A VISITOR TO DEVON
by Dr Hugh Wills
At Sea in Plymouth Sound
One careless word from Midshipman Home was all it took, and a gaggle of twenty white-frocked Brixham girls headed for the quayside. They mobbed the shore party and had to be man-handled out of the ship’s cutter, probably with some degree of enthusiasm by sailors who hadn’t been ashore for many weeks.
What was all the fuss about? Well, the date was 25th July 1815 and on board the “Billy Ruffin” – the matelots’ name for His Majesty’s 74-gun Ship of the Line Bellerophon. Which was anchored in the heaving swell of Torbay, onboard “The Ogre” , none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself. The girls were desperate to see the man who had such a devastating reputation.
He had surrendered to Captain Maitland ten days earlier off the ne d’Aix in the Basque Roads to the west of Rochefort, being “on the run” at the time from Louis XVIII, the Prussians, and many others. The tide in his affairs had clearly turned since the battle of Waterloo on 18th June. Napoleon had hoped to get to the United States, but the British blockade prevented this. Given the alternatives he was happy enough to accept the hospitality of the British Navy, thinking that the outcome would be carriage to England where he would certainly be received as an honoured guest. How very wrong his assumptions turned out to be!
Despatches from Lord Keith, Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet, arrived next day with orders to sail under escort directly to Plymouth. Once there Napoleon was not to be allowed ashore and only those authorised by Lord Keith himself would be permitted to board the Bellerophon. Accompanied by the frigates Slaney and Myrmidon the 74 gunner weighed anchor at 5am on 26th. The short journey was hampered by adverse winds, but eventually, at 4pm that same day Plymouth Sound was reached, and the three ships dropped anchor 100 yards north of the breakwater.
News of Napoleon’s capture had reached the south west, certainly by 21st July. An article in The Sherbourne and Yeoville Mercury on that date gave all the details to the eager public, who, “putting two and two together” headed for Plymouth. Even on the very first evening there were many trippers afloat trying to catch glimpse of “The Ogre”. To ensure that these unwanted spectators were kept at a respectable distance six longboats circled the Bellerophon and the two guarding frigates, the Eurotas and the Liffey. As an added precaution a small cannon had been fitted to each longboat. However, such was the noise of the blanks fired that even Napoleon, master exponent of massed artillery barrage, complained of the din. Maitland, probably just as annoyed by the row, agreed to a cessation of the guns.
Rumours of Napoleon’s exile to St Helena abounded in the city as early as Thursday 27th. This only heightened the sales pitch of the boatmen, who were eager to make the most of the opportunity. Mr J Burt of the Barbican advertised trips on his boat The Fly for one shilling and sixpence “To see the Bonny Party”. Others also cashed in on this unexpected windfall. It was reported in The Plymouth and Dock Telegraph that on Sunday 29th as many 10,000 persons in a thousand small boats circled the Bellerophon. The crowds were not just locals: many had come from as far afield as Glasgow.
Such were the numbers that descended on Plymouth that lodgings were extremely hard to come by. The crowds of spectators also took to wearing red carnations. The sight of these flowers gave much hope to Napoleon and his entourage that a definite pro Bonaparte following seemed to be forming.
The sailors of the “Billy Ruffin”, keen to please the public, chalked messages on a blackboard hung over the forecastle rail. “Now talking to the officers”, “Asleep in his cabin”, “Gone to dinner”, “Lunching”, and “About to go on deck” were displayed for all to see, including Mrs Maitland, wife of the Captain. Alas, she too was not allowed aboard. Napoleon offered her a few words of consolation on Thursday 27th: “this is very hard… Lord Keith is a little too severe, is he not Madam?” Turning to Captain Maitland he added, “I assure you, her portrait is not flattering. She is handsomer than it is”. What Maitland said in return is not recorded.
If Napoleon wasn’t allowed ashore, then his washing was. Stories were reported in the press that certain people had even tried on these items “out of blind infatuation”. Another story hit the headlines, one poor soul by the name of Boynes, a mason from the dockyard, had drowned when the craft he was on collided with a vessel from the Britton.
On Friday evening the 28th Napoleon had a sobering view of ships entering the Sound carrying French prisoners-of-war captured at Waterloo. They were destined for Dartmoor Prison, whose construction had begun in 1806 to accommodate an ever increasing number of Frenchmen, who prior to that date had been housed either in the prison hulks in part of the river Tamar, known as the Hamoaze; or in Mill Prison, later known as Millbay Barracks. Within a year most would be sent back to France, unlike Napoleon who would never be released.
