Admiral Sir John Kingcombe

My mother’s paternal family had always believed there was a ‘famous admiral’ somewhere among their ancestors.  There are a few references in my grandfather’s family history records to John Kingcombe, including a photograph of him in full naval uniform and a sketchy family tree. My great-grandmother (Jane Elliott Stevens, later Birks) noted in pencil on the back of this photograph.

My grandfather came from a titled family Sir William Elliott with estates on the borders of Devon and Cornwall. I do not know if he was my grandfather’s great grandfather but think so at any rate his aunt was mother of Sir John Kingcombe and he was my grandfather’s first cousin and used to always speak to my grandfather when he saw him out but they never visited one another as we were only trades’ people. Sir J Kingcombe was an admiral and one of his daughters married a brother of the Bishop of York (Dr Temple). My grandmother was very wishful that I might in some way see this lady as she was very much like my aunt Elizabeth the elder sister of my mother, but I never did. I am explaining all this because it really becomes so odd that the children of a brother and sister should be in such different grades of life.

John Kingcombe (the name is spelt in various ways in contemporary records) came from Revelstoke in Devon where the name  is quite common; he was born in 1794, son of Henry c.1764-1849(?).  His mother was Mary Perring c.1769-1837, and it is the link with this family to which Jane Birks  is referring since Elizabeth Perring was her maternal great-grandmother.  It is possible that Jane Birks’ remark about her grandfather coming from  the titled family of ‘Sir William Elliott’ is a confused reference to the Perring Baronets, of Membland, a Devon line of baronets.  This may well have been a family story and does not mean there was any relationship with a titled family beyond a name in common.  Elsewhere Jane Birks remarks that her maternal uncle, William Noseworthy Elliott had discovered that the family had the right to bear arms.  Two of Kingcombe’s sisters had Perring as their second name, which does suggest that the name was valued by their family.

Kingcombe is on the historical record with a substantial service in the Royal Navy, very unusually he started his career in the ranks as an able seaman; this was very rare among senior officers of the period.  It has been suggested that as a boy he was befriended by a local naval officer, Captain Maitland (Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland 1777-1839) who lived in the area.  Frederick Maitland came from a Scottish naval family and had a distinguished career.  His only son died in infancy in 1808, about the same time as Kingcombe entered the navy.  Both men were at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809.   A letter to The Times headed Prospects of the Lower Deck on 20th March 1919 recounts

Sir, Of distinguished officers, during my period of service, dating from 1842, who have been credited with “having come in at the hawse holes” and flow their admiral’s flag, there were three: but none of these gallant officers and splendid seamen does the phrase fully apply.  Sir John Kingcome, my father’s friend, lived in the little village of Noss, on the River Yealm, where his father was a fisherman: my father lived at Newton Ferrars, on the opposite side of the river.  The boy Kingcome attracted the notice of Sir Lewis (then Captain) Maitland, who entered him as a second-class volunteer, i.e., for a sailing master’s billet, not then, nor in my day, to live with the “young gentlemen.”  They had separate cabins, like the warrant officers.  Kingcome became a master’s mate, and for his gallantry was made a lieutenant….

J. Moresby, Admiral, Rtd

John Moresby ( 1830 – 1922) was an admiral and the son of another admiral, Fairfax Moresby (1786-1877) who was clearly, from this letter, a friend of Kingcombe.

Kingcombe become a Lieutenant in 1815, a Commander in 1828, a Captain in 1839 and appointed Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1857.  His early career is described in  Royal Naval Biography; Or, Memoirs of the Services of All the Flag-officers  John Marshall (Longman, 1835)


Was made a lieutenant on the 1st July, 1815; appointed to the Tees 26, Captain Thomas Coe, fitting out for the East Indies, July 29th, 1821; and promoted by that officer to the command of the Larne sloop, on hearing of the death of Commodore Grant, in 1824. Unfortunately for him, the two ships were then far distant, and without any means of communication, the one being at New South Wales, and the other engaged in the Burmese war, which prevented him from joining the Larne at Rangoon, until April 15th, 1825. He subsequently conveyed the lady of Commodore Sir James Brisbane, and her two daughters, from Madras to Penang; and the Archdeacon Scott, from Sydney, New South Wales to Van Diemen’s Land.

