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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Researching the wip!

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!


margaret blake said...

Soun ds like an excellent plot, Nicola, - can't wait to read it, so get writing!

Jaimey Grant said...

Fascinating! I have to admit to having formed an interest in the prison hulks of the time. I hadn't thought about them holding POWs. This is something I'll have to look into. Thanx for posting this. :o)

Kate Hardy said...

Fascinating, Nicola - and I'll look forward to seeiing this.

In Norfolk, during the Napoleonic wars, Jean de Narde (obviously a French POW) was kept in the bell tower of St Nicholas' church in East Dereham. He escaped, but was shot by one of the guards. There's a pic of his gravestone on Simon Knott's fabulous website - http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/derehamnicholas/derehamnicholas.htm - scroll down to the bottom and click on the right-hand pic above his guestbook to see a close-up of the wording.

Jan Jones said...

This is wonderful stuff, Nicola. It's going to be a book-and-a-half is what I think!

Nicola Cornick said...

It's great to find other people interested in the topic, Jaimey!

Thanks for that link, Kate! Fascinating story. Details on the French POWs seems quite thin on the ground so I am piecing together little bits of information from all over the country.

Michelle Styles said...

I think there were French prisoners of war at Carlisle Castle as well. And possibly Conway in Wales.
I also think they were in York -- possibly the Castle Museum as they had the dungeons.

Alison said...

I'm glad to be of assistance, it's such a fab film!

Love this sort of research too.