Saturday 29th was a miserable wet grey rainy day. Although still unaware officially of his fate, Napoleon was well aware of the contents of the newspapers brought on board the Bellerophon by Maitland, which clearly told of “Exile for life on St Helena”. Maitland knew for certain by the next day, but was bound by secrecy to reveal nothing. However, on Monday 31st Lord Keith, with Cabinet Representatives, gave Napoleon the bad news.
Consternation spread through the Emperor’s entourage. Madame Bertrand, born in Ireland and hoping to stay in England for personal reasons, feigned madness and tried to throw herself overboard. General Gourgaud swore to set fire to the Bellerophon or at least die trying to thwart the British plans. Savary and Lallemand had it in mind to kill the Emperor rather than see him disgraced. They warned Maitland that a suicide attempt by the Emperor was likely. Napoleon himself felt tricked and had never regarded himself as a prisoner of war. He appealed once more to the Prince of Wales, the effective sovereign of Britain owing to the recurrent madness of his father the king.
Sadly, official overtures to the Prince Regent were to come to nothing. the allied powers had given Britain carte blanche in a document signed in Paris on 28th. Basically, Napoleon could be held prisoner wherever it was felt appropriate. St Helena, that wind swept small island in the South Atlantic was judged to be just the place for “the Ogre”. It wasn’t quite so dramatic the “Iron Cage” Marshal Ney had promised to put him in for Louis XVIII the year before, but it was definitely more secure.
However, all hope was not entirely lost.
There was still a glimmer of hope, courtesy of a West Indian lawyer by the name of Mackenrot. His plan was devious, but had a definite chance of succeeding. Essentially, if Napoleon could be subpoenaed to appear before a British law court he would have to set foot on British soil. Then the rules of the game would change. He would be out of the hands of the government and under the protection of British law. According to an article by Capell Lofft in the Morning Chronicle he would be within the protection of the act of Habeas Corpus;
“As an inhabitant or resident of England he shall not be sent prisoner into Scotland or to places beyond the sea”.
Mackenrot duly set his plan in motion. Mackenrot had apparently libeled Admiral Lord Cochrane by accusing the latter of negligence for not attacking the French Admiral Willaumez in 1806. He called on both Napoleon, and for good measure his brother Jerome Bonaparte, as witnesses for his own defence. The writ was issued and all that had to be done was to deliver it either to Napoleon, or failing that, to his custodian, Lord Keith.
There was a problem. Lord Keith knew of the plan and managed to keep out of Mackenrot’s way. Doors were barred to the lawyer. He couldn’t get into Lord Keith’s house, his offices, or on board the Tonnant( Keith’s Flagship). He chased Lord Keith to Cawsand and still couldn’t catch him. Maitland was also mightily worried, as on the night of 2nd-3rd August a mysterious boat had been seen under the stern of the Bellerophon.
Finally, early on Friday 4th August, in a letter warning of the impending arrival of lawyer Mackenrot, Captain Maitland was ordered by Lord Keith to set sail at once, keeping to the shore line, and head east for a rendezvous with the Northumberland off Start Point. Some time between 9am and 1pm the “Billy Ruffin” made its way out of the Sound, but not without some difficulty. Both tide and wind were against it, and she had to be towed out. And just in the nick of time, for not far behind was a small boat in pursuit. On board was a figure in black waving a legal document. It was Mackenrot with his subpoena.
The Journey Begins
In due course, accompanied by the Eurotas, Express, Nimble and Tonnant, the Bellerophon met up with the Northumberland off Start Point. The transfer of prisoners took place on 7th August and the following day Napoleon Bonaparte, former Emperor of France and ruler of most of Europe, now referred to by his captors as General Bonaparte, was taken on the long voyage to St Helena, he arrived sometime in October.
So ended the visit to Plymouth by “The Ogre”, but the final word must go to the redoubtable gazette, the Sherbourne and Yeoville Mercury, whose edition on 14th August 1815 announced:
“Thus terminated a rare show in Plymouth, after yielding a plentiful harvest to the watermen during his (Napoleon’s) stay within the Breakwater at that port; on some days, particularly Sunday night, the numbers of ships which went out to see him at his usual hour of exhibition was about 1,000; on which occasion some fools actually took off their hats, and cheered him, apparently with the view to soothing his fallen fortunes and paying him a popular compliment. We cannot therefore but approve highly of the precautions adopted for his transfer to the Northumberland away from the view of such inconsiderate persons.”