John Fea: The Lock Keeper
Uncertainties and Inaccuracies

Uncertainties Relating to his Birth Date

The lack of a verifiable date and place of birth is one of several factors that have hindered the precise identification of John the lock keeper's Orkney roots.

From the Falkirk, Stirlingshire death register we know that John died in 1862 at the supposed age of 95. That places his year of birth about 1767 and that age is repeated in the 1862 Falkirk Herald obituary. The register also states that his father is "John Fea, Seaman Royal Navy." Uncertainties relating to his date of birth add to the uncertainty with regard to his parents

The death register correctly lists John's second wife as Catherine Thomson, that information having been provided by their son Simon Fea, however, it then states that the surname of John the lock keeper's mother is Sutherland, not Alexander. Both the 1841 and 1851 Scottish census documents and the Falkirk death register report that John the look keeper was born at Crosskirk on the island of Sanday in Orkney and not in Leith. Each census record also provides different years of birth for John, as much as twenty years younger than that shown on the death registry, which would move it forward to the late 1780's but no earlier than 1791. However, such dates would make him too young to have served on the Indefatigable, where the muster list for John's entry on 20th January 1804 has his age as 27 years, which would place his birth year as approximately 1777.

Marriage Date

Research has shown that John Fea married for the first time in 1802 which, if the census ages are correct, would have him wed at the age of 12. While possible since the first documented child from that union was apparently not born until 1806, or four years later when John would have been 16, this does question the accuracy of all the ages listed for John. A minimum age in the range of the early to mid-twenties would seem more plausible for his first marriage. And one further consideration, the obituary states that John ran away from home when he was eight. If this is the case, it is possible that neither John nor his descendants knew with any certainty his proper age for most or all of his life.

John may have had other reasons, also, to have listed himself as younger such as a condition of obtaining or keeping employment.

Naval Service

Parish records state that John Fea and Elizabeth (Betty) Brown were "irregularly" married on August 25, 1802 in Falkirk, Stirlingshire. Additional entries document three of the children born to that marriage. Superficially the timing of both the marriage and the birth dates of the children appear to coincide with lulls in British naval conflicts of the time. Skirmishes of the Napoleonic Wars were waged from approximately 1793 until a temporary hiatus was reached about 1802, the same year as John and Elizabeth's marriage. It is unknown exactly when John served his shipboard apprenticeship (as mentioned in the Falkirk Herald and which may have been comprised of individual voyages of durations exceeding five years) but it would seem likely that it occurred prior to 1802. The obituary notes that he was 'pressed' back into naval service later. Examination of the muster log of the Indefatigible does not make it clear whether or not he was pressed on that ship. He first appears in the period from 1st July to 31st August 1804 and remains with the same identifying number (No 315) until 1807.

Trafalgar Hero

Unfortunately, the Trafalgar Hero tag in the obituary would appear to be incorrect as John Fea was onboard the the Indefatigable but the Indefatigable was not at the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place on 21st October 1805.

The Taking of Three Spanish Frigates

The three "Spanish Galleons" which are referred to in the obituary were in fact three Spanish frigates and the Indefatigable's, muster book and pay records do record that John Fea was on board when that incident took place on 5th October 1804. The obituary states that due to desertion, John Fea lost all rights to the prize money. He certainly seems to have been on board for some considerable time.

A report in the Naval Chronicle of what may have been the Indefatigable's first landing after in England after the incident does make reference to someone coming ashore in a hurry but this is likely to be entirely unrelated

January 4, 1805. "This morning came in, having thrown her guns overboard in a gale of Wind, the Rattler, Captain Francis Mason, 18 guns; also from off the Coast of Spain, under a press of sale, the Indefatigable, 44 guns, Captain G Munro; she came into the Sound, and lay-to for two hours, till the return of the boat from shore, which landed a gentleman from her at the Pier. He set off express in a post chaise from the Prince George Tavern, Foxhall Quay, at 11am. The gentleman was not at all communicative, but expressed great anxiety to set off on his journey; as soon the boat which had brought him ashore from the Indefatigable returned to the Ship, she made sale again directly went down into the Sound; the Amphion, 44 guns, Capt Sutton."

Naval Chronicle Vol 13, 1805 - p 80

It seems likely that the reason that no prize money was received from the taking of the three Spanish frigates was due to the technicality of not actually being at war at the time of the seizure.

Escaping at the First Available Opportunity

It has not been confirmed that John Fea was press ganged aboard the Indefatigable. Likewise, it has not been confirmed whether he escaped at the first available opportunity, as suggested in the obituary. This, of course, assumes that it was the Indefatigable that he was press ganged aboard. He was in fact three years on the Indefatigable from 1804 to 1807. This does raise questions about whether he had home leave during this period. It is noted that, John Charles Timmons Fea was born on 24th November 1806.

Penisular War

The obituary almost seems to suggest that the Battle of Trafalgar was part of the Peninsular War and there is some confusion regarding the timing of the press ganging and whether this was how he came aboard the Indefatigable or whether this was later at the time of the Peninsular War. The war was caused by the ambitions of Napoleon who proposed the partition of Portugal in 1807 and placed his brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain. Britain joined the war in 1808, which continued until 1814. This does coincide with the gap between the birth of John's son, James Traill Fea on 5th December 1808, and Thomas Brown Fea on 18th June 1815 although the gap could have been when the couple of other children to John and Catherine Thomson were born.

Captain Graham Moore

Captain Moore was indeed the master of the Indefatigable when the three Spanish frigates were taken on 5th October 1804 and his brother, Sir John Moore was indeed the hero of the Battle of Corunna, which took place during the Peninsular War, in 1809. None of this suggests that John Fea was in the Peninsular War or at Corunna. Reference to press ganging for naval service in the Peninsular War actually comes before the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) in the obituary which merely gives some indication of the reliability of the newspaper report of the time. It may also be the case that John Fea was a very old man and that reminiscences may have been embroidered upon with the passage of time and no one else was probably around to ensure that the facts were correct.