The house and its setting
Kennaway House is a fine Regency mansion built in 1805 (Listed Grade II*) standing at the heart of Sidmouth. It forms part of a quiet residential neighbourhood of houses and cottages of similar date. Early prints show two garden fronts, both of which have remained green spaces. A tree-lined drive leads up to the main entrance, while towards the west lies a putting green and beyond that croquet and cricket grounds, over which the house looks out to the sea.
"A handsome brick house"
Contemporary guidebooks of the 1810s-1830s describe Fort House, as it was then known, as "a handsome brick house" and "a large house, very tastefully furnished". It had "a view of the town and sea", and "is now one of the most substantial and finished houses in Sidmouth". The house retains many of the features that inspired these descriptions: well-proportioned bow windows and pillared porches and the main entrance approached by a flight of steps. A verandah with curved canopy over the second entrance is characteristic of Sidmouth's Regency houses. Stained glass, which ornaments several of the windows, was an expensive novelty in domestic architecture at the time.
A brief history
Originally a family home, the house was leased or rented as Sidmouth became a magnet for visitors, but by the 1890s it had become a lodging-house. Generous benefactors halted this decline. At the beginning of the last century, the house was purchased and endowed as "Church House" to serve the social activities of the parish. Following the First World War, a long period of financial difficulties began. At the turn of the millennium, a new board of trustees set about the task of raising £1 million for a comprehensive restoration to allow "Kennaway House" (the name chosen by popular vote) to serve the needs of the whole community once again.
Sir James Amyatt, Captain Phillipps and the building of Fort House
On the manor tithe map of 1789 Sidmouth clusters by the sea, a fishing village surrounded by fields. But during the period of the Napoleonic wars (1793-1815), this small settlement expanded rapidly on the western side to become a fashionable resort for the gentry and aristocracy.
Sir James Amyatt, MP for Southampton, was a prominent landowner in this area. Among his assets were his two daughters and co-heiresses Charlotte and Harriet. It was through Harriet's marriage that Fort House came to be built, and through Charlotte's that the Kennaway family, a rising local dynasty, came to possess the house. Sir James gave a parcel of land to Harriet's husband, Captain Thomas Phillipps, perhaps as part of her marriage settlement, and on this land in 1805 Captain Phillipps built his house.
But by 1815 both Captain Phillipps and Sir James Amyatt, who had also been living in Fort House, were dead. Phillipps had bequeathed to "my present dear wife Harriett" among other items "the use of all my Plate Linen China Glass and Household Goods which shall be remaining in my dwellinghouse at Sidmouth" till his son Thomas came of age (possibly in 1819). What could be more convenient than that the house should be leased to the Kennaway family, into which Harriet's sister Charlotte had married? One of them was already Thomas's guardian.