Last of the Summer Reading: Mutinous Women
The Journey from Alsace to the Port of Le Havre

Letters Seized - Was One From Your Ancestor Held in a French Prison by Napoleon?

File Cover - Letters found on James Betts

Two English seamen, James Burns and James Betts, were on the Neptune when she was captured by the French privateer, Subtile, on the 26th of November 1809. The Subtile sent her boat with five men to board their prize, the Neptune. Suddenly, the wind changed and the boat overturned, throwing all five men into the water. Three managed to get to the overturned boat and cling to her. The two others drowned. Burns and Betts rowed out the Neptune's boat and saved them. "Even though they were the enemy, we had not lost our humanity," Burns wrote later.

All were taken on board the Subtile, which then sailed to Calais. The captain of the Subtile, Tucker*, wrote a letter describing how Burns and Betts had saved three French seamen and, therefore, should not be made prisoners of war. The port authority at Calais also wrote a letter to the same effect. To no avail. They were sent to the prison depot at Arras and, some time later, Betts ended up in the punishment depot at Bitche.** Burns seems to have spent the rest of the wars at Arras but Betts was released and sailed home from Morlaix on the cartel ship, Elizabeth, in January 1813 (see the released prisoners passenger lists discussed here).

Before Betts left the prison at Bitche, in about mid-December 1812, he must have offered to take with him some letters from other prisoners. He seems to have passed though the prison at Sarrelibre (now Saarlouis in Germany) and picked up some more letters. He then appears to have passed through the prison at Verdun around Christmas and picked up one more letter there. By the time he arrived at Morlaix, he had nearly ninety letters from British prisoners of war to take back to Britain and deliver or post. The letters never arrived. The French authorities took them from Betts at Morlaix.

They have been languishing in the Archives nationales for many a long year, where we stumbled upon them last spring while pursuing our bête noire, Thomas Mansell. We were finding nothing on Mansell and decided to look at a carton identified, curiously, as "uninteresting letters from English prisoners" (archives code: F/7/4240). Oh ho! They are not uninteresting at all to our mind. They are most revelatory about a group largely unknown, being ordinary soldiers and seamen, rarely officers and none a civilian prisoner, held in the two easternmost prisons, about which the Admiralty prisoner of war records (found on FindMyPast.co.uk) have little to say.

Unlike the numerous prisoners' diaries and accounts published after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, almost all of which concern life at a single prison, Verdun, these letters were not meant for publication and so, do not contain the tedious and repetitious self-praise or the understandable resentment at the treatment endured of those books. These letters are to parents, siblings, wives, business associates and they are filled with longing, with reassurances that the prisoner is well, with Christmas wishes. Some report the sad news of the death of a fellow prisoner.

Not only are they of interest to anyone studying prisoners of war, they are of great interest to any of you, Dear Readers, researching a British ancestor held prisoner in France. This is especially so as they show relationships and acquaintances. We photographed them all and give you here a list of the names of the letter writers and the addressees. We have retained the men's spellings of their own names and of the addresses.

