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The Katenkamps: trials & tribulations of a Devon merchant family

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

While researching Doccombe we found a poignant family memoir of Herman Katenkamp who leased the manor from Canterbury Cathedral from 1755 until 1766. Written by his daughter, Ann, it is a snapshot of 18th century life: children’s education, social judgements, parental expectations, temptations, and the unexpected arrival of death.

Herman Katenkamp was born in 1716 in the German port of Bremen. His father was a Calvinist Minister and after his mother’s family in Brunswick had died of the plague their house was ransacked and stripped by looters. His father’s deathbed request to Herman at the age of only 7 was to improve his education so that he could support his mother and his two younger brothers, which he strived to do for the remainder of his life. To lessen his mother’s burden, he was taken away by a distant wealthy relative to a remote part of Germany where he was always treated as a poor relation and made to feel very unhappy. He used to meet the stagecoach from Bremen to hear news of his family and one day he told the driver how badly he was being treated by his new family, only for the driver to inform his guardian who was so angered by his ingratitude that he sent him straight back to Bremen on the same coach!

Aged only 10, on this long journey he met with a friendly stranger who turned out to be another distant relative and, indignant by the way Herman had been treated, took him in. Herman endeavoured to educate and improve himself so that he could take care of his family in Bremen but was again sent back to his family as he outshone the sons of the relation caring for him. In 1730, still feeling a burden to his mother, he reluctantly agreed to work for an old family friend in his Counting House in Exeter, making copies of letters in German.

Herman & Ann Katenkamp

This friend was John Baring who had himself left Bremen in 1717 to seek his fortune in England. He had become an extremely successful woollen merchant in Exeter and was part of its Non-Conformist community. He had married the daughter of a wealthy Exeter grocer and his children continued to expand the business, enabling the establishment of the famous Baring bank. At first Herman found it difficult learning a new language and different ways but he gradually worked his way up from menial tasks until he became the principal clerk at Baring’s Counting House for several years, learning many skills along the way. He sent much of his salary back to his mother in Bremen. At the Barings he met Ann Moor, daughter of an Exeter woollen merchant, Philip Moor, who was to be the Lessee of Doccombe Manor (1751-1755).

To marry her, her family insisted he had to set himself up in business and leave Barings. The Barings were very reluctant to let him go but in 1744 at the age of 28, borrowing from merchants, locally and abroad, he set up his own merchant business which became eventually successful enough for him to be able to marry Ann in 1747 at Holy Trinity Church, Exeter.

Taking advantage of Ann’s fortune, Herman became one of the leading Exeter merchants. He was one of the most generous donors to the building of the St George’s Meeting House in South St (now a Wetherspoon pub) in 1760. The merchants of Exeter at this time were mostly Dissenters who met in a number of Dissenting Meeting houses around South St that included: the Katenkamps, the Baring family, the Bowring family (strong Moretonhampstead connections), the Kennaways (of Escot House), the Milford family (City Bank founders) and many others. Many of them are buried in the Dissenters Graveyard in Magdalen St.

Herman Katenkamp leased Doccombe Manor from 1755 on the death of his father-in-law, Philip Moor, until he himself died in 1766. He appears never to have showed much interest in it or had any impact on it. But his life and his children’s lives are fascinating to read about. And one of his descendants through this daughter Ann became a well-known film star.

Herman built a spacious house near South St for his family and they had seven children in quick succession. His wife, Ann, often suffered ill heath so the children were often cared for by the servants who had to keep them quiet until their father returned from his counting house. Herman seems to have been a kind and indulgent father. When the children were kept to their beds following their smallpox inoculations, they were so bored that he brought up their pet Shetland pony from the stables to their rooms to cheer them up! He wanted his four sons to be successful, sending them abroad at an early age to learn about business from other merchants and counting houses but they all caused their father disappointment and unhappiness by their misconduct and expensive indulgences.

His wife, Ann, died in Exeter in 1766 after her long struggle from ill health and he died, aged just 50, only 3 days later in Bath where he had gone to revive his spirits and health. They left seven distressed orphans to be cared for by their strict Calvinist grandmother, Ann Moor, who was cold and formal, expecting complete subservience and allowed no gaiety or fun in the house. She was a successful businesswoman, but her grandchildren thought her poorly educated and limited compared to their education. Herman had left many business debts and the family had to cut back their expenses, including owning a carriage. In his will he left his sons £3,000 each and his daughters £1,600 each.

