Between 1793 and 1815 an estimated 250,000 prisoners of war were held in Britain. Previous posts such as ‘Life inside the prison hulks: staying alive’ looked at the desperate conditions common criminals were subjected to – especially those incarcerated in the prison hulks – and the work of review boards and early reformers. But conditions for prisoners of war were usually different to those of criminals even though they could be exposed to the same health issues brought about by overcrowding and other pressures on the prisons.
In a paper entitled ‘Prisoners of War and British Port Communities, 1793-1815’ Patricia K. Crimmin provides some background on the degree of care and consideration shown to them:
‘Systems for the humane treatment and exchange of prisoners had evolved during earlier eighteenth-century wars. Prisoners were to be fed, on an agreed food allowance, by their own country; an agent was appointed by each combatant nation to oversee the treatment of their nationals in enemy prisons, markets were open to them to check local prices, and they were allowed to visit prisons and hear complaints. Regular exchanges were to take place, prisoners being selected by the agents and a table, stating equivalents in numbers of men exchanged for officers, was drawn up. Prisoners suffering from wounds, infirmities or advanced age; boys under twelve; and women and children were to be returned at once without equivalents in exchange. Surgeons, pursers, secretaries, chaplains, priests, schoolmasters and non-combatant passengers were not to be held as prisoners. Serving officers, separated from men, either pledged their word (gave their parole) not to escape and were permitted to live in designated inland towns, or were granted their freedom to return home on condition that they would not serve again until exchanged in a regular fashion.’
Agreements for the care and return of prisoners of war had evolved over many years; altered and interpreted by circumstances, costs, political agendas and strategies for war.
Throughout the period of the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) there was a constant exchange of letters concerning the treatment of prisoners. The French King had made it a rule to distribute money monthly, from his private purse, for the benefit of his subjects who were being held. This ‘Royal Bounty’ applied not only to the relief and comfort of prisoners, but also to the payment of their homeward passages and any dues levied on them by the British Government upon entering and departing from the country.
Payments from the ‘Royal Bounty’ were on a graduated scale, according to rank and negotiated by regularly-appointed French agents in England. The ‘Bounty’ had, the French maintained, been inspired by the continual complaints about bad treatment of their countrymen as prisoners of war in England.
The English responded to the allegations, stating that when prisoners arrived they were entitled to the same victualling both in quality and quantity as British seamen. (It was actually increased by half a pound of bread per man per day over the original allowance.) The government also asserted that all provisions were good although bread was not always fresh. Through a directive, this was to be remedied.
The meat was the same quality as that served out to British seamen – in fact, better – for orders were issued that prisoners should have fresh meat every meat day (six days a week). British seamen only received meat twice a week at best.
‘By the time of the Napoleonic Wars imperial France ceased to abide by many of the rules, partly because it saw them as traditional, but chiefly because France held too few British prisoners for equal exchanges. Thus, in 1796 there were 11,000 French prisoners in Britain, but less than half that number of Britons in France; three years later the number of French prisoners had doubled, while the British total in France had not increased significantly. When this happened in earlier wars, a cash ransom made up the balance. But the French governments of the 1790s could not afford this and at any rate were ideologically hostile to the idea. Moreover, French policy, more clearly marked under Napoleon, was to force Britain to bear the entire cost of the prisoners it held in the hope that this would weaken its economy and force it to make peace. The cost certainly was considerable: by 1798 it was running at £3 million per annum, while the estimated expense of French prisoners alone between 1803 and 1815 was £6 million. As a result, regular exchanges broke down and from 1809-1810 ceased altogether. At the same time, the number of attempted escapes rose on both sides, and captives were imprisoned far longer than was customary in alien communities.’ (‘Prisoners of War and British Port Communities, 1793-1815’)
Another issue challenging the British government was the pressure that prisoners of war placed on local communities.
The sheer scale of provisioning not only inflated prices. During bad harvests, scarcity of resources brought resentment and tension between detainees and the immediate community. By 1812 the requirements for food and clothing had become enormous. Plymouth advertised for 500 sacks of flour and 1,000 quarters of wheat per week. Reports for May 1814, noted that the 21,000 prisoners in Plymouth were consuming 100 head of cattle per week. These demands forced up the price of goods resulting in protests and local rioting.
