When the elaborate hoax came to light, the stock exchange was stung into action. Attention was focused on the syndicate of speculators, which included Lord Cochrane, aristocratic grandee, naval hero and MP. Impressive and intemperate, his independent spirit and anti-establishment views had not endeared him to the Admiralty, although he was a popular public figure. Along with his alleged collaborators, Cochrane was charged and found guilty of fraud. The case was headline news and caused great controversy with many believing Cochrane was innocent. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, expelled from the House of Commons, stripped of his knighthood and delisted from the navy. Here’s how events unfolded that fateful day in February 1814…
At around 1 a.m. on the morning of 21 February a striking figure could be seen in the dim light walking through the streets of Dover. The gentleman, who wore a red uniform under a grey greatcoat, appeared to be a military officer and his bearing suggested that he had travelled far and was near exhaustion. The officer stopped at the Ship Inn and knocked loudly at the door – loudly enough to attract the attention of the landlord of the neighbouring Packet Boat public house, who came with candles to see what the commotion was about.
The night porter of the Ship opened the door to the officer, and there ensued, in the presence of the Packet Boat landlord, an agitated conversation in the hallway of the inn. The officer spoke brusquely and in terms that discouraged further questioning: ‘I have this last hour been landed on a beach from France after travelling for two nights and I am the bearer of dispatches that are the most important to be brought to England these past twenty years. I must have horses and in the meantime I would be obliged if you would bring me pen and paper so that I can inform the authorities of what has passed.’ On being asked the nature of his news, he waved his interrogator aside: ‘Do not pester me with questions. You will know it tomorrow from the Post-Admiral.’
Mr. Wright, the landlord, was roused, and he, together with certain guests who had been woken by the knocking, joined the officer in the parlour. Among these was Mr William St. John, who was staying in Dover as an agent of The Traveller newspaper: he was there to obtain intelligence for the paper on developments in France but he also hoped to use such information for his own Stock Exchange dealings. Clearly the city spies were out that night in Dover.
Once candles had been brought into the parlour, the officer’s full regalia could be seen by those present. It consisted of a scarlet uniform coat with long skirts buttoned across, a red silk sash, grey pantaloons and a fawn-coloured fur cap circled with a gold band. He wore several ornaments, the most prominent being a star on his breast and a silver medal suspended from his neck, and he carried a small portmanteau. The officer requested privacy and addressed himself to the landlord:
‘I am the bearer of sensational and glorious news – the best that could possibly be wished. But I cannot say more. I must ask you to arrange with great urgency an express horse and rider to carry a message to the Admiral at Deal as well as a post-chaise and four to take me to London. For the present I need pen, paper and ink and I would be obliged if you could also provide some refreshment to sustain me.’
Once writing materials and a bottle of Madeira had been suppled, the unexpected visitor proceeded to draft a hasty dispatch, as follows:
To the honourable T. Foley
Post Admiral, Deal
Dover, one o’clock am
February 21st, 1814
I have the honour to acquaint you that the L’Aigle from Calais, Pierre Duquin, Master, has this moment landed me near Dover, to proceed to the capital with dispatches of the happiest nature. I have pledged my honour that no harm shall come to the crew of the L’Aigle; even with a flag of truce they immediately stood for sea. Should they be taken, I have to entreat you immediately to liberate them. My anxiety will not allow me to say more for your gratification than that the allies obtained a final victory; that Bonaparte was overtaken by a party of Sacken’s Cossacks, who immediately slaid [sic] him, and divided his body between them. General Platoff saved Paris from being reduced to ashes. The Allied Sovereigns are there, and the white cockade is universal, and immediate peace is certain. In the utmost haste, I entreat your consideration and have the honour to be,
Your most obedient humble Servant,
R. du Bourg
Lieut-Colonel and Aide-de-Camp to Lord Cathcart.
Wright took the letter and entrusted it to one of his own boys with instructions that it be delivered to Admiral Foley personally at Deal. At about the same time a chaise and four was brought to the door of the Ship by two postboys to convey Colonel du Bourg (as we may now call him) to London – first staging post the Fountain Inn at Canterbury.
