Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen has always felt a close connection to the sea and is keen to discover how far back his seafaring roots go. He begins by looking at the life of his maternal grandfather, sea captain Ronald Wilks, who signed up for the Merchant Navy at the tender age of 17.
He is surprised to discover that Ronald’s ship was sunk by an early German U-boat during the First World War. A report investigating the sinking reveals the perilous route his ship, Kohistan, took through the Mediterranean in November 1917. The passage was so dangerous that Merchant ships travelled in convoys guarded by the Royal Navy.
At the Imperial War Museum Laurence finds a personal account written by the commander of Ronald’s Royal Navy escort. Shockingly, it reveals that one of the ships protecting his grandfather’s convoy was captained by a drunk. “This is someone who was there really spilling the beans,” says Laurence.
To find out whether the sinking could have been avoided, Laurence travels to Germany’s federal military archive. The war diary for the submarine that sank Kohistan reveals the dramatic details of the devastating attack. Incredibly, the crew survived, but Laurence is left in no doubt that the “convoy was absolutely no match for this extraordinary predator. [It] must have been a really, really scary experience.” Ronald survived another world war, totting up 43 years at sea before retiring to Newport with his wife, Phyllis.
A Trickey character
Turning to his landlubbing Edwards line, Laurence then explores the claims of Phyllis’s great aunt, Kitty Edwards, an impoverished seamstress. She believed that her great grandfather was a rich Somerset landowner, or ‘squire’, named George Yeo, and that he had wrongly disinherited her family in favour of a mysterious ‘Mr Frickey’.
Manorial records reveal Kitty was right on the first count – in 1812 ‘grandfather Yeo’ owned huge swathes of land in Somerset. A grand tombstone at the family’s parish church takes Laurence’s tree back another generation and proves that the Yeos were not only rich, but influential. Shiplett Court, the ancestral home, offers another lead and a spelling correction – the alleged villain of the family was one Robert Trickey, builder and landowner, and Kitty’s uncle by marriage.
A will from 1873 solves the mystery once and for all. The family fortune was distributed equally among the children and Trickey bought Shiplett Court at auction. “So they’re not being sidelined at all,” says Laurence. “Let’s give [Kitty] the benefit of the doubt and say that she got the wrong end of the stick and was waving it around rather vigorously.”
Satisfied that all was ship-shape for the Edwards clan, Laurence then turns to the life of another seafaring ancestor, his 2x great grandfather Roger Twist. Documents reveal that he was just 11 years old when he first set sail, and by 1866 he had risen to the rank of sea captain. However, Laurence is shocked to discover that his ancestor falsified his naval records to cover up a desertion. It seems Roger gave way to temptation when he landed in Australia at the height of the great gold rush.
Failing to find the riches he had hoped for, it seems Roger swiftly returned to the sea and his career as a master mariner continued to flourish. This decision, says Laurence, has left him with a powerful emotional legacy. “When I’m by the sea I find it a very familiar but really quite romantic experience,” he says. “I’ve got salt in my DNA.”