Ann Merivale (née Katenkamp)

We hear the next part of the story from the memoirs of Herman’s second daughter#, Ann, who was 12 at the time of her parents’ deaths. The financial situation for them was so extreme that she had been told she would have to be educated enough to be financially independent as an adult. Ann, known as Nancy, was a studious and deeply religious women and seems to have been very different from most of her siblings as she had spent a lot of her childhood with her great grandmother, a gentle but religious lady. At the age of 17, she fell in love with John Merivale, the son of Samuel Merivale, a well-known Dissenting Minister in Exeter, marrying him in 1773 and living in London while he finished his theological training. They returned to Exeter living in a small house called Mount Pleasant, near Matford Lane, off Topsham Rd. Poor Ann and John had much unhappiness to come. They lost four of their seven children to the newly named medical condition of croup and her husband John started to suffer severe lengthy bouts of depression and lethargy which lasted on and off for the rest of his life. Fortunately, they had financial independence enabled from family inheritances. They moved from Topsham Rd to live in a house in Cathedral Close, or Churchyard as it was known then, next to the Devon and Exeter Institution. This house had a stone archway and ‘a very curious old hall with a vaulted timber roof’. Today this roof is described as one of the most outstanding structures in the country. It is the fifteenth century hammer roof of the Law Library and is almost a miniature of the hammer roof of the Westminster Hall in London. It was built about 1425. Each hammer beam was carved from one piece of wood.

# 'Family Memorials' compiled by Anna W Merivale (privately published Exeter 1884)

8-9 Cathedral Close, Exeter & its hammer beam roof

In 1797 John and Ann were able to build Barton Place near Cowley Bridge as John had been left a considerable estate in North Devon from a relative which he sold to build this house in the country. It is still there today, once belonging to the University and now a Nursing Home. Ann seems to have had the sort of life that would have been expected from her upbringing. However, all her siblings, except her sister Wilhelmina, had very different lives and not ones their parents would have expected of them.

John, Herman’s eldest son, though intellectually capable was lazy and timid and preferred mixing with the wrong crowd. As a young man he started drinking and gambling several times a week. By 1777 John had already given up any business interests and was so ill in London from his ‘habitual excesses’ that he could not travel. Eventually in stages he was brought home to Exeter in a melancholy and weak state to Ann and John Merivale’s house in Topsham Rd where he gradually recovered. However, as soon as he had the strength to walk from their house into town, he disappeared having ordered a post chaise for Exmouth where he continued with his addictions without restraint until he died a few months later.

Herman’s second son, Herman, was restless and also refused to take up with business as his father had planned. Initially, he also wasted the fortune his father had left to him, but he went on to become British Consul at Sicily, then the Consul General for the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Southern Italy) and later Spain while leading a much more sober life. In 1787 he died living in the grand Lansdowne Crescent, in Bath after accruing a considerable fortune during his Consulship in Spain and Sicily. He had lived with and eventually married a beautiful woman of ‘low extraction’ who the family could not ‘cordially esteem’. Nevertheless, she arranged a lavishly worded monument dedicated to him on the walls of Bath Cathedral.

Herman’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, caused great distress to her family also when in 1776 she married an illiterate, extravagant and thoughtless ‘strolling player’. Soon her fortune was not enough for his extravagant ways and she died childless ten years later in 1787, it seems never having seen her family again.

Philip, Herman’s third son, also hated and rejected the merchant life, having been sent to Italy for 3 years as a young boy to learn it. He wished to have a sea faring life as a sailor but died during his first voyage during an epidemic caused by starvation of the local community at Bencoolen in Sumatra when he could have been no more than 16.

Herman’s youngest son, George, was also sent to Italy to learn business there but disliked this life as much as his brothers, returned to England and joined the Army. His service took him to many countries where he led a dissipated life and lost contact with his family for several years. In 1781 when only 26 and a 1st Lieutenant, he was asked to raise the independent Ist Company of Foot, at his own expense which he willingly did. He was obliged to buy uniform, equipment, and train the men to his personal great expense. He was ordered to go to Africa jointly with another independent company, 2nd Company of Foot, but on reaching Portsmouth they were ordered to replace 60 men from each of their companies with 60 convicts from convict hulks on the Thames. Neither George nor the convicts were happy with this order and the convicts petitioned to have the order changed, even preferring a sentence of death - but to no avail. The convicts then tried unsuccessfully to scuttle the ship and several of them were hung as an example from the yardarm. After reaching the coast of West Africa, two thirds of the men had died by the third week there, including George.

Herman’s youngest daughter, Wilhelmina, enjoyed a happier fate. She married the Reverend John Hole of Sowton, who had livings at Inwardleigh and Farringdon but lived at Exmouth. His father, Archdeacon Hole of Barnstaple, left them a fortune at his death.

Ann and John had only one surviving son, John Herman Merivale, who became a famous London barrister. One of his great great grandsons was Philip Merivale, an actor and film star who married the film star Viva Birkett, coincidentally the daughter of an Exeter cloth merchant. Their son, John Herman Merivale, known as Jack, also became an actor and film star. He lived with Vivian Leigh (famous for her role in Gone With the Wind) after her divorce from Laurence Olivier and cared for her through her long mental illness until she died in 1967. He subsequently married another famous actress, Dinah Sheridan, and died in 1990.

Jack Herman Merivale & Vivien Leigh


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