The number of prisoners of war captured during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with France was unlike those seen previously in British campaigns. By 1809, after over fifteen years of war, the numbers had risen to a staggering 40,000, which was just over three times the population of Derby at the time. In the early days of the wars with France, prisoners had been dealt with in an informal way, where they were often placed on hulks, which were unused or captured warships left at anchor just offshore, often in and around Chatham in Kent. Attempts to make it a more organised system were needed. This included the building of Dartmoor prison in Devon, barracks and depots for holding prisoners, although many ordinary seamen and soldiers would continue being incarcerated in the prison hulks. There was, however, a notable difference between what happened to the rank and file and the officers, who were allowed much more freedom by the operation of a parole system, in which they gave their word not to try to escape back to France.
The parole system meant that officers were sent all over England in places away from the sea, so they couldn’t assist any potential French invasion, or communicate with the men under their command for the same reason. In December 1803, Chesterfield was chosen as one such parole town. Each town had slightly different rules that the officers sent there had to abide by, but they all followed similar guidelines and would have been placed around town so the townsfolk would know what was expected of the prisoners. In Chesterfield, they could only travel within a mile of the town and had to be back at their lodgings by 8pm. If they didn’t abide by these rules, they would be deemed as in breach of their parole and could be punished. There was some bending of that rule though. Sir Windsor Hunloke, the then owner of Wingerworth Hall, lived just outside the one-mile boundary, but often invited the Catholic prisoners to attend his house and private chapel. His way around the boundary rule was to supposedly move the mile post away from his house, making it appear that Wingerworth Hall was less than a mile away from Chesterfield.
The prisoners were welcomed by the people of Chesterfield, and they soon became a common sight within the community. The men were given a weekly allowance of 10 shillings, if they held the rank of captain or above, or 7 shillings if they were below a captain. This allowance would have helped pay for their lodgings and perhaps those for a servant if they had one with them. The officers would also be entitled to have their wives with them if they so wished. Many of those who were single developed relationships with local women, some of which resulted in marriage, and a number stayed on after peace was declared. However, if they needed to supplement their income, they were allowed to make items for sale, which was common practice at the time. In Chesterfield though, a more creative outlet was found. The prisoners were known to teach languages, drawing and music to the residents of Chesterfield. One such prisoner was Laurent Duchanne, who had been teaching the sons of the lessee of Chesterfield theatre at their home in Derby. The two boys helped him to escape, but he sadly died later.
Other prisoners who resided in Chesterfield and helped the local citizens were surgeons. Those that wished to practice were given permission to help serve the community. They mainly dealt with the poorer residents of the town and as a mark of thanks, the townsfolk implored the government to offer pardons and safe passage to those surgeons who had helped them. These were granted.
All in all, the prisoners interacted with the people of Chesterfield in a way that appears to have been beneficial to both sides. On the other hand, in 1807, the Transport Office, who were in charge of the overall maintenance of prisoners of war, received complaints about the behaviour of a handful of the prisoners held in Chesterfield. A representative was sent to ensure this behaviour was cracked down on, ensuring tougher parole rules. As a result, a riot ensued and bludgeons were used.
By 1810, a total of 400 prisoners had been sent to Chesterfield. Of these, 60 escaped, with some of the rest being transferred elsewhere and others, such as the surgeons, being sent back to France. In general, they were all well liked, and the Chesterfield citizens sympathised with them. By 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication and first exile on Elba, a time when many prisoners of war were sent home, including Lucien Bonaparte, who had been held in Shropshire with his whole family and household, there were still 200 Frenchmen in Chesterfield. The main reminder of this somewhat forgotten part of Chesterfield’s history is the many graves in the parish church at Chesterfield, otherwise known as the Crooked Spire. They are located in what was affectionately known as the ‘French Quarter’ of the churchyard.
With so much information on hand, it was impossible to also include the fate of General Exelmans and Colonel da la Grange, who both made a daring escape from Chesterfield. Their story is a very interesting one and it should be told in its own right. There will be a following post on that coming soon.
‘French Leave’, Chesterfield & District Family History Society, December 2009, pp. 10-12
Barney Rolfe-Smith, A Gilded Cage: Lucien Bonaparte, Prisoner of War, 1810-1814 (Ludlow: Stonebrook Publishing, 2012)
Envelope of press cuttings re French prisoners of war at Chesterfield during the Napoleonic Wars, D389/ZZ/46
Francis Abell, Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756-1815 (Oxford University Press, 1914)