a picture of a prisoner of war ship at Dartmoor.
Between 1793 and 1815 approximately one-quarter of a million prisonersof war were held in Britain.
At Chatham between 1803 and 1814 there were approximately 90,000;at Plymouth between 1793 and 1814, about 175,000; and at Portsmouth for the same period, approximately 360,000. At any one time there were thousands of prisoners confined in these areas and many more at other ports. Yarmouth held approximately 38,000, and Bristol and Liverpool about 40,000 each
Systems for the humane treatment and exchange of prisoners had evolved during earlier eighteenth-century wars.
Prisoners were to be fed, on an agreed food allowance, by their own country; an agent was appointed by each combatant nation to oversee the treatment of their nationals in enemy prisons, markets were open to them to check local prices, and they were allowed to visit prisons and hear complaints.
Regularexchanges were to take place, prisoners being selected by the agents and a table, stating equivalents in numbers of men exchanged for officers, was drawn up.
A new depot at Norman Cross, near Huntingdon, was opened in 1797 to contain 7000 prisoners, but an imperfect exchange system limped along through the 1790s, although the peace of Amiens in 1802, when all prisoners were returned, temporarily solved the problem.
But it was only after 1810 that the exchange system collapsed irrevocably and new prisons, representing a large capital outlay, were built on green field sites.
The numbers in these new depots illustrate the extent of the problem: Dartmoor, opened in 1809 to hold 6000 prisoners; Perth, opened in 1812 to house 7000; Greenlaw and Valleyfield near Penicuik in Scotland housed approximately 1500 and 7500, respectively, between 1810 and 1814.6
The threat of an uprising in 1812, led by officers who planned to march on the large camps, free the prisoners and occupy the ports preparatory to a French invasion, forced government to disperse prisoners to more distant locales.
Even then the depots in the major ports remained, and for most of the war these ports were unwilling hosts to thousands of French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, American, Russian, Greek, Croat, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Polish prisoners — all, in the eyes of the authorities, capable of mass escapes and of seducing British subjects with revolutionary ideas.
For many prisoners, the ports at which they disembarked were not their first sight
of Britain. Many had been captured as crews of ships seized under embargoes, like those against the French in 1793, the Dutch and Spanish in 1795 and 1796, or the Americansin 1812. Others were taken while sheltering from bad weather or from neutral ships searched for contraband by British warships; some men had even been discharged from captured warships for refusing to serve against their native land, although these men were paid their wages up to that point and also the prize money due them.14 Others were taken by privateers which swarmed from Liverpool, Bristol and other western ports to prey on hapless merchantmen from the West and East Indies, in happy ignorance of the outbreak of war, or had been captured by British frigates snapping up prizes in the western approaches or the Channel.
Some prisoners were soldiers, captured while being moved from one front to another or, more often, making up crew numbers on enemy warships.
But it was not until after 1803, and particularly after the outbreak of the Peninsular War in 1808, that large numbers of soldiers appear in the registers.
The seamen prisoners on average were in their early to mid-twenties, although
officers, masters, mates and skilled men were approximately ten to fifteen years older.
French seamen came chiefly from Brittany, Normandy and the western ports; Spanish
seamen from the northern and Basque provinces, as well as Spain's colonial ports, such as Vera Cruz and Havana; and Dutch and German prisoners equally from their main ports and the North Sea coast. It was rare for men to come from more than about twenty to Prisoners of War and British Port Communities 21 thirty miles inland. The captives were held for varying periods: at the beginning of the
war, often for only weeks or months, but later, sometimes for years. Many neutrals were also captured, although they were usually released at the request of their consuls in Britain, provided they had not been apprehended on board an enemy warship or had not engaged to navigate an enemy merchantman knowing war to have been declared.
But although in these circumstances they were not considered prisoners of war, they were frequently held, sometimes for months, while their cases were investigated.15 If they were taken in enemy warships or merchantmen knowing war to exist, they lost their neutral status and became prisoners, classified by the flag under which they had been serving.
