French Prisoners of War at Kelso

French Prisoners of War at Wantage is an article that featured in Newbury Weekly News and General Advertiser – Thursday 18 October 1906 – during which reference is made to Freemasonry in Kelso.

“With all its experiences of battlefields and their accompaniments, the present generation has never known prisoners of war in England, and we sincerely hope it never will.   It is not probable that any person now living can remember the prisoners of war on parole that were such objects of interests in some of our country towns during the Peninsular war; but there must be many who, like the writer, have in their youth heard plenty of stories about them. For instance we can well remember few old ladies who prided themselves on having received their first French lessons from “the prisoners,” and old gentlemen who boasted of the swordsmanship which they owed to French fencing masters on parole.   We also have, often been told that the formal entrance of the captives into a country town caused intense excitement, and the writer’s father had often witnessed the triumphal entrance into Newbury of a troop of soldiers, bringing captives from the Peninsular war on their way to certain provincial towns where they were to be quartered.   They were formed three or four deep, and presented a very miserable appearance, their clothes being in rags, and shoes nearly worn out; some had knapsacks with small round tins affixed to them; others had scran, or food bags.   The poor fellows, officers and men, were escorted to the stables at the White Hart, the King’s Arms, and other hostelries, where they were put with clean straw to lie down upon.   But it is pleasant to know that many generous-hearted people were often engaged in performing acts of kindness to them — providing them not only with food, but clothing.

The town of Wantage, from its isolated position in the midst of the Berkshire Downs, was one of the places selected for the captivity of some French officers, and the poor prisoners of war were committed to the charge of a civilian official, named Crimper, described as a rough, uneducated person, who carried on a retail business in the town, and the bitterness of bondage was augmented by the petty tyranny of this “Jack in office,” who kept very strict surveillances over them, and would not allow of their being absent from their lodgings after II o’clock in the evening.  His post was certainly one of considerable responsibility and requiring a good deal of tact, for his duties combined those of gaoler, quartermaster, and host. His position was an important one also from a social point of view, as he had the opportunity of putting the officers under his charge on good terms with the townsmen and neighbouring squires, with whom the gallant Frenchmen, who had served in many of Napoleon’s most famous campaigns, were great favourites, and highly popular. They were quartered in some large barns, which have long since been pulled down, and at a short distance from the town white posts were conspicuous at the sides of the roads, which marked the limits beyond which the prisoners could not go without breaking their parole.   

In some towns the French officers formed clubs; and about the year 1810, a Lodge of Freemasons, entitled ‘Coeur Unis ‘ (United Hearts) was open and working in this small Berkshire town, among the French prisoners of war located there. The existence of the Lodge held by the prisoners at Wantage is ascertained from three signatures in the records of the Scotch Lodge in Kelso, to which we shall refer later on, namely: Anglade, M ... L’o ... de Wantage, Coeur Unis.  A Fabre, M ... L’o ... de Wantage, Coeur Unis.   François, M  ... L’o ... de Wastage, Coeur Unis.   On November 17th, 1810, seven Freemasons, prisoners of war, visited the Lodge of Economy, No 88 (now 781, Winchester, when passing through that town, en route for Portsmouth, to be embarked for Scotland (vide extracts from the Minute Books of the Lodge of Economy, T Stopher). Three of these were the brethren abovementioned, the remaining four being Ht Daguet ... St Sebastien, J Vallin ... Brest ètu de Sulli a L’orient de X.  Lu Bortinot, des arts and l’amitié ... Larminat, M ... S Frederic, orient de Boulogne.   It is very probable, says Mr John T Thorp, of Leicester, to whose intensely interesting work, “French Prisoners Lodges”, the writer is indebted for the above information, that these four were also members of the “Coeurs Unis” at Wantage, and were being removed from that place with other prisoners to Scotland, Winchester being in the direct line of march between that town and Portsmouth, where they were to be embarked. The reason, Mr Thorp adds, that the Wantage Lodge is not appended to the last four names, is probably due to the fact, that they were not initiates of the Lodge, and preferred, according to the general custom, to add the names of the Lodges to which they originally belonged.   On November 30th, 1810 the same Brethren above named had already reached their destination at Kelso, and together visited the Lodge in that town as recorded under the heading of “Kelso” in Mr Thorp’s work.

Extract from the Minute Book of the Lodge of Kelso No. 58 - 30th November 1810

We have already said, many of the French prisoners gave lessons, chiefly in French, music, dancing, fencing, and drawing.   Indeed, we can remember in our childhood one instance of a French prisoner who made so much by teaching French, that he preferred to remain in England instead of returning to France when the war was over, and became a nationalised Englishman.   Nor were the gallant young French officers unmindful of the charms of the fair daughters of Albion or Erin.   Among the prisoners interned at Wantage was the Chevalier Victor Melchior de Marion Gaja of Languedoc, then a sub-Lieutenant in the French Cavalry, who was taken prisoner at Corunna, in 1809, but subsequently exchanged, and rejoined  Napoleon, taking part in several of the succeeding engagements, and in the terrible retreat from Moscow.   He also fought in “the battle of the nations” at Leipsic, in 1813, and it is said what Napoleon attributed his escape from capture to the prowess of Gaja, who, with his troops, forced a passage over the only bridge left affording a means of retreat to the French forces.   On the termination of the war, General Gaja married Matilda, daughter of Lord Robert Stephen Fitzgerald, and by a very singular coincidence the General’s daughter married the Rev P R Atkinson, Rector of East Hendred, who succeeded Archdeacon Pott, in 1888, when the old General came to live with his son-in-law near the scene of his captivity nearly 80 years previously.   Here, in this picturesque old Berkshire village, the gallant General died in January, 1875 – sixty-three years after he had faced the frost and snow of a Russian winter in the memorable retreat from Moscow.   According to his own particular desire, he was laid to rest on English soil, in the cemetery at Abingdon, where a simple inscription records his birth on the 14th February, 1787, his having been a General of Brigade in the French Army, and death as mentioned above.

The relations of the prisoners of war with the residents of Wantage was of the most friendly character, and the introduction of French officers, counts, marquises, and even probably a prince or two, caused in the usually monotonous existence of the local families the greatest excitement, and there used to be many traditions and legends of the effects, both mental and physical, produced upon the prisoners by the port wine of their cantors, and at the end of the war, when the prisoners returned to their own country, they took back wonderful stories of the after-dinner libations: of the English country gentleman. The range, as we have said, allowed to the prisoners extended but a very short distance beyond the town: nor had they much with which to occupy themselves within it, so during the greater part of the day a number of Frenchmen were constantly wandering about the streets, which was a source of great interest to the inhabitants. But many of them earned a good deal by making knick-knacks of various kinds, and one of the traces left in the district of their sojourn at Wantage are some silver forks which were made by them, and are now in the possession of a Berkshire mason.   There are, or were also one or two old paupers in the Workhouse who could proudly boast of being descendants of the “Frenchies”.

There are many melancholy but lasting monuments of the comparatively short sojourn of the French prisoners of war in the parish registers and tombstones scattered among our country churchyards.   There is something sad in these monuments to those who died among strangers in a hostile country; and sextons, peasants, and even the urchins who play in the churchyards, still point out with reverence “the graves of the French prisoners”.

Newbury Weekly News and General Advertiser – Thursday 18 October 1906

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