Entitlements such as prison market days put unexpected stress on local producers, artisans and craftsmen who could not compete with the cheap labour of the depots, prisons and hulks. Eventually, French soldiers were prohibited from making pastry and confectionery at Penryn. At the Norman Cross Depot, a thriving plait industry was closed down because of its impact on the industry, market suppliers, and the prices – prison goods were sold duty-free.
However hard the English tried, on the other side of the Channel the French were critical of the treatment of prisoners, openly condemning conditions. This was as much to do with a propaganda war as reporting the situation, accurately.
To some degree, Napoleon’s propaganda worked. Articles started appearing in the English press refuting French newspaper reports:
‘The French papers are filled with accusations against the government of this country, on the subject of their treatment of prisoners of war; and with loud panegyrics on the conduct of the French government, and pompous declarations of all that they have done, and all that they intend doing, for the relief of suffering humanity in this respect.
‘These boastings and rivilings are faithfully copied into the Jacobin papers of this country. We feel the subject to be one which is, in truth, too important to be passed over in silence; and we are prepared with a statement of the whole of what has been done, and what has been proposed between Great–Britain and France, upon this point, since the beginning of the war, which we shall take an early opportunity of laying before the public.’ (Chester Courant – Tuesday 2 January 1798.)
Within such public statements and examinations by the press, we can hear the protests concerning jingoism and sensational reporting; even outrage at the impudent questioning of British integrity and behavior towards combatants.
But how the general public reacted towards prisoners of war is harder to determine.
It would have varied depending on political influences, changing values concerning moral and social behaviour, the threat of Jacobin ideals, invasion and what was happening across the Channel with the fall of the monarchy. The proximity with which people came into contact with these ‘wretches’ was also influential. For many people who were distanced from prisoners but interested or concerned enough to visit, what they saw appealed to their sense of duty and an obligation to care. (See blog posts like: ‘Life inside the prison hulks‘ for more on this.)
Patricia Krimmin concludes her study with:
‘Prisoners of war were indeed perceived as prisoners and aliens and sometimes were hated and feared as traditional or ideological enemies and potential invaders. Or they were seen as consumers of scarce food, cared for by government while the native population suffered. Individually, or in smaller groups, they were seen as fellow seamen and fellow sufferers. Propaganda, xenophobic sentiments and the long war notwithstanding, sympathy and humanity, so often early casualties in any conflict, survived and even flourished.’
Given all the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there was a lively trade in smuggling prisoners across the Channel. The oystermen of Whitstable were particularly capable. It was rumoured that these men knew the French coast so well Wellington used their knowledge to plan campaigns.
Although there is little direct evidence to link the Seasalter Company to this lucrative trade, we know that smugglers like James Feaste preferred Seasalter and Whitstable as a departure point for returning French aristocrats to their homeland. Knowing the hold the Seasalter Company had over the area, it is hard to imagine that smugglers like Feaste would have been able to operate without being in some kind of partnership with the Company.
Various landmarks around Seasalter were used to assist in prison escapes including Pye Alley Farm with its little light that was kept shining if it was safe to approach and rest up before leaving on a boat for France. The landlord of the Fountain public house offered horses and chaises to the more wealthy prisoners when making their escape from London to Whitstable and then across the Channel.
Although it is fairly easy to estimate the number of vessels and people engaged in transporting prisoners from London and the banks of the Thames, it is more difficult to calculate how many local smugglers took them over the Channel. What is certain is that Whitstable hoys and smacks were taking prisoners and making Guinea runs to the Continent then returning with contraband headed for London.
Patricia K. Crimmin, ‘French prisoners of War on parole, 1793-1815 : the Welsh border towns’, in Guerres et Paix 1660-1815 (Vincennes, 1987)
Patricia K. Crimmin, ‘Prisoners of war and British port communities, 1793-1815’, The Northern Mariner / Le Marin du nord, 6 (1996)
‘The Depot for Prisoners of War at Norman Cross, Huntingdonshire, 1796 to 1816’ (London, 1913)