Explore Your Archive – Prisoners of War

I first became aware that there had been Napoleonic prisoners in Derbyshire when I came across an unusual gravestone at St Mary and All Saints church, Chesterfield, aka the Crooked Spire.  The inscription translated as ‘In memory of Francois Raingeard, thirty years of age, Prisoner of War, died 1oth March 1812’ and bore the message ‘Stop Traveller!  If thro’ Life’s journey, Sympathy Has found a seat in thy Breast; thou’ll drop a pitying tear to the memory of one who…’; the last line started ‘In Friendship…’, but the rest had worn away.

This wasn’t the first time there had been prisoners of war in Derbyshire.  During the Seven Years’ War with France, the Victoria County History (Vol 2) states that 300 French prisoners were sent to Derby in July 1759.  Apparently the churchwardens of Derby All Saints made an “absurdly boastful and vainglorious entry” in their books concluding:

Their behaviour at first was impudent and insolent; and at all times vain and effeminate; and their whole deportment Light and Unmanly; and we may venture to say from our observation and knowledge of them that in any future war, this Nation has nothing to fear from them as an Enemy.  During their abode here, the road from this place to Parliament was by an Act of Parliament repair’d; the part from St. Mary’s Bridge (which by reason of the floods was impassible) being greatly raised.  Numbers of these people were daily employ’d, who work’d in their Bag Whigs, Pigtails, Ruffles, &c., a matter which afforded no small merriment.  But to their Honour let it be remembered, yet scarce an Act of Fraud or Theft was committed by any of them during their stay amongst us.    

Whilst prisoners of war from the lower ranks were held in prisons or on prison ships, officers were placed on a parole of honour in which they promised not to leave or escape from the town they were sent to.  Derbyshire’s central geographic position made it an ideal place to hold the men.  Our local studies library copy (940.27) of part of the National Archives’ general entry book of French prisoners of war on parole shows that from December 1803-July 1812 there were 172 prisoners on parole at Ashbourne and from November 1803-June 1811 there were over 400 held at Chesterfield.  The parish registers for Chesterfield show that aswell as Frenchmen there were at least a few Polish, Swiss, German, Italian and Hungarian prisoners too.

D302 Z/W 1 Weekly accounts, December 1812

D302 Z/W 1 Weekly accounts, December 1812

We have at the Record Office a bound volume of letters, accounts and reports (to the Transport Board) by John Langford (D302 Z/W 1) who was appointed as the agent for the care of parole prisoners at Ashbourne in March 1812.  The accounts and the discharge information can sometimes record prisoner’s names, the name of the prize i.e. from which vessel or place the prisoner was captured, whether the prize was a man of war, privateer or merchant vessel, what rank the prisoner held, and in some records the date of the beginning of their parole at Ashbourne, their date of discharge and how much they were paid.  One particular list which records prisoners at Ashbourne who hadn’t been held on parole or in prison anywhere else in the country, also records details of their age, height, hair colour, eye colour, face shape, complexion, figure, and any wounds or distinguishing marks.

D302 Z/W 1 Accounts of subsistence paid, 1812

D302 Z/W 1 Accounts of subsistence paid, 1812

Whilst the papers don’t reveal that much about their day-to-day activities, there are some letters which let us glimpse into individual lives, such as one from 26th November 1812 giving the account of a Monsieur Frohart who was judged to be in a state of insanity.  He was lodging with a Mr Mellor in the town and it was Mellor who reported to Langford that Frohart, having been restless and singing and making a noise the preceding night, appeared deranged the next morning and ran into the street only half-dressed and broke the windows of several neighbouring properties.  Apparently a couple of years previously he had been in a similar state whilst being on parole in Chesterfield.

Other letters record the various escapes of prisoners, such as Jacques Perroud, the captain of the privateer the ‘Phoenix’, who ran away in the night in April 1812 and was believed to be heading to the Kent coast.  A physical description of him is included and it also reports what he could be wearing, topped by a new hat with a narrow crown, broadish brim, a ribbon and a small white buckle.  Captain Perroud left behind at his lodgings a trunk, four small French dictionaries, three pairs of cloth pantaloons, four old cotton shirts and two cotton pillow cases.

Between 1803 and 1815, around ten prisoners (all men on parole at Chesterfield) appear in the Quarter Sessions Calendars of Prisoners, though I’m sure the actual figure was much higher.  Half of them are being tried on charges of breaking or exceeding their parole and the other half are up on bastardy charges for fathering illegitimate children.  There are at least twelve prisoners of war, including Francois Raingeard, buried in the Crooked Spire churchyard.  From 1806 onwards there are approx. ten marriages of prisoners of war to local women and about eighteen baptisms of children of prisoners, either with wives who were also taken as prisoners or women they had met and married in Chesterfield, and also a few illegitimate children.  

The Ashbourne St Oswald registers seem to show that one local family was particularly welcoming:  15th August 1808, Vincent Pierre Fillion, a French Prisoner of War, married Hannah Whitaker, spinster; 7th May 1810, Louis Hugand, a French prisoner, married Mary Whittaker, spinster; 30th December 1811, Peter/Pierre Dupre, Prisoner of War in Ashbourne, married Elizabeth Whittaker, spinster; 26th November 1812, Otto Ernst d’Heldreich, Prisoner of War, married Margaret Whittaker, spinster. 

Whilst a few remained in Derbyshire, most of the prisoners of war, and their families, eventually returned to mainland Europe.  But aswell as the legacy of a method of glove-making which carried on and thrived in Chesterfield during the nineteenth century, as the story goes it was a French prisoner who first introduced the recipe for what is known as Ashbourne Gingerbread, which is still made and sold in the town two hundred years later.

EYA-poster-poetry-workshop

On This Day: ‘Spitfire in Court’

From the Alfreton and Belper Journal, 3rd December 1909:

SPITFIRE IN COURT

A CHESTERFIELD PRISONER’S ECCENTRICITIES

An extraordinary statement was made by a prisoner at the Chesterfield Borough Police Court, on Monday, the person in question giving the name of Luke Spitfire, of no fixed address, who was something of a “spitfire” by nature.

The man was charged with stealing a Bible, valued at 50s., from the Chesterfield Parish Church, on Saturday, and evidence was given that prisoner was seen to emerge from the building with the book underneath his coat.  Benjamin Gascoigne, a young man living in Durrant road, Chesterfield, asked Spitfire what he was doing with the Bible, and he replied that he was going to sit down and read it, although it was too dark to do so.  Police-constable Kee arrested the man, who made no answer to the charge.

Spitfire loudly requested the attendance of the priests to identify the Bible as the property of the church.  Having entered a plea of guilty, the accused went on to make the following amazing statement: “I have been a ratepayer for 20 years, and of course every ratepayer helps to keep the Bishops and the priests and everybody else between, and supposing I was stealing the Bible, I was only stealing part of my own property.  (Laughter).  It is no earthly use to me, because what is in the book I have swallowed.  I claim to be tried by my peers.  I am a B.A. and an educated man, and I am the same as Lord Byron, when he committed murder, he claimed to be tried by the Lords, and he got off.  I claim to be tried by my equals and not by ‘vagabones’.”  (Laughter).

Sentence of 28 days’ hard labour was passed.

The County Local Studies Library holds the Alfreton (and Belper) Journal, 1870-1935 – just ring to book a microfilm reader.