Going up in the World: the Kennaway connection

Building a business

The arrival and rise of the Kennaway family illustrate a period of mobility, both geographical and social. In 1713 young William Kennaway, a serge maker from Scotland, arrived in Exeter to practice his trade in this prosperous town. His son, also William, joined him and between 1750 and 1790 built up a very successful business in the woollen trade. But the Napoleonic wars spelled disaster for exports and the wool trade collapsed. Another William, in the third generation, turned instead to the wine trade, while his brothers John and Richard sought their fortunes in the east.

Careers in India

John Kennaway left home in 1772, at the age of fourteen, to make reputation and wealth with the East India Company. Diplomacy, linguistic skills and lobbying of influential people led to his appointment as Aide de Camp to the Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, in 1786. As first British resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, he secured significant rights for the company, and was rewarded with a baronetcy in 1791. Richard Kennaway also acquired a fortune in his career with the Board of Trade in Bengal.

Rewards at home

In 1793 Sir John left the East India Company and the brothers returned to England needing a home and family in keeping with their newly established wealth and status. In 1794 they bought the Escot estate near Ottery St Mary and in 1797 Sir John married Charlotte Amyatt. One source suggests that her father Sir James had also had business interests in India, possibly making the acquaintance of the Kennaways through these.

An establishment in Sidmouth

In1808 Escot House was destroyed by fire: a candle in a dressing room set fire to the curtains and within hours the whole house was gone. The Kennaways had another property at Fairmile, but perhaps hankered after the social life and amenities of the newly developing watering-place of Sidmouth, and in 1815 Richard took a lease on Fort House. How it passed into the hands of Sir John is not yet clear, but contemporary sources tell us that he "greatly enlarged and beautified" the house and that by his death in 1836 he was "the proprietor of several houses in this place". Even after Escot was rebuilt, the Kennaways continued to use Fort House, and it is said that several of John and Charlotte's eleven children were born here.

Letting to the gentry: tenants in Fort House and Aurora House

Letting houses for anything from a few months to years was common in Sidmouth at this time. The beautiful crescent of Fortfield Terrace was one of the earliest examples of speculative building intended for leasing.

After Sir John's death in 1836 various tenants lived in the house, their names revealed to us from 1841 by the census returns, which make it apparent that by the middle of the century Aurora House, adjacent to Fort House and under the same roof, was a separate property (it remains so today). Some of these tenants spent years, indeed decades, in the house. The census returns for 1841, 1851 and 1861 reveal that James Blencoe, clergyman, with five (or later four) servants lived there, and the same Rev James Blencoe is mentioned as residing there in "A descriptive sketch of Sidmouth" by Theodore Mogridge, as early as 1836.