Du Bourg had offered to pay the Ship’s landlord in gold Napoleons, as might be expected from a traveller newly arrived from France. Wright, however, preferred to receive Bank of England notes, and these were duly produced. From now on, however, du Bourg paid his way along the route to London in gold Napoleons, which the various postboys were happy to accept. The next staging post after the Fountain Inn was the Rose at Sittingbourne and thereafter The Crown at Rochester, where, at around 5:30am., du Bourg entered the parlour to refresh himself with a little chicken and beef provided by the landlord, William Wright, who happened to be the brother of the Ship Inn at Dover. Wright was already aware that important news was about to break since a postboy from Dover carrying an urgent letter to be delivered to London had just passed through with the information that an official messenger was en route. Clearly, du Bourg’s sensational news was preceding him to the metropolis.
Wright was understandably curious to know more about the dispatches brought by the officer in red. ‘I am led to suppose that you are the bearer of some very good news for this country,’ he tentatively began. Du Bourg answered him with a perfunctory ‘He’s dead,’ as he took his refreshment. ‘Who do you mean, Sir?’ Wright asked. ‘The tyrant Bonaparte,’ was the reply. When Wright asked whether this was really true, du Bourg replied curtly: ‘If you doubt my word you had better not ask me any more questions.’ Whereupon Wright apologised for presuming to doubt him and asked whether he might know the dispatches, given the anxious state of the country and of Rochester in particular.
Du Bourg deigned to give a more informative reply:
‘There has been a very general battle between the French and the whole of the Allied Powers, commanded by Schwarzenburg in person. The French being completely defeated Bonaparte fled for safety. He was overtaken by the Cossacks, however, six leagues from Paris at the village of Rushaw. Having there come up with him they literally tore him to pieces. I myself have come from the field of battle as aide-de-camp of Lord Cathcart. The Allies have been invited to Paris and the Bourbons to the Throne of France.’
After this brief ten-minute stopover at Rochester the same chaise drove du Bourg to the Crown and Anchor at Dartford. The landlord here had once again been alerted to the breaking news by a preceding postboy, and du Bourg elaborated once again on Napoleon’s downfall: ‘The Allies are in Paris, Bonaparte is dead, destroyed by the Cossacks, and literally torn in a thousand pieces; the Cossacks fought for a share of him as if they were fighting for gold. The country can expect a speedy peace.’
As dawn broke on a cold and misty morning the coach was on its final stage between Dartford and London. Du Bourg gave the remains of his bottle of Madeira to the postboys and engaged them in conversation. He shared with them his sensational news, which he asked them not to repeat to anyone until their return from London, and said that he had had to walk 2 miles after he came ashore because his French crew were afraid of coming too near to Dover. He then addressed one of the drivers: ‘Postboy, you have had a great deal of snow here, I understand. Here is a delightful morning, I have not seen England for a long while.’
As they approached London the officer evidently wished to avoid attracting attention to himself. At Bexley Heath he asked the postboys to moderate the pace of the horses. Past Shooters Hill he asked them where the first hackney coach stand was located. On being told that this was the Bricklayers Arms, he said it was too public; they were without luck at the Three Stags in Lambeth Road, but, finding, a solitary coach at Marsh Gate, du Bourg asked that the chaise be drawn up alongside. After pulling up the window blind, he was able to transfer directly to the coach without stepping out. The coachman was then instructed to drive to 13 Green Street, Grosvenor Square, the private residence of Lord Cochrane, where du Bourg arrived just before 9 a.m.
Despite his precautions, du Bourg’s arrival in London did not go entirely unnoticed. Richard Barwick, clerk to Messrs Paxtons and Company, Bankers of Pall Mall, was passing by Marsh Gate on his way to work when he noticed a man getting into a hackney coach from a post-chaise. The horses of the chaise were sweating profusely from their exertions, and the postboys told him that the gentleman was a general officer carrying news from France. Knowing, as a banker, the value of inside information, Barwick decided to follow the hackney coach. This he did as far as the Little Theatre at the Haymarket, when he had to turn off in order to be at his office by 9 a.m. (Presumably he had in mind personal rather than corporate gain, since the latter night have justified his being late for work.)