Whilst at Sydney, the Larne was sunk in the act of heaving down, and had her main-mast struck by lightning. From Van Diemen’s Land, she proceeded to New Zealand and Norfolk Island, where acting Commander Kingcome and his first lieutenant W. Burdett Dobson, were swamped in her cutter when attempting to land, Mar. 2d, 1826. She returned to Madras via Torres Straits, touching at Melville Island, Batavia, and Singapore.

On the 14th July following, this officer was appointed lieutenant of the Pandora sloop, Captain William Clarke Jervoise, a commission having arrived from England promoting Lieutenant Dobson to the command of the Larne. His own advancement to the rank of commander did not take place until Jan. 8th, 1828.

In 1820 he married Louisa Sholl (1794-1869), the daughter of William Sholl and Maria Teresa Justa.  William Sholl (1736–1797) was a Freeman (shareholder) of the Levant Company, representing it at Alexandretta in Turkey and was a vice-consul of both Britain and the Netherlands there. Sholl is name associated with Cornwall; the Sholls were related to two other Cornish families the Boase and Penpran families. There is record of William Scholl’s marriage in Aleppo.

October 9th. The Marriage Ceremony according to the Rite of the Church of England between William Sholl Esq re., British Factor Marine at Scanderoon and Maria Teresa. Daughter of Clara Justa, widow, at Aleppo, (who, before the performance of the sacred Rite, abjured the Roman Catholick Religion or the Church of Rome, and embraced the Protestant, with all its Rites and Ceremonies in the presence of the underwritten Witnesses) was celebrated at Aleppo in the presence of ye same Witnesses by me Robert Foster, Chap.

Pedigree Register 1779

John Kingcombe and his family lived in the naval town of Plymouth. In the censuses it is clearly a fairly affluent household with servants. In 1841 the family consists of John and Louisa, their children Frederick 10, Louisa 6 and Ellen 3, along with a servant, Mary Easterbrook. A previous daughter, Louisa Teresa had died in 1833 a few months after birth. In 1851 they are still in Plymouth but have moved to Athenaeum Street, their household includes their two daughters but not Frederick. Also with them is their niece, Eliza Sholl aged 28, born in Isle of France (Mauritius) who is the daughter of one of Louisa’s brothers. In 1861 only one daughter, Ellen, is still living in the household. Eliza Sholl is no longer with them, she is living with another uncle, Alexander Penpran, a retired quartermaster and his wife Teresa who is almost certainly Louisa Kingcombe’s sister. Kingcombe is described as a Rear Admiral.

Kingcombe had  a number of siblings, including Richard, Philip Brown and a sister Sarah Perring.  He also had a considerable number of cousins, almost all living around Plymouth and the surrounding area.

His career covered range of duties and activities, he is noted in the press as he gets promotion or his ship appears in the naval news. He attends formal occasions, and represents his country as a senior naval officer.  It is interesting to note that a comment by a correspondent on this page places him in New Zealand at the early date of 1826.  This is confirmed in a contemporary publication

The Larne took her final departure from Rangoon on the 8th May, 1825 … under acting commander John Kingcome, until July 13th, 1820, on which day, being then at Madras he received a commission from England, dated July 25th, 1825, promoting him to the command of that sloop. During the above period, he visited Pulo-Penang, Malacca, Sincapore, Sydney (N. S. Wales), Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand, and Norfolk Island; passed through Torres Straits, and touched at Melville Island and Batavia

from Royal naval biography, or, Memoirs of the services of all the flag-officers, superannuated rear-admirals, retired-captains, post-captains and commanders (London, 1835)

In 1842 a letter to Mr Samuel Croker in Revelstoke, from his daughter-in-law in New Plymouth (New Zealand)

We have sent these letters home by Captain Liardet, the Governor of New Plymouth. Captain Liardet and mate, and one of the Cawsand men, were clearing out one of the great guns, and the gun went off, and the sand and powder flew up in their faces and eyes. Captain Liardet has lost one eye, and is very likely to lose the other; he is going home to England; everyone is sorry for him, he is such a good man. I should be very glad to hear that Captain Kingcombe had taken his place to come here to New Zealand
Letters from New Plymouth 1843 by the New Zealand Company

In 1845 an article entitled The Printing Press at Sea notes

The Belleisle troop-ship, Captain J. Kingcombe, has brought home a curious specimen of ingenuity in the typographical art, which is no other than a printed log in quarto shape, and tastefully “set up,” of the arrival and sailing of the Belleisle from the different places at which she touched on her voyage to China, as also some interesting remarks on the disposition of the troops on board during the voyage, and for some time after they had landed.

