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The Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

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French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » November 27th, 2012, 6:18 pm

On 17th November 2012 British and French gathered at St George’s Chapel near Chatham for a brief service and a ceremony at the memorial to French prisoners of war who died in captivity during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Navy disinterred the remains of 521 prisoners from St Mary’s Island in 1904 when the dockyard expanded; later the remains of another 362 were discovered when St Mary’s Island was redeveloped for housing.
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Wreaths were laid at the French Memorial by the Mayor of Medway, Le Souvenir Français and the Friends of Norman Cross.

Sarah

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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby Banker » November 28th, 2012, 7:47 am

Sarah, Very interesting where were they re interred?

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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » November 28th, 2012, 8:53 am

Good question Steve. According to the old postcard pictured below, they are interred under the monument but that may apply just to the remains found in 1904. The monument reflects the Victorian style of that period. But I can't confirm this or whether the remains found later are buried there as well.

Sarah

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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby Banker » November 28th, 2012, 9:21 am

Very interesting
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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby PaulC » December 1st, 2012, 4:15 pm

The Prisoners of War at Chatham Prison Ship Depot

During the Napoleonic Wars there was a prison ship depot situated in the Medway at Chatham, moored in Gillingham Reach and Short Reach. The bodies of those who died were interred in the marshes adjoining the hulks. The bodies of those from Short Reach were buried on the marsh land known as St Mary’s Island, while those from Gillingham Reach were buried on what was known as ‘Prisoners Banks’.

In 1854 the Admiralty purchased St. Mary’s Island and the adjoining marshland to extend Chatham Dockyard. Work began on this extension in the early 1860s. In 1868 it was noted that the burial ground at ‘Prisoner’s Bank’ was eroding and exposing the skeletons and coffins. The Admiralty arranged for the bodies to be re-interred in the existing French Cemetery on St. Mary's Island and in 1869 a memorial was placed over the cemetery, with all labour being performed by convicts.

1903 saw plans for the construction of a new Dockyard basin that would take in the French Cemetery, so it was decided to remove the memorial and bodies to a new site, south of the Naval Chapel in the Royal Naval Barracks. The transfer of the remains took place during late August and early September, and it was reported that 521 skulls and remains had been reburied in varnished deal boxes, with the memorial being re-erected in December. It is a mystery why all the bodies in the French Cemetery were not removed in 1904, because in late 1990 the island was part of a development by English Estates, who discovered that there were still some skeletons remaining. The site was carefully excavated and the remains were re-interred at the dockyard site behind St. George’s Church, and a short service of remembrance was held in front of a new memorial tablet placed on the site which reads:

This memorial was laid here on July 22, 1991, to commemorate the re-interment of the remains of a further 362 prisoners of war from the original cemetery on St. Mary's Island.

All the dead prisoners of war from His Majesty’s Prison Ship Depot, Chatham, now rest in peace in a well-kept graveyard. In November each year there is a ceremony involving the Mayor of Medway, Le Souvenir Français, the French Consulate and many local people with an interest in their heritage.The inscription on the original memorial, which still stands, reads:

Here are gathered together the remains of many brave soldiers and sailors, who, having once been the foes, afterwards the captives of England, now find rest in her soil, remembering no more the animosities of war or the sorrows of imprisonment. They were deprived of the consolation of closing their eyes amongst the countrymen they loved, but they have been laid in an honourable grave by a nation which knows how to respect valour and to sympathise with misfortune.
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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby PaulC » December 1st, 2012, 4:16 pm

The Prison Ships at Chatham and their link to the prison at Norman Cross

If a prison ship required space for a large consignment of prisoners due to arrive, the existing captives would often be moved to other vessels or marched north to the land prison depot at Norman Cross. Being transferred to a land prison was regarded as much better than languishing in a hulk and so prisoners of war welcomed such a move. However, if they caused trouble at Norman Cross then the ultimate punishment was being sent back to the hulks at Chatham. Those prisoners who had been sent direct to the depot could also be punished by being incarcerated on board these ships, as one Pierre Agnes discovered.

With thousands of fit men in their 20s and 30s living at Norman Cross, often for many years, sex was bound to be an issue. Some prisoners did have access to women however.

In 1807 a local girl, Charlotte Barker, formed an attachment with the prisoner Pierre Agnes, whom she met in the prison market. She communicated with him by sending letters via a baker’s boy who regularly went into the prison. The turnkey Halliday and his wife allowed Charlotte and Pierre to use their lodge for their love trysts but this was discovered by the authorities. Pierre was sent to the hulks at Chatham; Charlotte and the baker’s boy were forbidden to come to the prison; and Halliday was threatened with dismissal from his post if such a thing happened again.
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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » December 1st, 2012, 4:37 pm

Thank you very much Paul for this information both about the prisoners and the French Memorial. It's interesting that prisoners from the hulks were buried in coffins and not in just a [mass] grave.

The text of the 1869 plaque is certainly poignant.

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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby Banker » December 2nd, 2012, 12:07 am

Paul, Thanks you for this I have found this thread very interesting

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Re: French Memorial at Chatham, Kent

Postby PaulC » December 2nd, 2012, 12:24 pm

All prisoners of war at all depots were buried in plain wood coffins, and the regulations stated they should be buried at least 3 feet deep. When we discovered the burial ground at Norman Cross during the Time Team dig, the bodies were 3 feet deep, with a row of nails around them, indicating they had been buried in coffins.

Interestingly, certainly during the 1790s the task of burying dead prisoners was contracted to a local undertaker, who placed a bid for the contract. This was certainly the case at Portchester Castle and Forton Prison, Gosport in 1796. Whether this practice was common to all depots throughout the period I have not discovered.
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