KEMPTHORNE, THOMAS, captain in the Royal Navy; commodore of the Newfoundland convoy and temporary governor, 1715; b. c. 1677; d. 1736.
Thomas Kempthorne is believed to have been a member of the family of Vice-Admiral Sir John Kempthorne of Widecombe, Devonshire. In 1704, in command of the Roebuck, he served in the Mediterranean under Vice-Admiral Sir John Leake. in 1705 he was tried by court martial for an unsuccessful engagement with a much superior French squadron, and was honourably acquitted.
In 1715, in command of the Worcester, he was appointed commodore of the Newfoundland convoy. The Board of Trade and Plantations was concerned about the state of the fishery (after the war and several bad fishing seasons) and recognized the need for regulations, supplementing the Newfoundland Act of 1699, to control the lawlessness in Newfoundland. Kempthorne was, therefore, instructed to take with him a copy of the act and to report on its operation. The Worcester sailed from Plymouth 25 May and anchored in Bay Bulls on 8 July. Four days later the conscientious Kempthorne summoned the first of his “Courts for regulating the Fisheries.” His subsequent report to the Board presents a vivid picture of contemporary affairs. He described in some detail the methods of fishing, curing, and salting the catch. He found the inhabitants relied for their livelihood almost entirely on fishing, making little use of the country-side for sustenance. Provisions were obtained mostly from New England and Ireland. Kempthorne severely criticized the fishing admirals, who were theoretically responsible for settling disputes. Besides quarrelling amongst themselves, the fishing admirals used their authority to further their own interests. Some became so powerful that they were called “kings” by the Newfoundlanders. They dealt unjustly with their servants, and flouted the Newfoundland Act with impunity, only making a pretence of compliance when a “man of warr” was present. As Kempthorne remarked, “the winter season is a sort of respite from all observance of law or government.” He made strong recommendations that some permanent authority be appointed to administer justice during the winter months, for, he claimed, if a consistent policy were established at St John’s, “the metropolis of this Island,” this would influence the standard of conduct throughout the country.
One of the worst evils of the time was that traders allowed the inhabitants credit for provisions and drink during the winter months; debts were collected, often forcibly, at the end of the fishing season, and further credit then granted, so that men were constantly in debt. This led many to seek asylum in New England. The traffic in indentured servants was on the increase, and there was a constant drain of English seamen and “green men” enticed away by New England shipmasters [see Arnold]. To stop this practice Kempthorne suggested the taking of bonds from masters of New England ships. He also suggested that the New England custom of granting the hired hands a share of the catch should be instituted, as an incentive. Kempthorne, in the Worcester, sailed from St John’s 15 Oct. 1715, having previously ordered the Gibraltar, Capt. Edward Falkingham*, to chase away two Spanish ships illegally fishing on the Banks.
In March 1715/16 after considering reports from Kempthorne and from persons concerned about the trade, such as Archibald Cumings and James Campbell [see Colin Campbell), the Board of Trade and Plantations recommended further legislation to enforce the decisions of the commodores, to provide magistrates during the winter, and to regulate trade. However nothing was done until 1728.
In 1717 Kempthorne was appointed to the command of the Royal Oak, taking part, under Admiral Sir George Byng, in the victory over the Spanish fleet off Cape Passero, August 1718. In 1722 he was appointed commissioner of the dockyard, Chatham. He died at Chatham 23 July 1736.