Freemasons’ Quarterly Magazine 1845 p. 325

The Belleisle is the ship on which his son dies in a fall from the rigging a year later.

He clearly had an interest in the practicalities of sailing, and it is worth remembering that for much of his career the ships he served on were either sailing ships or, in the case of The Suejil, sailing ships with steam engines.  A testimonial from him advocating traditional skills is included in The Rigger’s Guide by Charles Bushell

Royal William, December 1854


I have received two copies of your Rigger’s Guide, and shall have great pleasure in recommending it, and hope you may be rewarded for your useful labour.  I consider EVERY YOUNGSTER WHO WISHES TO BE A SAILOR SHOULD POSSSESS YOUR LITTLE BOOK, containing such valuable information on rigging, &c.  I enclose a Post Office Order for 12s.  With best wishes for your success.

I remain yours truly,

John Kingcome

In 1863 he was involved in a near diplomatic disaster during the difficult years of the American Civil War. An unidentified armed ship entered San Francisco Bay, with no wind, the flag hung limp and men in rowboats towed the ship. The ship did not head toward the San Francisco docks. Instead, it travelled toward Angel Island to the North Bay where there was an army arsenal and the navy shipyard. The commanding officer at Alcatraz had a duty to ensure that no hostile foreign warship entered the bay. Captain William Winder ordered the Alcatraz artillery to fire a blank charge as a signal for the ship to stop. The rowboats continued pulling the ship. Winder then ordered his men to fire an empty shell toward the bow of the ship, a challenge to submit to the local authority. The ship halted and responded with gunfire, which Winder confirmed was a 21-gun salute. Through the smoke, the Alcatraz troops could finally see the British flag waving on the H.M.S. Sutlej, flagship of Admiral John Kingcombe. Alcatraz responded with a return salute. Soon messages were exchanged rather than gunfire. As Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in the Pacific, Kingcombe wrote that he was displeased at his reception in San Francisco. Captain Winder explained his actions by saying, ‘The ship’s direction was so unusual I deemed it my duty to bring her to and ascertain her character.’ The U.S. Commander of the Department of the Pacific supported Winder and replied that Kingcombe had ignored the established procedures for entering a foreign port during war. Winder later received a letter of gentle reminder to act cautiously.

Towards the end of his career Kingcombe became involved in the Chilcotin War.  This was a confrontation in 1864 between members of the Chilcotin people in British Columbia and white road construction workers.  The leader of the Chilcotin was a mysterious and charismatic young man called Klattasine.  The Chilcotin and other Native Peoples of the area had been decimated by smallpox and under great pressure from the gold rush that had impacted on their lands. Fourteen men employed by Alfred Waddington in the building of a road from Bute Inlet were killed, a number of other incidents took place over the following weeks and in all twenty white men were killed.   An expeditionary force of over a hundred men was set up by the Governor of British Columbia, Frederick Seymour and led by Chartres Brew, an Irish ex-police who was Chief Gold Commissioner.  Klassasine was persuaded to surrender on terms of an amnesty, but arrested, tried and executed along with five other leaders.  Kingcombe’s ship, The Sutlej, was involved in transporting the Governor and troops.

Kingcombe wrote to his superiors


In continuation of my letter No. 69 of 15th inst.: I have the honor to acquaint you for the information of the Lords Commissioner of the Admiralty that I left Esquimalt that day at noon with H. E. Mr. Seymour, Governor of British Columbia, & his party of 48 Volunteers & 20 Horses. I took the Haro Straits & went through Active Pass; anchored at Departure Bay the same evening, at Alert Bay (about 20 miles below Fort Rupert) on the 18th, at Restoration Bay inside the entrance to Bentinck Arm on 17th. I arrived at the Head of the arm at Noon on 18th.

