Today I went to Wantage to do some research for my current manuscript. The book is set in 1813 and has as its hero an Irish soldier of fortune held in England as a prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of the French prisoners of war in England has fascinated me since I came across a footnote about them in a book about the Battle of Trafalgar. I hadn't really thought about the fate of prisoners of war in that era; I didn't even know that there were any, let alone that they were shipped to Britain and held in some cases for the duration of the conflict. The rank and file were incarcerated in prison hulks moored in places like Chatham, or locked up in what we would now call maximum security jails. Dartmoor Prison was built specifically to house French POWs in the Napoleonic Wars. At the height of the war there were a staggering 60 000 French prisoners in Britain and several thousand officers. This seems like a huge number of enemy prisoners in the country and it is no wonder that there were widespread concerns about an uprising. This forms the core of my story.
The officers were allowed to live in small country towns "on parole" ie they gave their word that they would not attempt to escape. This is what took me to Wantage, as it was one of the "parole towns" where the normal populace was swelled by a number of French officers. Prisoners in the parole towns were usually not permitted to travel more than a mile outside the town and were often entertained by the aristocracy and the gentry at parties and balls, a far cry from the fate of their compatriots in the prison hulks! Naturally some broke parole and tried to escape, others had love affairs and even married local girls and plenty got into fights with the locals! All in all, a very rich background for a book!
I'll be blogging much more about the history of the parole towns next year when the book comes out but today one of the highlights of my research was visiting the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage and holding in my hand an original letter written in French from an officer to Coutts Bank in London, requesting that they send £123 to the banker in Wantage to pay his bills!
Another very pleasurable aspect of my research has been watching the film All For Love or St Ives (thank you, Alison!) which tells the story of a French prisoner of war in Scotland. I love it when my passion for research co-incides with a great historical drama!