2018: Paul Chamberlain's Book "The Napoleonic Prison of Norman Cross, the Lost Town of Huntingdonshire"

Paul Chamberlain is an author and historian of the Napoleonic era. He is an authority on prisoners of war in the period 1793-1815 and was heavily involved in the Eagle Memorial restoration at Norman Cross and the Time Team dig at the site in 2009.
The Prison of Norman Cross: The Lost Town of Huntingdonshire
Paul Chamberlain
The History Press, hardcover, 208 pages.

During the Napoleonic Wars many thousands of prisoners of war arrived in Britain, often to languish in the war prisons for many years. Norman Cross Prison Depot, near Peterborough, was one of the largest with accommodation for up to 7,000 captives and in use from 1797 until it closed in 1814. While the site was one of the major prison depots in England during the Napoleonic Wars, it was also integral to the defence of the East of England against enemy invasion. Military barracks housed troops who, aside from guarding the prisoners, were responsible for the security of the region.

The depot housed men, women and children of many nationalities; all of whom were swept up in the global conflict on land and sea. French, Dutch, German, Italian and Polish soldiers and seamen found themselves held here for varying lengths of time. Of these men, 1,770 died and were buried in the depot cemetery, uncovered by Time Team in 2009, and their story is told from the time and place of capture to how they died. Charles Boucher, hanged for wounding a turnkey; Barthelemy Jumeau, shot while attempting to escape; and Pierre Conscience, drowned when he fell into one of the wells; are some of the dramatic tales of death in the prison alongside those who died of illness, especially during the enteric fever outbreak in 1800. These men now rest in a quiet corner of the English countryside.

The prison was more than just a place of confinement. Men who found themselves out of the war would settle into a comfortable routine, manufacturing bone, straw and wood models to sell in the prison market, where civilians would purchase souvenirs of their visit to an establishment that was part of the English tourist trail. The prisoners were fed and clothed regularly and so found life in the prison to be a comfortable existence, especially when their talents could earn them money. Some did so well out of their manufacturing activities they could employ other prisoners as servants and cooks, while some took home with them many hundreds of pounds in earnings.

Aside from the legal activities that kept the prisoners busy there were also illegal goings-on. Manufacture of pornography was a serious issue for those attempting to improve the morals of the nation, and when such material started appearing in the countryside the Transport Office of the Admiralty (who administered the war prisons) often received anonymous letters complaining about the problem. The same happened when the manufacture of straw plait by the prisoners was discovered, as this undercut the price of the civilian manufacture and threatened the livelihoods of people in the surrounding countryside. The authorities waged a constant war against those involved in this illicit trade, including soldiers of the garrison who were often complicit. 

Alexander Coulon was desperate to leave the prison system, discovering an opportunity when he learnt of the forgery of banknotes by his fellow prisoners. He worked with the staff at the depot to uncover the guilty men, who were tried and sentenced to hang; Coulon being rewarded with his release.

The prison population was not a static one, with men (and some women and children) being incarcerated there for the duration of the war. Many spent up to eleven years at the depot before liberation while others were there for only a matter of weeks. Neutral seamen could apply for release and in the interests of diplomacy the Admiralty readily agreed. Those who did some service for the authorities would be rewarded with funds to travel to the coast and then home. Many enlisted in the British forces in preference to life as a prisoner of war.

The Prison of Norman Cross: The Lost Town of Huntingdonshire is the story of a prison, a town, and the people who lived and worked there. It is the story of an establishment that had impact upon the surrounding communities, and one that often had great impact on the people within it, and these human stories are told within the book.




Order on eBay, and from the Friends.

The book will be officially launched at the Friends' AGM on 1st June 2018