Abbott, William to his parents, address: Mr. James Abbott, No. 2 New Road, Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, London
• Absolon, David to William Absolon, Jr., address: Mr. David Absolon, Yarmouth, Norfolk [includes a note from Robert Capp to his parents].
• Bailey, Joseph to his mother, address: M.M. Newton, Scots Square, Blanket Bow, Kingston Upon Hull
• Baker, Michael address: Mr. Thomas Wilkinson, Church Street, North Shields, Northumberland
• Banfield, William to his brother, Mr. Francis Banfield, address: care of, W.B. Banfield, Shipwright, Saltis [Saltash] Cornwall
• Banfield, William to Miss Mary Nichols, address: Frisco [?], Saltis [Saltash]
• Barber, James to his father, John, address: John Barber, in Norton near Lauden [?] in the County of Norfolk. Included in the letter from John Smith.
• Barrass, Thos. to his father and mother, address: Mr. Saml. Barrass, Kells-field near Gateshead, County Durham
• Barrett, John to his wife, Frances, address: Mrs Barrett, care of Mrs McDonald, Harrald Cross [now Harold Cross], Dublin, Ireland
• Bellarby, Edward to his wife, address: Mrs. Elizabeth Bellarby, Wood Street, Sunderland, Durham
• Berrell, Peter, address: Mr. Edward Galagher Cruelsant [?] to care of Mr. Thomas Caleman, Nort Quay Drogheda County Louth, Ireland
• Berry to. his mother, address: Mrs. H. Berry at Mrs. Wilson's near the king and Queen, Rotherhithe, London
• Berry, to his brother and uncle, address: Mr. Tho. Berry, Limehouse bridge Dock, London
• Bishop, ? to Mr. Robert Symes, address: Burton nr. Bridport, Dorsetshire
• Bond, J to his sister, address: Miss Elizabeth Bond, West Teingmouth, Devon
• Bond, J. to his father and mother, address: Mr. Samuel Bond West Teingmouth, Devon, England
• Brangan, Thomas to his sister Ann address: Anne Brangan, no. 100 Abbey Street, Dublin, Ireland
• Came, Richard to his wife, address: Mr. Richard Came, Newton Abbott, Devon, England
• Capp, Robert to his parents, included in a letter from David Absolon to William Absolon, Jr. address: Mr. David Absolon, Yarmouth, Norfolk
• Cargill, John, to his mother, Emily, care of James Cargill, address: Scoran-Burn, Dundee Angeshire, Scotland, North Britain
• Cargill, Laurence to his mother and father, address: Mrs. Cargill, Ballast Hills, Newcastle on Tyne, England
• Cavanagh, James to his wife, Margaret, address: Mrs Barrett, care of Mrs McDonald, Harrald Cross [now Harold Cross], Dublin, Ireland
• Colquhoun, H. to his sister, Miss Ann C. Colquhoun, address: Arran Castle, By Saltcoats, Scotland
• Cook, Peter to his mother, address: Mrs. Jane Cook, Appledore, Near Bidford, Devon
• Davis, D. with a message for his brother Mellorgan [?] Davis, address: Ship and Castle Swansea
• Dods, John to his father, address: Capt. James Dods, Samuelston near Haddington, N.B. [Scotland]
• Douglas, John to his mother, address: Mr. John Willers [?], no. 22 Thistle Street, Edinburgh
• Douglas, Thomas to his father address: Mr. Alexander Douglas, Links of Kirkaldy, Fifeshire N. Britain [Scotland]
• Farquhar, George to his brother, address: Mr. Alexander Farquhar, Post Master, Wick, Caithness, North Britain [Scotland]
• Franklyn, J. to his mother, address: Mrs. Franklyn, Kelvedon, Essex, England
• Franklyn, John to John Wolfe Esqr., address: Wood Hall, near New Frost [Forest?], Essex, England
• Fromayne, William to his wife, Mrs. Mary Fromayne, address: no. 17 William's Street, New Passage, Plymouth Dock, Devon
• Gray, Robert to his sister, Miss Sarah Gray address: Capt. Henry Pennal, Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey Kent
• Haltridge [?], Capt. Charles, address: Mr. John Cramsie, Merchant, Belfast, Ireland
• Hancock, Able to Miss Ann Davies, address: Barnstable, Devernshire, England
• Hancock, Robert to his brother, address: Mr. William Hancock, Barnstable, Devernshire, England
• Heard, Th. to his brother, address: Mr. Gl. [?] Heard, His Majesty's Dock Yard, Sheerness, Kent, England
• Hemson, William to his uncle, address: Capt. William Sharland, Teignmouth, Devon
• Hernaman, Francis to his sisters, address: Mr. Thomas Nicholls of HM Hurd Tender, Eliza & Jane, Plymouth, England
