pitched slopes steeply down to the Ballure Glen and the south shore of Ramsey Bay, the first in charm of all Manx bays. Away over the bay is the Point of Ayre, and further away over the sea the Galloway Mountains in Scotland. Twenty or thirty miles over the water to the east the Cumberland hills rise imposingly from ~thc meeting point of sea and sky. From the cottage door the view it might be of the Bay of Naples is framed by overhanging trees, which line the road in front of the cottage.
Birds knew him well as their best friend, and never failed to come hopping in at the door at meal times, to be fed at his hands. An innate kindliness of heart showed itself in his treatment of the whole dumb creation, as well as in his open-handed generosity to the really needy, this latter being one of his most attractive traits.
Many stories are current testifying to his sterling uprightness. A Ramsey tradesman told me that Pete had once contracted a debt with him of about £2. He never asked him for it, but after eighteen years a small tin box reached him containing the amount of the account plus interest, and a note of thanks for the indulgence shown.
It is hardly necessary to describe his one-roomed cottage, with its bed curtained off at one end. Both interior and exterior must have appeared on many millions of magazine pictures, photographs, and post cards. Nothing either inside or out was inconsistent with a primitive but tidy simplicity. Over the open earthen hearth a pot was usually suspended, over the mantel some fish in the drying process; the roof open-raftered within and thatched without: tiny window panes, creeping plants, geraniums, etc. ; a rough sofa, a wooden dresser with rosy basins and sundry crockery, a chair or two, and on the walls some pictures illustrating " The Manxman " and other of Hall Caine's books these are about all that strike the eye.
Only three months ago I had what. proved to be my last chat with him. Once more at Ramsey, I learned that he was very unwell with diabetes. A few days later he became unconscious, and early the following morning the end came. He had reached his sixty-seventh year.
As one of a large gathering of people attracted from far and near, I followed his remains on Sunday for the two miles of picturesque road which lay between the old cottage and the tiny, ancient church dating back to the eleventh century of Maughold. After a simple service in the church, which proved too small to hold one-tenth of the large concourse of people who had been awaiting the arrival of the cortege, I saw his body gently lowered to its last resting place.
" Dust to dust," murmurs the young preacher, and we turn away and look across the smiling hollow that lies behind the bold headland of Maughold. Beyond it rises a wooded hillside, and a little to the right we see the farm " Lewaigue," where Hall Caine wrote his " Manxman," and which is itself the scene of the opening chapters of "The Bondman." Higher up still, the North Barrule most peaked and picturesque of Manx heights lifts over all the panoramic scene, its shapely head. It towers, this still September Sabbath, into a sky as serenely blue and fair as well befits the last closing scene in the life story of kindly, wise, and cheery old Pete.
W. A., in the " Southport Journal."