Shortly after leaving Restoration Bay a canoe came on board with two Englishmen in her, who were on their way to Esquimalt to ask for assistance to capture the murderers of three of their companions. It appears from the statement of these men that they with six others & a train of 42 horses laden with Provisions, stores & ammunition left Bentinck Arm on 19th ult. for Cariboo, & when about 120 miles on their road they came upon an encampment of Indians composed of parties of the Chilicoten, Tatla, & Sutleth tribes. Through a native woman who was travelling with them, they learned that two of the former had been concerned in the massacre of the men at Bute Inlet & that a plot was being hatched to murder them, so they determined on retreating to Bentinck Arm, which they had commenced when, on the morning of 31st ult., they were suddenly attacked on reaching a cross road, 3 of the party killed & 4 wounded who with the unhurt man escaped to the arm leaving the Indians in possession of the horses & stores. From the same Native woman they learnt that the several Tribes on this part of the Coast had leagued together to kill all the settlers about here & at Bute Inlet & then march on to the Hudson Bay Fort at Alexandria, which they were to attack in order to obtain the Provisions & stores that might be there.

This woman is stated to have been killed when the party was attacked on the 31st ult. so the report rests entirely on the statement of these men, but from the enquiries made by the Interpreters whom Mr. Seymour brought with him, that gentleman is not led to put any faith in the statement.

The Bella Coola Tribe, who have their village about half a mile from this, are perfectly quiet & friendly, & 20 of them have joined Mr. Seymour in his expedition in search of the murderers.

3. The Horses & Provision were all landed on the morning of the 19th, & that same afternoon the party took their departure. Mr. Seymour with a small escort landed yesterday & would overtake the others the same evening at a place about 12 miles distant, where it was arranged they were to encamp for the night.

4. Before leaving New Westminster, Mr. Seymour sent instructions to Mr. Cox, the Magistrate at Alexandria, to organize a body of Volunteers to proceed from thence on the trail to Bentinck Arm, & it is hoped that the two parties may meet about mid way on the route. When this junction has been effected, & if it is found that nothing further can be done, the party which left here will retrace their steps & return to New Westminster, & Mr. Seymour proceed on to Fort Alexandria, & afterwards visit Cariboo before returning to the seat of his Govt.

Mr. Seymour having applied to me for an offer to be allowed to accompany him on the expedition, & requested that Lieut. Stewart, Senior Lieut. of this ship, might be appointed to this service, I beg you will acquaint their Lordships that the request was complied with.

5. I have arranged with Mr. Seymour to remain here in the “Sutlej” until the 10th proximo, when I purpose returning to Esquimalt leaving a gun boat here to bring on Despatches, or any of Mr. Seymour’s party who may wish to return that way.

I have &c.

(Signed) John Kingcome
Vice Admiral

In the same year a very different social engagement took place, illustrating the role that the navy had in maintaining morale in far-flung parts of the Empire.  It is described by Rosalind A. Young in The Story of Pitcairn Island Mutiny of the Bounty and the Story of Pitcairn Island (Pacific Press Publishing Association,  1894).

A pleasant break in the busy weeks was the visit of Admiral Sir John Kingcome in his flagship, The Sutlej, on the 29th of March, 1864. The day was perfect, with scarce a ripple on the sea, and the sky was wearing its loveliest blue. The sight of the large boats crowded with men going and returning between the shore and the ship, was greatly enjoyed by the islanders. A large crowd both of officers and men landed, and all seemed to enjoy their visit much, and they gladly availed themselves of the privilege of taking free whatever the island produced. The young gentlemen manifested a great deal of interest in the preparation of a dinner gotten up for them in the island style, especially that part of it which consisted of the dressing of a pig and cooking it in the primitive underground oven, a favorite mode of cooking meat among the people.

