Nicola here! For my new book, One Wicked Sin, I delved into a lesser known part of British history and had a great deal of fun doing so. One Wicked Sin takes place against the background of the lives of Napoleonic War prisoners in Britain and it is something that seems largely to have disappeared from the history books. At one point during the early nineteenth century there were sixty thousand prisoners in Britain, either locked up in prison ships or high security gaols or, more intriguingly, given their liberty in country towns all over England and Scotland. These were not just French prisoners. I discovered that during that period just about everybody united to take on the British in war. There were Americans from the War of 1812-1814, there were Scandinavian privateers, Spanish, Dutch, and Irish soldiers and sailors. There were prisoners from the West Indies, who had to be issued with extra clothes to keep them warm in the British weather. I wanted to find out more about their stories so I visited two very different places; Portchester Castle, which had been used as a prison to house Napoleonic prisoners of war, and the town of Wantage, where prisoners had been given their liberty to live amongst the population.
I visited Portchester on what felt like the wettest day of the year (which those of you who know England will realise is no small matter.) I was the only visitor at the castle that morning and the sheer miserable state of the weather added enormously to the atmosphere. As I stood in the massive keep and saw the water running down the walls and listened to it dripping relentlessly and heard the wind howling in the tower I thought that had I been incarcerated in here I would very likely have run mad.
Portchester Castle dates originally from Roman times so by the time it was used as a prison, from the start of the 18th century, it was already ancient. There were many complaints about cramped conditions and protest riots. Despite the building of an "airing ground" where prisoners could take exercise within the confines of the Roman outer wall, overcrowding at Portchester continued to be a problem. The men slept in hammocks and were allowed a sleeping space of only 2 foot 6 by 6 foot. It is no surprise that in such conditions tempers would fray. The picture gives an idea of what this would have looked like. I stood in the vast keep of the castle – it's empty now – and imagined it festooned with hammocks only 2 foot apart. The noise, smell and crowding would have been overwhelming.
The prisoners were very creative and spent a great deal of their time making craft items which they would then sell at market. This picture shows an item made by one of the Portchester prisoners, who also entertained themselves by forming a theatre troupe and performing various productions including Rossini's Barber of Seville sung to the accompaniment of a twelve piece orchestra!
Another useful resource was a recent Time Team archaeology programme (for those who have not seen it, Time Team is brilliant!) which excavated the prison camp at Norman Cross near Cambridge. There's a link to the Time Team article here. Norman Cross was built new to house the increasing number of prisoners from the wars. Compared to the dripping medieval keep at Portchester these new prisons may well have seemed state of the art but conditions in them soon deteriorated and disease was rife. Within a few years Norman Cross had developed a reputation for being a place of hard gambling. Many gaming pieces have been found there and in some cases prisoners froze in the winter because they had literally gambled the clothes off their backs. There is a link here to the Norman Cross website.
In stark contrast to the treatment meted out to the common soldiers at places like Portchester and Norman Cross, the life of an officer on parole was very different. In order to research this in more detail I visited my local parole town, Wantage in Oxfordshire. The first point that struck me about many of the parole towns was that they were very small. Modern day Wantage has a population of ten thousand people. In 1800 it was much smaller so that an influx of foreign officers into the population would have created quite a stir and had a cultural effect as well as a political one.
The second point that hit me was that there is very little in Wantage and a lot of other parole towns to mark the fact that foreign prisoners of war ever lived amongst the population. At Leek in Staffordshire, another parole town, there is a monument to the prisoners who lived – and died – there. In Wantage there is no public acknowledgement. In the museum, though, I had my most exciting moment of my research when I held in my hand the original letter from 1809 from a French colonel who was also a Duke addressed to his bankers Coutts, in London, asking them to transfer some money to the local bank in Wantage to cover his costs whilst he lived there on parole. The letter was in the original French and he was asking for 123 pounds – but that was just for a few months and in addition to the allowance all parole prisoners also received.
The life of a parole officer was pretty civilised. Although they were under curfew and were not allowed to go more than a mile out of the town bounds, they were accepted socially and invited to dine with the local gentry. They had given their word – their parole – not to escape but some did of course attempt it. Others eloped with local girls, or intermarried and stayed in England and Scotland after the end of the Wars. Some taught French and dancing (a great way to meet the local ladies!) They played billiards, formed theatre groups and spent their money in the local shops. In many places, Wantage included, the only thing that marks the fact that these men were ever there are street names such as Frenchman's Walk. The American, French and Irish prisoners who once bought their brandy in the The Bear Inn or who joined the parties at Becket House have vanished forever.
A Question and A Prize!
For me, holding in my hand that letter written by the French Duke was the highlight of my research and a very special moment. Have you ever discovered anything exciting that linked you directly to the past? If so what was it and how did you feel? If not, what would you like to find? I'm giving away a set of my trilogy books, Whisper of Scandal, One Wicked Sin and Mistress By Midnight to one commenter.