While sensational news was spreading along the coach road from Dover to London, the other avenue of communication that du Bourg had opened up was encountering difficulties. The postboy arrived in Deal with du Bourg’s message to Admiral Foley at about 3 a.m. Thomas Foley was woken and asked the maid to bring him the letter so that he could read it bed. Doubting the veracity of the sensational contents, he then questioned the postboy in his dressing room. He remained highly sceptical, but in any event, when daylight came, thick mist obstructed the line-of-sight communication. Foley therefore decided not to try the telegraph but instead sent du Bourg’s letter to the Secretary of the Admirality, accompanied by a note of his own.
Notwithstanding the failure of the telegraph at Deal, du Bourg’s reports from the battlefield, first communicated by postboys and coaching-inn landlords along the London Road, were shortly after breakfast time on the morning of 21 February beginning to multiply among merchants, dealers and brokers in the City of London. When the stock market opened that Monday at 10 a.m., government bonds were quoted at around the levels they had reached at close of business the previous Saturday. But soon the market began to stir as news spread of the officer in red and his extraordinary dispatches. The leading government trading stock, Omnium, having opened at 26 ½ premium soon rose to 30 ¼, but towards midday, when there was no official confirmation of the reported Allied victory, doubts crept in and stock prices began to fall back. At this point, between midday and 1.p.m., the market was given dramatic renewed impetus by the appearance in the City of a post-chaise drawn by four horses decorated with laurels, the two gentleman passengers wearing blue greatcoats with white lining and cocked hats with white cockades – the uniform of French royalist officers. This impressive cortege came over London Bridge, down Lombard Street, along Cheapside and over Blackfriars Bridge, the occupants scattering paper billets inscribed with ‘Vive le Roi!’ and ‘Vivent les Bourbons!’ The City saw the triumphal display as corroboration of Napoleon’s downfall, and Omnium, reversing its earlier decline, touched 32 ½.
In the early afternoon, the City still awaited official confirmation of the news, and an expectant crowd gathered outside the Mansion House in anticipation of an announcement from the Lord Mayor. But, when messengers were sent to the West End, it was found that no dispatches have been received by the office of the Secretary of State. At this point it became clear that investors had fallen victim to an elaborate hoax, and government bond prices began to subside. Omnium sank back to 28 by the close of business, and there was a further fall to 26 ½ the following day, bringing quotations back to the level prevailing before the appearance of Colonel du Bourg.
Since ordinary investors had been duped on a large scale, there was an immediate outcry, and calls for an investigation to identify and prosecute the culprits. In its leading article of Tuesday 22 February The Times thundered against the ‘fraud of the most impudent and nefarious description’, expressing the hope that ‘Great exertions will…be made by the frequenters of the Stock Exchange to detect the criminal’. On that same day the Committee of the Stock Exchange, with its reputation now at stake, met and appointed a subcommittee to enquire into the hoax and to bring justice to those responsible. The subcommittee appears to have pursued its investigations with great energy over the next ten days, because on 4 March the Exchange posted a notice asking whether ‘all those members of the Stock Exchange who transacted business either directly or indirectly for any of the persons undermentioned on Monday 21 February last, would favour the Committee with an interview.’ There followed the names of the names of the Honourable Cochrane Johnstone, Mr. R.G. Butt, Lord Cochrane, Mr. Holloway, Mr. Sanders and Mr. M'Rae.
At the same time a reward of £250 was advertised for the discovery of Colonel du Bourg. The wheels had been set in motion for the preparation of an indictment for conspiracy and a sensational trial that would not only hold London’s population in thrall for its duration but whose outcome was bitterly contested for more than a century afterwards.
Extracted from Napoleon is Dead by Richard Dale