In the afternoon, as the people had been kindly invited to visit the ship, nearly all went on board, and had a delightful time visiting the different parts of the large vessel, and listening with thrilling pleasure to the band as it discoursed sweetest music. The visit of the Sutlej was opportune as regarded one young man, at least. He had a wound in the right knee which threatened to prove fatal, but the surgeon of the ship, having examined it, probed the wound and applied the proper remedies. The cure that followed was rapid and complete. In the long interval that followed the admiral’s coming, when the islanders seemed to have been shut completely out from the rest of the world, the pleasure that his visit gave still remained as a bright spot in the round of their monotonous lives.

A stamp, showing an image of The Sutlej, was issued by the New Zealand government in 2009 to celebrate this visit

He died in 1871. His obituary suggests he was an active and able man even late in life.

On the 7th August, at No. 6, Windsor Villas, Plymouth (England), Admiral Sir John Kingcombe, K.C.B., aged 77. He entered the navy in 1802 as second class volunteer on board the ‘ Emerald,’ and was present at the destruction of the French Fleet in Aix Roads in 1809. He became commander in 1828, captain in 1835, and rear-admiral in 1857. In November, 1861, he was appointed to the command of the Pacific station. This appointment he held for only two years, having been superseded in consequence of his promotion to the rank of vice-admiral. In 1865 he was made K.C.B., and retired from the service on full pay, and with a Greenwich Hospital pension in 1866, and became a full admiral on 10th September, 1869. Sir J. Kingcombe, notwithstanding his advanced age, was, until within the past two years, in the habit of bathing regularly, summer and winter, at the Plymouth Hoe, and his capabilities us a swimmer have more than once been instrumental in saving life, he having jumped overboard four times to rescue his shipmates.

Plymouth Times 12th August 1871

He is buried in Ford Park Cemetary in Plymouth.

In 1991 a ‘fine and unusual’ set of his medals and insignia were sold by auction at Christie’s including his KCB, Naval General Service, Army of India, China and Baltic, along with 11 parchment scripts and documents relating to appointments.

Kingcombe descendants

Kingcombe had three children, Louisa, Ellen Clara and Frederick Maitland.

Frederick Maitland, died at sea in 1847, he was 15 and a midshipman on board his father’s ship The Bellisle.

His daughter Louisa Teresa was born in 1835, Newton Ferrers, Devon. In 1857 she married George Bell Williams born 1806 in Falmouth, Cornwall. He was a naval captain with a substantial service record. She died in Exeter in 1864; her husband died in Plymouth, at John Kingcombe’s house 5 Windsor Villas, in 1871. They had three surviving children Eva Amy b.1861, Charles W. b.1862 and Florence L. b.1863. Eva Amy Williams married Swinton Colthurst Holland in 1881 who, like her grandfather, was to become an Admiral.

Ellen Clara b. 1838, m. Ellis Frederick Thorold, b. 1831 s. Rev. Henry Baugh Thorold and Julia Ellis dau. John Thomas Ellis M.P. He graduated from Oxford in 1851, M.A. in 1854 and MD 1862 Edinburgh d. 1887. In 1888 she married Edward Serle Thorold b. 1814. He had been widowed a year previously. (Neither of Ellen’s marriages appears to have issue) She must to have taken care of her sister’s children after her death, in the 1881 census they are all living at 5 Windsor Villas. In 1891 Florence and Charles are living with Ellen and her second husband at Victoria Park in Exeter. Charles is described as ‘living on his own means.’

The Titanic Connection

Mary Dunbar Kingcombe was the granddaughter of John’s brother Richard.  She was born in Bristol in 1856, the daughter of John Kingcombe, a silk mercer and Rosa Lloyd Villiers (originally Levy).  Rose Lloyd Villiers was a member of a family with theatrical connections.  She married Francis Rufford Hewlett in 1875 in Bristol.  Francis was also a silk mercer and draper, trading under the name of John Kingcombe and son in 1869 when the company went bankrupt.  Mary was widowed in 1899.

She had a number of children, including two sons Francis and Philip, who was kived India for a period of time.  In 1912 she was returning from a visit to her son Philip in Lucknow and boarded The Titanic at Southampton to visit her other son, Francis, who was living in Rapid City, South Dakota.  While in England she had visited her married daughter Rosa Mary Villiers, married to her cousin Edwin Adam Villiers.

