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The Prison of Norman Cross: The Lost Town of Huntingdonshire

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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 used 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 defense 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.

This large prison was a significant establishment in the area. The 1801 census records that Peterborough had a population of 3,500 while five miles to the west was a settlement with a population of 6,500. It was the largest industry in the area, promoting trade between the depot and the surrounding villages, where many of the families of the garrison lived. The gentry saw the prison as part of the east of England tourist trail, visiting the prison market to see their erstwhile enemies at work and play, and purchase a souvenir in the form of a bone ship or straw marquetry trinket box, many fine examples of which can be seen in Peterborough Museum.

The depot housed men, women and children of many nationalities; all of whom were swept up in a global conflict. French, Dutch, German, Italian and Polish soldiers and seamen found themselves held here for varying lengths of time, thus visitors would hear a multitude of languages spoken. 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 story of the Time Team investigation and an analysis of the deaths at the depot provide a unique insight into life and death inside a war prison of the Napoleonic Wars.

The prison was more than just a place of confinement. Men found themselves out of the war and would settle into a comfortable routine, manufacturing bone, straw and wood models to sell in the prison market. The prisoners were fed and clothed regularly and so found it a comfortable existence, especially when their talents could earn them money. Some did so well out of their manufacturing activities they employed other prisoners as servants and cooks, while on release some took home 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) received much anonymous correspondence complaining about the problem. The same happened when the manufacture of straw plait 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. An examination of these illegal activities has not been performed before.

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.

There is much remaining of the prison in the area: the Agent’s House; part of the brick boundary wall constructed in 1807; the Norman Cross Eagle memorial; the soldier’s cemetery; the tombs and memorial to two of the Agents buried in Yaxley church; the grave of Jean Habart in Stilton; even one of the prison cauldrons now used as a water-feature in a local garden centre.

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, as well as the people living inside, and it is these human stories that make the book a fascinating insight into a Napoleonic prisoner of war depot.

By Paul Chamberlain

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