A shortage of seamen provided an opportunity for some men to escape prison by
volunteering for the Royal Navy. French (later Dutch and Spanish) seamen were refused, even if they were royalists, as four French volunteers from Portsmouth declared themselves.
Although the lives of prisoners of war may have been monotonous, their presence
was felt in port communities. Government's first consideration was security, but the
presence of thousands of even the most docile prisoners being fed and clothed by the
authorities while contributing little to the local economy (and in some cases actually harming it), caused tensions.
Contractors supplying food and clothes were appointed by the Transport Board on the basis of the lowest tender and were usually national firms,based in London, that could handle the large numbers involved, rather than local businesses.
In 1812 the Victualling Office at Plymouth, which supplied the prison there
and at Dartmoor, advertised for 500 sacks of flour and 1000 quarters of wheat per week, and in May 1814, 21,000 prisoners at Portsmouth were consuming 100 head of cattle per week. Such large numbers affected local food supplies. In periods of scarcity, such as 1795-1796, 1799-1801 and 1810-1812, when food prices soared and trade slumped, a prisoner-of-war depot in the neighbourhood could result in disturbances.21
A riot inTavistock, about fifteen miles from Plymouth, in the autumn of 1812 was blamed on the high price of bread (corn was fifteen to sixteen shilling per bushel) caused by the great quantities of corn sent to Plymouth and Dartmoor, where there were 11,000 prisoners of war. An estimated 2000 bushels were being consumed by prisoners and there were fears that the county was being drained of grain. The rioters demanded either that the prisoners be sent home at once or that foreign corn be bought to feed them. The reporter of thisincident to the local MP warned of the serious consequences if government ignored the complaints. The "daily passage of waggons full of corn to the French prison and Plymouth naturally incite them [the poor] to murmurs and even threats of seizure," particularly when they lived on the "hard fare of tea and half a bellyful of barley bread,and that grain has also increased to 8/- a bushel and beef exceeds last year's price."22
The prison diet was monotonous and dietetically unbalanced, but it compared
favourably with that of civil prisoners in British jails and not unfavourably with the fare of British seamen. Prisoners had a quart (two pints) of beer, one and one-half pounds of bread and one-third of an ounce of salt daily; three-quarters of a pound of fresh beef on six days; half a pint of dried peas on four days; four ounces of butter or six ounces of cheese on Friday; but no fresh fruit or vegetables or wine except to the sick.
British sailors had a pound of biscuit per day; and four pounds of beef, two pounds of pork, two pounds of peas, one and one-half pounds of oatmeal, six ounces each of sugar and butter,and twelve ounces of cheese per week, plus a gallon of beer and half a pint of rum per day. Prisoners, however, were not always passive consumers. Attempts to bolster the Cornish herring fishery in 1807 by instituting two fish days at Bristol failed when prisoners refused to eat the fish and 63,000 pounds had to be sold.2 3
Hunger was an incitement to violence on both sides. In September 1814 a group of American prisoners from Halifax were landed at Plymouth and marched to Dartmoor. On route, being very hungry, they fell on a cartload of turnips, telling the farmer that "the King pays for all."
Such actions were unlikely to endear prisoners to the local populace.
Dutch prisoners were generally well regarded for their cleanliness and orderly behaviour
The prime contact between the local population and prisoners was most common
at the weekly market at prison depots where prisoners could sell the articles they were permitted to make. These were of bone, wood or straw, and included toys, models, boxes and pictures, which earned some men large sums and which, according to one observer at Liverpool, made the poor envious.29 These markets also gave prisoners the opportunity to buy fresh food to supplement their diet and made possible early contacts over escape plans and the smuggling of tobacco and liquor, both forbidden.
Although prisoners were forbidden to disrupt local trades, they sometimes did so.
In 1808 there were complaints about the sale of obscene snuff boxes and toys at the Bristol depot. William Wilberforce, to whom the complaints were addressed, asked the secretary for the local Society for the Suppression of Vice to investigate. The complaints were upheld and the prison market was suppressed until the culprits were betrayed by their fellow prisoners, whereupon they were sent to the hulks.
All this we learn from the book
Prisoners of War and British Port Communities, 1793-1815 Patricia K. Crimmint