She was a second class passenger on The Titanic, travelling ticket number 248706 which had cost £16.00.  She survived on Lifeboat 13, the last but one to leave the doomed liner and was rescued by The Carpathia.

In an interview in the Evanston Daily News, April 25, 1912 she described the rescue

The boat was lowered and we were alone on the calm sea. It seemed much longer than it really was before we saw The Carpathia and were picked up by that boat. The treatment we were given on The Carpathia could not have been better, everything possible being done for us.

She was reunited with her son in New York.

She returned to India and died in Naini Tal, India of Septicaemia on 9 May 1917 and was buried in Kaladhungi Road Cemetery at the foot of the Himalayas.


4 Responses to Admiral Sir John Kingcombe

  1. Nick Turner says:

    Dear jenjen

    What an excellent job you’ve done. And I have to agree with David Billett about the confusion when trying to pin down Sir John’s family. My father Sir Alexander Turner carried the name Kingcome but it wasn’t passed on to me. His great grandmother Jane, we understand, was a sister of Sir John. She is the writer of the letter to her father-in-law Samuel Crocker quoted in your biographical summary, which refers to Captain Kingcome. She married John Crocker and they migrated with their three daughters from Plymouth to New Plymouth in New Zealand on the William Bryan, the first ship to that particular settlement, in 1840. We’ve had difficulty establishing for certain that Jane was Sir John’s sister, though we have no reason to doubt it. She was born in 1802-1804, and two of her daughters carried the middle name Kingcome. There were also a number of other early settlers in New Plymouth who came from other families in Revelstoke and carried the middle name Kingcome.

    Interestingly for us descendants here in NZ, although Sir John’s final posting as commander-in-chief of the Pacific Squadron did not bring him to NZ, I’ve discovered that he did in fact visit this country briefly on a special mission much earlier in his career as commander of the sloop Larne in 1826, which placed him among the very early European visitors to this country.

    Nick Turner
    Wellington, New Zealand

    • Colin Campbell says:

      Nick you are right Jane was Sir Johns sister more interesting was that Janes husband John Cocker mother was Thomasin Kingcombe Sister of Henry Kingcombe (Sir Henrys Father)

      Taranaki Herald, Volume XIV, Issue 680, 12 August 1865, Page 2
      We regret that we have to record the death of Mrs. Crocker of this Town, who died on Sunday last in the 62nd year of her age, after a lingering illness from dropsy. Mrs. Crocker came out to this Province in 1841 and during her long residence in New Plymouth was universally known for her charitable and kind hearted disposition. She was always a good friend to the sick and destitute and many will miss her helping hand and kind face at the bedside. She was the sister of Admiral Kingcome. Her remains were followed to the grave by a large number of all classes of the community.

  2. David Billett says:

    Dear Jennifer and Nick

    The web is wonderful for putting people in touch!

    A note I can add here is that when John Kincome visitied New Zealand in February 1826 this was his second visit. He was also in NZ on HMS Tees (Captain Coe), I think JK was the 1st Lieutenant, in April/May 1824, when the Tees was sent to try and rescue the crew of Elizabeth Henrietta which had been driven onshore at Ruapuke Island, Foveaux Strait.

    With best wishes


  3. William Jojn Kingcombr Ellis says:

    My husband is William John Kingcombe Ellis. Our son Timothy John Kingcombe Ellis. We are in Paignton Devon and regularly visit the ruined church at Revelstoke to see the Admiral’s wall plaque and numerous Kingcombe and Ellis graves outside. There are 2 other younger male Ellis descendants, Anthony Ellis ,a half brother and Guy son of Nigel Ellis in Australia -so far no other males in the pipe line. Grandfather Ellis was a prisoner of the Turks at the Dardanelles where his ship was sunk -as a Chief Artificer and was repatriated after years ,. We have just cruised past the very spot on Minerva.
    The article is wonderful and only discovered today so we can’t wait to pass it on to the family. The Admiral’s voyages are amazing and we have sailed to many of his ports having lived 25 years in Hong Kong and cruised around the globe since 1961.

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