SOME REMARKABLE OCCURRENCES FROM 1809 TO 1814 EXPERIENCED BY ME JOHN GAYFORD DURING MY IMPRISONMENT IN FRANCE.
I sailed from Liverpool 12th November 1809 in the ship Agreeable†, Captain Thomas Bridge, master, and a crew of 33 men. We carried 12 guns, had a letter of Marque’s commission and were bound for St Johns in the Island of Antigua.
Nothing particular happened until the 16th, when we fell in with a French Privateer brig, she bore down upon us, and we engaged her an hour and beat her off, lost no hands, but the Captain and one boy were slightly wounded. We made sail and proceeded on our passage with changeable weather until the 12th December, when at 8 am, fell in with a ship and brig. They proved to be English, the Junon frigate and Obsevateur, brig of war, they sent their boats and I with 3 others were prest on board the Junon, John Shortland was the Captain. We found that she had been lately taken from the French and carried into Halifax and fitted out for a cruise and manned from the ships on their station then sent to sea to press to complete her crew†.
We were all put on the ships books, stationed quartered & I was stationed in the main top and quartered at gun on quarter deck. At 12 o’çlock 4 strange sails were reported from the masthead, all hands were turned up to make sail in chase of them, and to make preparations for getting the boats out, supposing them to be English merchant ships and to have got a good number of seamen. They made all sail possible from us, but we came up with them fast, and found them to be four ships of war. We continued the chase and cleared away for action. On coming up to them, we could see they were heavy frigates under Spanish colours and made Spanish private signals to them, but they would not answer. They formed a line for action and hove to for us at 5pm. We went in between the two headmost ships and received a broadside from each, before we got a gun to bear upon them. The topsails all came down on the caps and the fore tacks & sheets were all torn away, the ship lost her way and before we could get any canvas on, she fell alongside the second ship. They dropped a grapnel into the starboard main chains and kept fast to us and the commodore laid about two ships lengths from us and the other two kept pressing under our stern, raking us in this position. We laid for an hour and a quarter engaging them until our ship was a complete wreck. (The brig seeing us hemmed in by them fired one broadside and then made sail). We beat them off from boarding us twice, but at last the Commodore laid us alongside, on the starboard and were boarded on all quarters and obliged to surrender after an obstinate resistance and with the loss of 90 men killed and wounded among whom was the captain. We were taken on board, some in each ship and as it was coming on dark they would not allow any of us to take any of our clothes with us but promised us we should have them in the morning. They proved to be four party, four gun frigates; namely Le Renommee, le Clorinde, Le Loire and Le Seine, the two latter had only twenty guns each mounted, as they were laden with stores and 500 troops on board. They came from Nantes and were bound to relieve the Island of Guadeloupe, these 500 soldiers were all firing on us as the ships kept passing down our stern. The next morning after our capture they got all they could out of the ship for their own use, but not a thing was brought belonging to us prisoners. (This of course by the reader must be considered a daring, obstinate, and unpardonable attempt on the part of Captain Shortland to engage such a superior force, and the Junon’s crew not complete by 100 men, and many lately prest from merchant ships)†.
I was with about 50 more put on board the Le Renommee, and about 30 on board the Le Clorinde, and the remainder with all the wounded on the other two ships. After they got all they could from the ship they set fire to her and made sail. The night after our capture the Renommee and Clorinde got onshore on some rock call the Saints, the two other ships altered their course and avoided the danger and we saw nothing more of them. We laid in this situation for some time and found the ships would not come off without lightening them so they turned too and hove 20 guns overboard from the Renommee and 20 from the Clorinde, after this they came off but the Renommee lost her rudder. They laid the ships to the northward, and she felt the wind across the gulf of Florida, The ship was for some days without a rudder, but they at length made one with the spare topmast, and with the assistance of our carpenters got it shipped. They then sang Vive l’Emperor and shaped their course for old France. On their passage home they took and destroyed several merchant ships, so the prisoners kept increasing, and the ships company began to be very sickly, that they began to be very doubtful of us. It come on to blow heavily from the eastward off Ushant so that we could not get in there, so bore up and ran off the North West of the Island out of the way of the English cruisers. During this time, they captured the ship Hope of Bristol†, laden with coals bound for the West Indies. (Something particular in this was, this ship had both the Pile and Cork Pilots on board and the ship was blowing away from land with both on them). As they found the ship to be very sickly and a number of prisoners on board proposed to make a bastille of the ship Hope and put us all on board of her.
