Porthill House

Porthill House is the large white Georgian building that sits high on your left as you travel from Bideford to Northam. It’s views south reach well into Dartmoor beyond Tavistock. From approximately 1835 Porthill House was the home of Admiral William Abraham Keats until his death aged seventy-nine on the 2nd of May, 1874. William Abraham Keats was the nephew of Admiral Sir Richard Goodwin Keats, G.C.B who was regarded by Nelson as the finest seaman in the Royal Navy. William’s appearance is unknown but visitors to Hartland Abbey can see the portrait of five admirals including his famous uncle. William, aged ten, entered the Royal Navy on the 30th September 1805 as a First Class Volunteer aboard his uncle’s ship SUPERB 74 flying the flag of Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth.

William’s first action at sea was off San Domingo on the 6th of February, 1806. Thereafter he was involved in the expedition to Copenhagen in 1807 and the embarkation of Spanish troops under the command of the Marquis de la Romana from Nyeborg. Nyeborg became known as Funen or Fuhnen but is now referred to by its Danish name Fyn. Fyn is the second largest of the Danish islands. Until July, 1813 William served as a Midshipman aboard the PUISSANT 74, the MILFORD 74, HIBERNIA 120 and CALEDONIA 120 on the Home, Cadiz and Mediterranean stations. Whilst aboard Hibernia she flew the flag of Rear-Admiral Jeats and on the Caledonia that of Sir Edward Pellew latterly Lord Exeter In August 1813 William became Acting-Lieutenant of the sloop PARTRIDGE, originally of sixteen guns increased to twenty-six. William served under the command of Captain John Miller Adye until October, 1814. From the 23rd March, 1815 William was Flag-Lieutenant to his uncle Sir Richard Goodwin Keats on the Newfoundland station in the Fourth-rate two deck SALISBURY 50.

He was also employed aboard the ALBION 74 flag-ship of Sir Charles Rowley at Sheerness. On the 17th of April, 1816 William was promoted Commander. William’s first command was of the ten gun CHEROKEE on the Leith and Cork stations. Cherokee of ninety tons was twenty feet shorter than the Kathleen and May and drew four feet less water. Crewed by seventy-five men she was one of the largest class of sailing battle ships ever built. Promotion to Captain came on the 27th of March, 1826. Cherokee was William’s one and only command she was paid off and sold in 1828.

On April 10th, 1833 William married Catherine-Jane Pitman, eldest daughter of James Pitman of Dunchideock House, Devon. Unfortunately a few weeks after their marriage Catherine-Jane was drowned when the boat in which she was travelling overturned. On the 6th of July, 1835 William married Augusta Maria the daughter of Giles King Lyford of Winchester. It was probably about this time the happy couple took up residence at Porthill House. They had one child William Rockfort Keats who died of tuberculosis on the 1st of September, 1872 aged thirty-five. Augusta Maria died of apoplexy whilst visiting friends at Princes Risborough on the 30th July, 1867 aged fifty-one. Sometime before 1844 William amused himself by having a raised bank constructed at Port Hill House so that he might semaphore to a friend living at Cross House, Little Torrington. Although the distance is approximately nine miles the distance is not unusual, most signal stations were ten miles apart, watch was kept between them by telescope. These telescopes or ‘glasses’ were of the ‘ten mile’ variety made and sold by Dollonds for two shilling and sixpence. Simple test messages could be sent from the Admiralty in London to Plymouth in three minutes.

However, there is a mystery that perhaps one of our readers can solve. A Thomas Stephens entered the Royal Navy College Portsmouth on the 4th of September, 1823. At that time Cross House was owned by a Mrs. Stephens. Latterly a Lieutenant, Thomas Stephens served aboard AURORA, FORTE, LORD WELLINGTON, VICTORY, FAVORITE, PLUTO, BRISK, MELVILLE and CHAMPION. He came ashore in 1838 and was never employed again but that was not unusual. However, according to Naval Records, Lieutenant Thomas Stephens died in Barnstaple on the 27th of December, 1844. His death is a mystery, Barnstaple’s Registrar has no record of it nor is there an account or reference to it in the local newspapers? Can any reader give an explanation?