Online Talk on Napoleonic Prisoners of War

Last year I conducted research into the conditions of Napoleonic prisoners of war held in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I wrote about my findings in two blog posts for the archives I work at, as well as talking through my findings with a lovely local group that I was involved with at the time. That went very well and all who heard about it said it was a very interesting topic.

Since then I have looked into the parish registers at the time and found a lot of examples of the prisoners and how they married and had children with local women. The most interesting find for me is that one prisoner brought his Egyptian wife to Chesterfield, whilst another brought his Caribbean servant with him. For this reason, I added it to my list of possible talks I could be booked to do and I’m so glad that I did as I have been booked to do it twice more.

The first will be for the Be Bold History Network, a group that connects history knowledge with the classroom. I did a talk for them back in 2021, talking about my book research on Anthony Woodville and was kindly invited back any time. So I will be giving the talk on Wednesday 9th of February. Whilst it is aimed at teachers, anyone is welcome to attend.

If you would like to get hold of a ticket, then it is free to book using the following link, https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/napoleonic-prisoners-of-war-in-chesterfield-tickets-510819714517.

St Mary and All Saints Church, St Mary’s Gate, Chesterfield, as it would have looked in 1793, from the King’s Topographical Collection, British Library

Napoleonic Prisoners of War Talk

During the summer, I have been working for a community based charity local to me, called Blue Box Belper. Their aim is to offer community events in a town called Belper in Derbyshire, as well as to raise money for a brand new community centre. Me and another girl, Abi, have been helping out at some of their events, as well as pitching some new ideas for them.

One of the events I’ve been helping out at has a catchy title, ‘Cuppa Cake Chat’, which does what it says on the tin really. It’s a nice informal coffee morning, where sometimes guest speakers, or members of the group, share about themselves. It was my turn this week. As many of you regular followers will have guessed, I decided to make it history themed. I must admit I had to think for a while about what to talk on as I wanted something quite interesting and not too heavy. Thankfully, I had the perfect topic to talk about from some of my current research on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

General Exelmans changing horses at the Battle of Wertingen in October 1805, Wikimedia Commons

Back in March, following a trip to Ludlow in Shropshire, I discovered that Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, had been held prisoner there during the Napoleonic Wars. With my curiosity piqued, I brought a book on his time imprisoned, which also made some references to how other prisoners of war were kept at that time. In the same book, I saw a sentence explaining how two prisoners, called General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, had escaped from Chesterfield.

As little was mentioned about how they’d escaped, I decided to look more into it, as well as the conditions for the prisoners in Chesterfield at that time. That led me to an utterly fascinating discovery of many different and interesting stories, which I don’t really have the time to share now. It’s an amazing story and one that I’m glad I’m now able to share as it is something that seems to have been lost.

If you would like to know more, please to have a read of the two blog posts I wrote for my work at the local archives in Derbyshire, known as the Derbyshire Record Office, please do click here and here. I promise that they are full of entertaining and exciting things!

Book Review of The Waterloo Belles by Alice Church

I had heard good things about The Belles of Waterloo and was looking forward to getting stuck into it. Of course it helped that I have an interest in the Regency period in general, but I had hopes of this focusing on the more social aspects of a time we often understand as being full of war. In both respects I wasn’t to be disappointed.

The Belles of Waterloo tells the story of the Capel family who have had to move to Brussels a year before the Battle of Waterloo because of their father’s gambling debts. The narrative particularly focuses on the lives of the three eldest daughters named Harriet, Maria and Georgy, as they adjust to their new lives and loves. Little do they know that within months of their arrival that the war against Napoleon would be right on their doorsteps. This does give the reader an expectation of things to come.

Whilst this book is a work of fiction, Alice Church makes it clear that their story is a true one. I found it rather refreshing to know that the majority of the story told was based on letters that exist of the family. By using these letters as a basis, I found this gave the book a unique feel of authenticity. Whilst this meant that there was a risk that the story could have become dull, the opposite is true in fact. This meant that the real emotions felt throughout the family’s many highs and lows during this period are acutely portrayed. The reader easily becomes sucked in and emotionally involved with all that goes on, for good or ill.

The book had a very Bridgerton feel to it in that it portrayed a close knit large family trying to navigate life and for the girls in particular, that means trying to understand the first feelings of love and romance. I feel that even if you hadn’t watched Bridgerton, but liked the late Georgian/Regency period, you would find this as equally compelling. If you have any understanding of the period, you would expect to see lots of balls and house calling. The reader is definitely not disappointed in that. By attending balls and accepting house calls, the Capel sisters find lots of potential suitors and family friends alike. These particular scenes were written with great grandeur and it was easy to imagine the glitz and glamour of those events, most famously the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where war with Napoleon was declared once more. The writer strikes a good balance between explaining the atmosphere of these large gatherings, but also focusing on the personal experiences of the Capel girls and the relationships they form whilst there.

Whilst all three of the Capel girls did have some experience of love, I do find that it did seem to be more focused on the romances that Maria has. Whilst of course it was necessary to show Maria’s romances, I would have lived to have seen more exploration of the other two girls experience. There are some mentions of this, but I feel it would have added to a greater understanding of the sisters by doing so. Whatever may be the case, there is no denying that the girls’ relationships are shown in a way that indicated that the girls are inexperienced in love, which is only to be expected, when they came out in society after they first reached Brussels. In many ways, this was a stark contrast to the heavy realism of the relationship of their parents, which has been tarnished by their father’s gambling.

By the end of the book, the Capel siters had grown in many respects and I think this was one of the best selling points of the book (beside the historical attention to detail of course!). It showed that just like any of us, the characters had become shaped by what they had gone through, even if in reality it was a short space of time. Whilst this meant it was more of a philosophical ending in some ways, it felt very apt and was the right choice to make. It also helped that there was an end note explaining what happened to the real people mentioned within the book and how this influenced what had been written.

Whilst I did enjoy the development of the characters within the Capel family, I found I had a soft spot for General Barnes. Barnes had become a friend to the family after first meeting some of the girls early on in their move to Brussels. He was a kind man and easily befriended the entire family, although he did have a particularly soft spot for Maria. I must admit I was very keen to find out his fate when towards the end of the book, he, as well as all the other military men that the family had grown to know and care for went off to war. There are also some descriptions of the injuries and horrors of war when the timeline reaches the Waterloo campaign, but these are actually necessary in the context they are portrayed in.

In general, I felt that this book, whilst primarily a novel, felt like it was about real people who you could easily relate to. It held its authenticity in a way that showed the research and passion the writer had for the topic. The historical attention to detail made it easy for the reader to imagine being within the events being described, but also like a fly on the wall for the more intimate and gossipy moments as well. It was this engaging narrative that made it very hard to put down and I was sad to finish this, which is always the sign of a good book! I would very much recommend giving The Belles of Waterloo a read as it was just the tonic and escape that I needed.