The next morning all of us with light hearts were getting ourselves in readiness, the tackles on the boat were all ready for hoisting out, when an English frigate hove in sight. All was dismay with us, for the ship Hope was set on fire, and we poor wretches bundled down the hold again, and they made all clear for action, but the frigate did not come down upon them, seeing them two heavy ships, (we wished poor Captain Shortland commanded her, he would have laid them alongside and taken the pair of them in half an hour, in the state they were in, for the two ships were not better than one). She lay off out of gunshot all the day, but at night they lost sight of her. [Next day?] the wind proved more favourable and they [proceeded?] for the coast of France again, and got into Brest after being 6 weeks at sea. Not meeting with anything to retake us, we were well treated on board as prisoners of war, being allowed the same rations as their own crew. We were just in quarantine on board a hulk for some time in consequence of the sickness on board and the ships were put into dock and sunk to clarify them. As they found the sickness did not abate they landed us at the back of the town and marched us up about 3 miles to the Grand Naval Hospital Pont Fazy, where we remained sometime until the sick recovered. In the month of April 1810, we were marched in detachment of twenty to Cambray [Cambrai]. Our marching allowance was 1½ lbs bread and 2½d a day (during our stay in the hospital we were exceedingly well treated). After a long and fatiguing march we arrived at our destination all well. Cambray is situated on the frontiers of Flanders and is a walled town with a fine citadel which was the prison. Here our allowance per day was 1lb bread and ½lb of meat (cow beef) ¾d from the French, and one penny from an English fund called God’s fund. Here I contented myself for about 9 months, until January 1811, when being tired of confinement and having no hope of an exchange of prisoners, Peter Collinnette, James Mizney and myself, formed a plan of escape, which we effected by stowing ourselves away in a sort of building built over the well before the prisoners were locked up for the night. Three of our friends answered our call when mustered & we were not missed. As soon as it got dark and all was quiet, we descended from our hiding place & cut away the well rope in order to descend the ramparts which were 90 feet high. We got past the guards & made the rope fast to a tree & down we went as quick as possible. Mizney & myself got down all well, but poor Collinette lost his shoes & hurt his arm considerably. The weather at this time was very sharp & a deep snow was on the ground. As a substitute for shoes for my companion I cut the lining out of my jacket & wrapped it round his feet. In this state we travelled for some distance over hedges & ditches, as we dare not go on the high road for fear of being taken. At last we found that our companion Mizney faltered, little thinking what was the matter with him. He had carried a bottle of brandy for our refreshment & he had unfortunately made too free with it unknown to us, so that with the liquor & the intensity of the weather he entirely lost use of his legs & we were obliged to lead him along for some distance, in the hope of finding some place to shelter him from the inclemency of the night. At last we gave up as he became such a dead weight, so we laid him on the edge of the bank & walked on until we saw a cottage and then returned (to him in the hope of getting him sheltered there, but to our great surprise we found him a dead man. What to do we did not know, but at last we made up our minds to proceed as we could not do anything for him. You may suppose we were at our wits end, for we had left the bottle with the remainder of the brandy with the unfortunate man & afterwards very much needed it. We did not get far before my friend who was without shoes became lame, so seeing three corn stacks close to a house, we stowed away in one of the end ones under a sort of thatch they have that comes to the ground. There we laid like two rats in the straw until daylight, shortly after that time the farmers were all bustle getting one of the stacks in the barn, so we kept perfectly still and hardly dared breath & expected every moment to have the fork into us, but fortunately they did not touch the stack where we were hidden. We heard them talking of a man who had been taken up dead on the road & was supposed to be an English prisoner. In the evening we quitted our nest almost numb with cold & hunger. We got on the road & after walking a short distance, found a lonely house & bought a pair of old shoes & got some refreshments, passing ourselves as deserters from the army, as my companion could speak French fluently. We kept to the road but made very slow progress as the roads were bad & covered with a deep snow. The morning being past, we stowed ourselves away in a hovel near a cottage & covered ourselves up