The taking of the Princessa a Spanish Man of War, April 8, 1740, by his Majesties Ships the Lenox, Kent and Oxford
By Peter Monamy (Collections of the National Maritime Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1758 Robert Kelly, a Jamaican in the Royal Navy, endured an adventure that included capture by the French, imprisonment, escape and resulted in him fetching up in London penniless and alone.
Robert was the son of Ann Rose, sister of Mary Johnston Rose, mentioned here before. His uncle was Denis Kelly of Jamaica and Lisduff in Ireland, and his father was therefore one of Denis Kelly’s brothers – Edmund, Darcy, Charles or John, all of whom lived in Jamaica between about 1710 and 1740. Sadly gaps in the parish registers mean it has not been possible to establish which one was the father of Robert nor exactly when he was born, although it is likely this was in the 1730s making John Kelly the most likely candidate for his father since the other three all died between 1728 and 1731.
By 1757 Robert was a Master at Arms on board the Oxford, a man of war in the Royal Navy when the ship was paid off at Plymouth. He was promised a place on another ship, but having heard nothing decided to make his way to London on board a merchant ship in order to contact the Admiralty directly. The condition of the roads was generally so bad that travel by sea would normally have been the quicker route.
Somewhere in the English Channel the ship was captured by a French privateer and all on board were taken to Bayonne in France where Robert was imprisoned. The ship in question may have been either The Africa or The Venice, both of which were reported in the Leeds Intelligencer of Tuesday 15th March 1757 as having been captured by Bayonne privateers.
Another report refers to Bayonne as harbouring over thirty such privateering vessels. These were privately owned vessels licenced by Letters of Marque to prey upon ships of an opposing country, and whose master and crew hoped to make their fortune taking rich prizes. As such they aimed to capture a ship rather than engage with it or sink it. Sale of the captured goods and ransom of any important prisoners added to their income.
Robert was not wealthy, nor was there anyone who would have paid a ransom for him but by a stroke of luck after eight months in prison he was able to escape and made his way across the border to Spain, having by now lost everything he had. Somehow he found himself a ship, probably working his passage, and eventually arrived back in London expecting to be able to make contact with his uncle Denis Kelly. Disaster struck again, for he discovered that his uncle had died in an accident in Ireland the previous December when an eagle had attacked the horse of the chaise he was travelling in causing it to be overturned.
Robert now found himself at the Ship Ale House in Buckingham Court, Charing Cross, with the promise of a ship from Admiral Forbes and a lodging bill he could not pay. Unless he could discharge the debt he would be prevented from taking up the warrant from Admiral Forbes and would be destitute and deprived of all means of earning a living.
We know all this because Robert then wrote to the only person he could think of who might be able to help – Rose Fuller for whom his aunt Mary Johnston Rose had been housekeeper for many years, and who he had last seen sixteen years previously.
There is no account of what happened next, but I am inclined to think that Rose Fuller did come to the rescue – for one thing the letter from Robert Kelly is among his personal papers (East Sussex Record Office ref: ESRO SAS-RF/19/167). Also there are Admiralty records for a Robert Kelly who was a gunner in the navy between 1779 and 1783, although that may of course be another Robert Kelly.
It was a great pity that Denis Kelly, erstwhile Chief Justice of Jamaica, did not live to learn of his nephew Robert’s resourcefulness which was in stark contrast to the behaviour of his brother Edmund’s legitimate son Henry Kelly (who died in January 1745 aged nineteen). Henry was packed off back to Jamaica by Thomas Beckford in December 1740, his behaviour in England having been thoroughly reprehensible.
Having put him on board the Ashted, Beckford wrote to Denis Kelly, who was then still in Jamaica:
I am very much concerned that he should have made no better use of the Education You have been at the expense of for him, and wish you may be able to turn his mind to better Principles; No advice would do him any service here, and had he stayed, I should have expected to have found him in some Gaol, for some Crime or other. Mr Corkran, who I understood had married a Gentlewoman who was his Relation, was so good to invite him to his house, a little way from the Town, on purpose to divert him, and keep him from Ill Company, as well as to give him good advice, but he gave him the Slip, and Carried away two books which he sold.
(National Library of Ireland, Westport Papers, MS 40,910/5(5) ).
Henry Kellys’ behaviour was relatively extreme, but the lot of small children of the colonists was not always a happy one. Sent to England for the sake of their health and to obtain an education, they often lacked both love and supervision, boys in particular were often subjected to regular beatings at school. It is probably not surprising that some of them went wild.
I’d love to know what happened to Robert Kelly in the end, but as with so many of those we encounter in old letters and documents, we glimpse a moment in their lives and then they fade from view.