King's Lynn

West Norfolk's divisional librarian Mr Ray Wilson looks at Lynn's key role in dealing with 18th century French prisoners.
Lynn News, 4th November 1983, kindly provided by Lynn Museum.
During the Napoleonic Wars, between 1803 and 1814, a total of 122,440 French prisoners of war were transported to England and confined in prison camps.
  Due to bad treatment, lack of exercise and insufficient food, approximately ten per cent of their number died in captivity.
  The French Naval and Army prisoners included titled officers, industrious artisans, loafers and idlers, and the scum and sweepings of the French seaport towns.
  For a time the straw industry of the country was threatened by the straw plaiting industry created in the prisoner of war camps. Some of the sailing ships manufactured from animal and fish bone sold for £40, and many other examples of the exquisite craftmanship of the prisoners can still be found in museums.
  Between 1796-7 a depot was built at Norman Cross near Peterborough to accommodate 7,000 prisoners of war. Stilton, or Yaxley barracks, as it was also known was situated on a 40 acre tract of land on high ground connected with the sea by waterways via Lynn and Peterborough. London was only 78 miles to the south by the Great North Road.
  The four cartel ports designated for the reception of the prisoners transported from the French port of Morlaix were those of Lynn, Plymouth, Dartmouth and Portsmouth.
  At a later date Great Yarmouth also became an exceedingly busy receiving port. The French prisoners landed there after capture were generally taken next by sea to Lynn where they were conveyed by canal to Peterborough. The less fortunate being compelled to make the long journey by foot as the following account reveals:
"Columns of prisoners often 1,000 strong were marched from Yarmouth to Norwich and lodged in the castle. From Yarmouth they were marched to Lynn halting at Costessey, East Dereham and thence to Lynn. Here the captives were lodged temporarily in an old warehouse on the north side of the King Staith.
  "At Lynn the prisoners were packed into barges and lighters and were sent up river throught the Forty Foot, the Hundred Foot, the Pauper's Cut, and the Nene to Peterborough whence they marched to Norman Cross."
  On March 23, 1797, the first prisoners arrived at Norman Cross from Lynn in barges. A victualling allowance of 7d per man per day was allocated for the 934 prisoners. The total cost per day for each man worked out as 1/10d. In theory this provided one pound of bread or biscuits of 3/4 pound of beef, but in practice the meat was often unfit for consumption and the bread found to be stale or adulterated with straw.
  In his novel 'Lavengro', George Borrow sympathises with the prisoners who were being fed on "rations of carrion meat and bread from which I have seen the very hounds occasionally turn away."
  The following month (April 2, 1797) a Lynn report announced: "six sail of transports arrived in our harbour with 900 French prisoners who were sent in lighters to Stilton Barracks."
  This contingent was part of the 3,383 prisoners who arrived at Norman Cross at this period and according to the Stamford Mercury "...exclusive of seven dead and three who escaped they passed under the care of the ten turnkeys and the 80 men of the Caithness Legion who guarded Norman Cross."
  On May 12 a Lynn report stated: "Early in Tuesday 800 or 900 French prisoners went through Wisbech (from Lynn bound for Yaxley (Norman Cross). The French Captain escaped from the Purfleet."
  Escapes were commonplace, often through using counterfeit money as bribery. Although the majority of the prisoners were re-captured, much ingenuity was exercised in attempts made to deceive the prison guards.
  Stockdale, the Lynn manager of the prison traffic between the coast and Norman Cross, was held responsible for any escapes made while the prisoners were under his charge.
  In writing of 125 prisoners who had started for the prison he admitted: "Two made their escape, one was shot on the march to Lynn, and I am afraid we lost two or three last night...there are some very artful man among them who will make their escape if possible."
  On June 21, 1797, the Stamford Mercury noted: "Guarded by a party of the Inniskillings, a regiment of Dragoons and a detachment of the Oxford Militia, 180 French prisoners arrived from Yarmouth."
  On August 3, the same newspaper reported: "The 1st Regiment of Dragoon Guards and a party of the Oxford Militia brought 190 more from Yarmouth."
  September saw further arrivals when 141 prisoners arrived at Norman Cross from Yarmouth via Lynn. "The captain of a French privateer made good his escape, while lodged in Norwich Castle."
  Following the Battle of Camperdown many Dutch prisoners were taken into captivity and between March and August 1798, 350 Dutch prisoners passed through Lynn en route to Norman Cross.
  1799 is the last recorded date for the arrival of prisoners at Lynn. In that year four transports under convoy from HM gun vessels Wrangler and Manley were reported to have entered the port of Lynn carrying many prisoners.
  In 1801 over 1,000 French prisoners in England fell victim to 'flu or measles epidemics. Following the outbreak of the American War many American seamen were taken prisoner and swelled the prison camps already packed with French and Dutch prisoners of war.
  Following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the prisoners were finally allowed to return home. On June 14 a report from Lynn stated: "Upwards of 1,400 French prisoners of war have arrived in the town during the last week from Stilton Barracks, to embark for the coast of France. Dunkirk, we believe, is the place of destination.
  "In consequence of the wind having been hitherto unfavourable they have been prevented from sailing, and we are glad to say their conduct in this town has been hitherto very orderly; and although they are continually perambulating the street, and some of them indulging in tolerable libations of ale, we have not heard of a single act of indecorum taking place in consequence."
  Despite these assurances Captain Daniel Woodriff RN, superintendent of the transport of the prisoners, received  a strong rebuke from the Lynn Mayor. His Worship complained of the number of prisoners at large in the town unguarded, waiting with Norman Cross passports for cartel ships to take them back to France.
  In August 1814 Norman Cross was finally evacuated, and it was never used again as a prison.
 

Examples of the prisoners' craftmanship, at Lynn Museum.


Examples of the prisoners' craftmanship, at Lynn Museum.


Examples of the prisoners' craftmanship, at Lynn Museum.
This is a miniature chess-set, with playing table.


Examples of the prisoners' craftmanship, at Lynn Museum.


The tower and Moon Clock of St Margaret's Church, King's Lynn.


The street in King's Lynn believed to have been paved by prisoners whilst being held here.

The street in King's Lynn believed to have been paved by prisoners whilst being held here.

More photos of the artifacts, and King's Lynn

Pictures by Paul Biggins