with some bean stalks. At daylight the old woman of the house coming for some kindling for her fire found us & was much alarmed, but was soon reconciled, when my friend told her we were deserters from the arm, she promised not to betray us & brought us what necessaries we wanted. There we were obliged to stay some days for my companion was taken ill from his hurt & caught cold. At last he was better & we were able to get on the road again. We left our kind old lady with a blessing & next morning stowed away in a hay loft. No one discovered us here & at night we proceeded & got some refreshment at another lonely house & then went on the high road leading to the city of Douai, a large fortified town. How to get clear of the town we did not know. We met an old man who said he would take us round as he was going that way, his home being the other side of the city about 3 miles away. We gladly accepted his offer as we had met with a faithful friend, we placed the same confidence in him. We walked on, got comfortably round the town without being obstructed & at length arrived at our pretended friend’s house. He made us have some refreshments which we thought very kind of him & insisted on our going to bed & refresh ourselves, promising to put us on the right road next night. This we thought would be too intruding & begged he would excuse us, all to no purpose, for he said he was anxious to do all he could for us. So to bed we went quite worn out with cold & fatigue, not having been in a bed for 11 nights, our feet were frost bitten, but we soon fell asleep. In the morning we were awakened by the rattling of accoutrements of two gendarmes for our kind & good friend had given information of us as soon as he got us to bed. The gendarme pitied our condition & they behaved exceedingly well to us. We were in a most distressing state having been away 11 days laying about in out houses or wherever we could get. They took us to a female barber, the only time I was ever shaved by a woman. They told us this old man was a reputed informer & that he had got his money from us & was then enjoying himself. We were taken back to Douai town gaol, where we laid for some days & then sent back to Cambray, from whence we deserted.
We were now put in a dungeon underground (sometime previous to our desertion & serve their time in the dockyards as convicts) here we laid until the 19th March when we were tried by a military court martial, found guilty & condemned with four others who deserted about the same time under the aforesaid decree & sentence passed accordingly. From this time we were not considered as prisoners of war, but as civil prisoners & treated as such. Our allowance was bread & water, that is 2lbs of bread per day and all the water we could drink to fill us up. This was all except what we got by charity. We were now marched to the grand receiving prison for all condemned prisoners at [Becitre?] near Paris, from thence is our place of destination, here we were mixed with some of the lowest grade of the country, some for one crime & some for another. On our arrival we were stripped of all our apparel & dressed in the prison garb which was a canvas jacket & trousers, black & white, that is to say half of the leg of the trousers black & the other white, & the jacket the same. You may be sure we looked like so many mountebanks, we could but laugh at one another to see what a respectable appearance we made. We were kept in close confinement, only allowed two hours each day to walk in the prison yard. We remained here two months on bread and water. During this period some were sent away to other places, their usual way of sending convicts was to chain about 100 two and two, with about 5/8 inch chain and a collar round the neck clinked them. Then there were 10 couples put into a wain & a long chain rove through the neck or coupling chain. In this manner they were conveyed to the naval dockyards. As a matter of course we expected to be taken in the same way. One morning we were aroused early & summoned to march on the route by the gendarmes, they took us a way round Paris to Versailles & lodged us in the town gaol, here we found that our route was made out for Le Orient, here we had our faithful allowance served out to us, sometimes we met kind friends on the road, but none would believe we were condemned for desertion, they said we must of been guilty of something worse, for they said such a thing was never heard of before by any civilized nation. After a long & tedious march we arrived at Le Orient, sometimes handcuffed & at other times chained by the neck. The circuit we took made about 700 miles of it. Some days before we arrived we fell in with some convicts who had deserted from Le Orient, they were taken up & being conveyed back again. They informed us we should be stripped of all our clothing as soon as we arrived so we sold all we had except what would barely cover us, it being very warm weather. We were taken to the Commissioner of slaves in