PRISON CAMP: Napoleon's forces ensnared
ONE of the world's first dedicated prisoner-of-war camps was built on Peterborough's doorstep, at Norman Cross, just south of the city. The prison was built in 1796, to hold prisoners taken during the Napoleonic War. Reporter CATHERINE BELL went on a guided walk round the historic site, and learned what life was like for the French captives.
SINCE Sean Bean took to our television screens as the rogueish rifleman Sharpe, I have been hooked on stories of the Napoleonic Wars. Bernard Cornwell's tales of derring-do in Spain and France, during the historic campaign to defeat Napoleon, are loosely based on events from the war that lasted 12 years from England's first involvement, in 1803, to Napoleon's final defeat in 1815.
Norman Cross, just outside Peterborough, played an important role during the conflict. Archaeologist Ben Robinson, who is based at Peterborough Museum, led a walk from the Norman Cross eagle memorial, and told the story behind it and the connection with the Napoleonic War.
The war was the first to see the large-scale taking of prisoners. In previous years, only noblemen or officers would have been held. Some 200,000 French and Dutch prisoners were kept in England between 1793 and 1815. Initially, out-of-action ships docked in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham in Kent, were kitted out as prisons. But soon more space was needed.
In 1796, the Transport Office in charge of looking after the prisoners picked Norman Cross, Dartmoor and Perth as ideal locations for new, custom-built jails or "depots". The prison at Norman Cross met all the Transport Office's requirements. It was within easy reach of a port, but not too close that escapes would be possible; it was healthy, with a good water supply, near to local markets for much-needed provisions, and near to a good road system.
As well as being the first PoW camp, it was also one of the country's first "pre-fabs", with the majority of the framework built in London before it was erected at Norman Cross. Up to 7,000 prisoners were held in the wooden barracks built at Norman Cross, with local militia charged with guarding the inmates.
The prisoners were not expected to work, save cook their own food and clean their living quarters. Some found work utilising their civilian skills, and others made a fortune making and selling small models carved from bones left over from dinner. Some of these models can still be seen at Peterborough Museum in Priestgate.
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15 September 2005