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Napoleonic War Prisoners in England

November 27, 2012

This is another example of how a find of artefacts can lead to more understanding of local history. The items that were found were three Russian Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox crosses and they were found in the Parish of Worfield and Rudge on the eastern edge of Shropshire. They were all found in the same field which begs the question what on earth were they doing there.

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When the local PAS (Portable Antiquities Scheme) Officer saw the crosses he wondered if there might be a connection with the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently English troops returning from the Wars would bring such objects back as souvenirs, taken presumably from dead soldiers. But there was another possibility, that French prisoners of war had dropped them as they were working on farms. Such prisoners were held in Bridgnorth, a town on the Severn adjacent to Worfield parish. I must say this was something I had never heard of before so I did a little research. I talked to people who lived in the area and they said that the prisoners dug ditches on farmland and even helped to construct the lake at nearby Walcot Hall. I spoke to a local historian, Gwynne Chadwick, about the prisoners and he confirmed that they were indeed in Bridgnorth and that they might have been housed at Fort Pendlestone in 1812-1813. There may also have been barracks opposite the what is now the Bandon Arms.

The prisoners of war were in Bridgnorth certainly, and in greater numbers than they should have been. The maximum number of these Prisoners on Parole should have been 400. In fact there seemed to have been far more than this.

 I found this account of a prisoner’s experience in a book called, ‘Prisoners of War in  Britain 1756-1815’ by Francis Abell (Oxford University Press 1914)

The Marquis d’Hautpol was taken prisoner at Arapiles, badly wounded, in July 1812, and with some four hundred other prisoners was landed at Portsmouth on December 12, and
thence sent on parole to ‘ Brigsnorth, petite ville de la Principaute de Galles clearly meant for Bridgnorth in Shropshire. Here, he says, were from eight to nine hundred other prisoners, some of whom had been there eight or nine years, but certainly he must have been mistaken, for at no parole place were ever more than four hundred prisoners. The usual rules obtained here, and the allowance was the equivalent of one franc fifty centimes a day.
Wishing to employ his time profitably he engaged a fellow- prisoner to teach him English, to whom he promised a salary as soon as he should receive his remittances. A letter from his
 brother-in-law told him that his sisters, believing him dead, as they had received no news from him, had gone into mourning, and enclosed a draft for 4,000 francs, which came through the bankers Perregaux of Paris and ‘ Coutz ‘ of London. He complains bitterly of the sharp practices of the local Agent, who paid him his 4,000 francs, but in paper money, which was at the time at a discount of twenty-five per cent, and who, upon his claiming the difference,  ‘ me repondit fort insolemment que le papier anglais valait autant que Tor frangais, et que si je me permettais d’attaquer encore le credit de la banque, il me ferait conduire aux pontons ‘. So he had to accept the situation.
The Marquis, as we shall see, was not the man to invent such an accusation, so it may be believed that the complaints so often made about the unfair practice of the British Government, in the matter of moneys due to prisoners, were not without foundation. The threat of the Agent to send the Marquis to the hulks (ie the prison ships) if he persisted in claiming his dues, may have been but a threat, but it sounds as if these gentlemen were invested with very great powers. The Marquis and a fellow prisoner, Deche vrieres, adjutant of the 59th, messed together, modestly, but  better than the other poorer men, who clubbed together and bought an ox head, with which they made soup and ate with potatoes.
A cousin of the Marquis, the Comtesse de Beon, knew a Miss Vernon, one of the Queen’s ladies of honour, and she introduced the Marquis to Lord ‘ Malville ‘, whose seat was near Bridgnorth, and who invited him to the house. I give d’Hautpol’s impression in his own words :
* Ce lord etait poli, mais, comme tous les Anglais, ennemi  mortel de la France. J’etais humilie de ses prevenances qui sentaient la protection. Je revins cependant une seconde fois chez lui ; il y avait ce jour-la nombreuse compagnie ; plusieurs officiers anglais s’y trouvaient. Sans regards pour ma position et avec une certaine affectation, ils se mirent a deblaterer en frangais contre 1’Empereur et 1’armee. Je me levai de table indigne, et demandai a Lord Malville la permission de me retirer ; il s’efforce de me retenir en blamant ses compatriotes, mais je persistai. Je n’acceptai plus d’invitations chez lui.’
(I will translate the gist of this.On the surface there is courtesy but the distance between the two men because of their nationality is so great that d’Hautpol can bear it no longer and begs to leave. ‘I will not accept any more invitations from this man.’)
All good news from the seat of war, says the Marquis, was carefully hidden from the prisoners, so that they heard nothing about Lutzen, Bautzen, and Dresden. But the news of Leipsic was loudly proclaimed. The prisoners could not go out of doors without being insulted. One day the people dressed up a figure to represent Bonaparte, put it on a donkey, and paraded the town with it. Under the windows of the lodging of General Veiland,  who had been taken at Badajos, of which place he was governor, they rigged up a gibbet, hung the figure on it, and afterwards burned it.

At one time a general uprising of the prisoners of war in England was seriously discussed. There were in Britain 5,000 officers on parole, and 60,000 men on the hulks and in prisons.
The idea was to disarm the guards all at once, to join forces at  a given point, to march on Plymouth, liberate the men on the hulks, and thence go to Portsmouth and do the same there. But the authorities became suspicious, the generals were separated from the other officers, and many were sent to distant cantonments. The Marquis says that there were 1,500 at Bridgnorth, and that half of these were sent to Oswestry. This was in November, 1813.

There may be inaccuracies in the Marquis’s account but could he really have mistakenly counted 1,500 prisoners instead of the 400 there should have been? One doubts it,  perhaps this is why barracks were needed and Fort Pendlestone, too. The prisoners were of so great a number that they must have been a significant proportion of Bridgnorth at the time. They may have felt threatened and were certainly swindled and abused, too. We are no nearer knowing whether the prisoners dropped the crosses or not, but it is an interesting possibility.

The changes in British society at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Enclosures squeezing people off the land and the start of the industrial revolution pushing people into towns, have led me, at least, to completely overlook the Napoleonic connection and yet a fascinating one it is.

 

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One Comment
  1. supernova permalink

    Fascinating stuff Jane, I never realized there were that many prisoners here in that time period. Great finds and a great post, thank you. Best wishes, SN.

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