the dockyard, he told us he had received orders from the Minister of War not to put us to work until further orders, so we were put into a prison in the dockyard. No straw was allowed, so we had to choose the softest plank on a soldier’s guard bed. We were in this state some days, three of the six of us passed for Americans, they wrote to the American Consul, he came to see us in our miserable condition & sent us all some clothing & a blanket each & was very kind to us. We remained here two months, during this time we were kept locked up in a small room & not allowed out. We had one pleasure here, which was being able to see the sea from the prison windows. We often used to see the English ships cruising off the coast & have seen them firing on their batteries. During our confinement here the French government had abolished the decree & issued another, to keep all prisoners of war who deserted in close confinement during the war. In the early part of October the order came for us to march away, our destination this time being Briancon in the Upper Alps a distance of about 700 miles. We thought more of this than of anything we had yet experienced, to have to take such a march & the winter coming on. Of the two evils we should have much preferred being put to the slavery which we had been condemned to, than to march across to Briancon. However, we were obliged to submit & it was of no use grumbling. From this time we were considered as prisoners of war again & fared a little better in respect to our living, but still marched in irons & lodged in those miserable town gaols, full of filth & vermin. Nothing particular occurred during our journey, otherwise than we were often put into a miserable prison at night after coming off our day’s march, wet & cold. It was a long & tiresome journey but at length we arrived at the Alps, here we had great difficulties to cross the mountains & particularly the mountain of Gap which at that season of the year (December) was almost impassable. At the later end of the month we arrived at Briancon after having been on the road from place to place 12 months. We had then marched from the time of our desertion 1,500 miles in irons & a great part of that time on bread & water. We found Briancon to be a regular receiving depot for prisoners of war who had been taken up the Mediterranean sea. There were about 2,000 prisoners here mostly soldiers. Briancon has a remarkable strong fort in which we were put. It was a building that formed part of a square & it sheltered the 2,000 prisoners of war & about 200 who were sent from other prisons, some for desertion & some for other crimes, as they termed them. Here we were locked up in rooms not more than 16 feet square & each holding 16 men. We were here day & night like so many wild beasts in a show. We were allowed to have two hours walk in a limited space before our building every fourth day. During these two hours airing, the other prisoners were locked up, so that they should have no communication with us. They were never allowed to approach our building as we were always strongly guarded by soldiers. After being in this situation some months they gave us a little more scope, that is they would leave our room doors unlocked during the day, so that we had the run of the whole passage which contained 6 rooms. This we thought at the time [a] great indulgence as we could go & see some of our old friends, for they separated us as much as possible. After being in this situation so long & not a shadow of hope of being released, a party of us formed a plan of escape. By ascending the chimney at the back of the building, we had found out that as soon as we got down, we should be clear of the prison. We had got the rope made, a blanket cut in lengths & laid by, but to our surprise we found the chimneys had all iron bars at the top. We did not know how to get over this difficulty. At last we got a piece of steel & jagged it. I being as small & as active in the business as most of them, climbed up the chimney & began cutting the bars. Here we used to sit & cut as long as we could, each taking a spell, the bars being thick. We had been at work some days cutting & had got through some of them, but not made a hole large enough to get through. But alas, I was sitting very orderly at work cutting the last bar, when I was startled by a stone or something whizzing past my head & turning my eye up, saw a man, who was on his rounds examining the chimneys. He gave the alarm & you may be sure I was not long before I was down & as black as any gentleman sweep need be, so much so that I had not time to get off my sooty garb before the gendarmes were in the room. As a matter of course I was the first picked upon, with several of the others from the same room who they thought proper to take. We were lodged in a most miserable damp & dank dungeon underground. There we laid for 6 weeks in a most wretched condition scarcely seeing daylight during the time. When we were released we looked like so many Poland Jews, not being shaved during the time. After this we were obliged to submit to our fate, miserable as it was & not the least chance of any change or release for us & almost devoured by the sable tribe, as there had been Russian prisoners of war in the same prison before us & they had left a fine stock behind them & we poor wretches had the same blankets they had. That as soon as we began to get warm in bed, they would be about us like bees & all we could do, could not clean ourselves during the two years of our confinement here. We remained in this situation until the later part of December 1813. The enemy was advancing upon them by the way of Italy! They marched us in great haste to away, the whole depot in a body. After this time we were considered as the other prisoners & mixed with them. It was a remarkable thing that although we were so close & miserably confined for two years, not a man of the 200 died. We found when we got on the road, this time our route was for Nanbanch on the borders of Flanders. On the march the weather was dreadfully bad & the roads in a very bad state. We were on this march billeted on the inhabitants sometimes after our days march, if the town we stopped at could not lodge us all (for we were about 2,000). They would send us away to the adjoining villages in bye roads up to our knees in mire for the distance of 4 or 5 miles, as the case might be & the next morning all had to assemble at the town again, to get our rations for the day, we then marched on the road again. Many poor fellows died through fatigue & cold, the inhabitants where we were billeted, treated us sometimes with the greatest kindness, other with as much indifference & considered us intruders. At length we arrived at our destination, in the latter part of February & put into some barracks. During our stay here a report was circulated that the prisoners were going to rise against the town, in consequence we were all put into subterranean passages under the ramparts that had not been opened for years, here we laid for three days & nights almost suffocated with foul air. At last by expostulating with the commandant he let us out to the barracks again. We remained in the town about 6 weeks, the enemy were advancing upon them in this quarter & we were ordered away again for the south of France. The weather was more favourable than on our former march. We found our route was for Tours (this was the appointed place for all prisoners of war to assemble & to be sent from thence, to different parts of the south of France). Here we remained for some days, then we were ordered to march to Rouen, sometimes on the road they had difficulty in getting our rations as the country was getting into such a bad state. After some days march we arrived at Rouen. I think it is the most pleasant city in France I ever beheld, being situated in a very fertile plain, surrounded by mountains & the land mostly cultivated by the spade. Here the inhabitants were obliged to find us with bedding, as there were no barracks in the place. After remaining here a few weeks the joyful news arrived that the combined armies had marched into Paris. Joy & peace seemed to be everywhere, the inhabitants mixing with us & we with them & the tri-coloured flag hauled down & a white flag hoisted. But the military showed a great reluctance to yield to the new government. The next day the proclamation was read in favour of Louis & in a few days, we were marched away from Bordeaux, it being the nearest seaport to us. There we found some of the English army. We were passed to the English commissioners & had our rations served out from his department & billeted on the inhabitants. The next day we were sent down the river to where the English ships staid [sic] & put on board the ‘Suffolk of Whitby’’ a transport & sailed for old England in the early part of May. We arrived at Plymouth after a favourable passage. Many of the prisoners & myself were then put onboard the St Salvadore as we belonged to the Navy, this was a guard ship. There we soon learned that there was an Admiralty order for all prisoners of war in consequence of their long confinement to be discharged. There I remained some days & was then put on board the Prince Frederick† convict station & to await our orders & to be paid off. On the 17th May we were ordered onshore to the dockyard to be paid off, we received payment from the day we were first into the service, until the above date. After having a jovial frolic, we all separated for our native home after having been in captivity for 5 years and marching about 4,000 miles, of which about 1,500 in irons and if any who wishes for war again should fall into half the misfortunes I have alone, they would soon wish for peace.
Written & experienced by me John Gaylord
Recopied December 28th 1876 by R Daws (Daughter)
Recopied June 5th 1909 J Colling (Great Grand Daughter)
Photocopied September 23rd 1983 by Edna Collings (Wife of Cedric Collings 1915-1981)