• Hernaman, Francis to his wife, Betsy, address: Mrs. Francis Hernaman Junr., Appledore, Devonshire, Englan
• Herring, James to his brother, address: Mr. George Herring, Sterlingshire, Falkirk, Scotland
• Hirst, James R. to his wife, address: Mrs. J. Hirst at Mrs. Robert Halls, Bay Street, Port Glasgow
• Imrie, George this mother, address: Mrs. Ewing, [unclear word] Hynd, Dundee
• Jerh. [Jeremiah?] Ryett [Byett?] to his brother, address: Mr. Willim Bur, no. 161 Near the Horse Ferry, Rotherithe, England
• Lackey, Peter, to his mother, address: Mr. Peter Lackey, Wright overgate, Dundee
• Lander, George to his wife address: Mrs. George Lander, Passage of Cork, Ireland
• Leigh, Gideon to his father and mother, [this letter is written in French], address: Monsieur Philippe Leigh, Paroisse de St. Britade, Jersey
• Litson, John to his wife, address: Mrs. Mary Litson, 33 King Street, Bristol
• Maillard, Daniel to his mother [this letter is written in French], address: Capt. Daniel Maillard, Glatney, Island of Guernsey
• Maryon, G. to his parents, address: Mr. Maryon, no. 34, Prinus, Leicester Squ, London
• McCarthy, Jeremiah to his father, address: Mr. Charles McCarthy, Healy's Bridge, Cork, Ireland or Elsewhere
• McCarthy, Jeremiah to his friend, John Adams, address: Seaman on Board HMS Defiance, Channel Fleet or Elsewhere
• Meall, James to his parents, address: Mr. James Meall, Yarmouth, Norfolk
• Milne, Thomas to Mr. Andrew Lunnen, shoe maker, Kirrymure [Kirriemuir], North Britain [Scotland]
• Milne, Thomas to Mr. John Ferney Junr., Merchant, address: Leith, North Britain [Scotland]
• Morris, William to Ann, address: Miss Blanchard, Scarborough, Yorkshire
• Mortimer, Robert C. to his mother, address: Mrs. Mortimer, care of Mrs. Searle, wife of Captain Searle R N, Somerset Place, Strand, London
• Nazeby, Tho. to his brother, James, address: Mr. James Nazeby, Blythe, in the County of Northumberland
• Nazeby, Thomas to Smith and Family address: Capt. Edward Smith, Queen Street, no. 32, or Elsewhere, London
• Nazeby, Thomas, to his father, address: Blyth in the County of Northumberland
• Norris, Henry to his brother, address: Mr. Jonathan Norris, Meldrum House, Old Meldrum, By Aberdeen, Scotland
• Ord, James to his wife, address: Mr. James Ord, Banff, Scotland
• Ormiston, John to his wife, address: Mrs. Jane Ormiston, Lynn, Norfolk, England
• Parker, William to his uncle, Mr. Robert Parker, address: Drawing Master near the Turnpike Gate, Stonehouse Road, Plymouth
• Patie, Wm to his brother and W. Walker, address: Mr. W. Walker, no. 11 Lower Cornwall Street near St. Georges in the East London, England
• Patterson, John, address: Messrs. Ormmanny [Ommaney] & Druce, Navy Agents, Norfolk Street Strand, London
• Portious, J. to his sister, address: Jenny Portious, Stenhouse Muir, By Falkirk, Stirlingshire
• Prior, Joseph "son of Elizabeth Prior" to his brother, sister and uncle, address: Mr. Joseph Aldridge at the repository Little St. Martin Lane, Cherring [Charing] Cross, London
• Rowlinson, R. to his wife, address: Mrs. Rowlinson, attn: Mrs. Joseph Shornts, 11 Plattfield Street, Blackfryars Road, London
• Short, Ralph to his wife, address: Great Grimsby Lincolnshire
• Show, James to Mr. Alexander Henderson, address: Mr. Samuel Henderson, Portarpittle [Port o'Spittal?] care of Mr. Hugh McCrea, Merchant, Portpatrick, N.Britain. [Scotland]
• Simpson, Wm to his wife, address: Fellan near Newcastle upon Tyne County of Durham
• Skelton, John to his wife, address: Mrs. Skelton, Hebbron [Hebburn] Read house High South Shields, Durham
• Smith, George, to his sister, Mary, address: Mary Smith, Red Lyon, no. 120, Long Milgate, Manchester, Lancashire, England
• Smith, Hugh to his mother, address: Ann Smith, Rahcail in County Limerrick, Ireland
• Smith, Hugh to Wm. Wilson, Esq. address: Nantenon, in the County of Limerick, Ireland
• Smith, John to his father, address: Mr. William Smith, Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England. [includes a note from James Barber for his father John Barber in Norton near Lauden [?] in the County of Norfolk]
• Stephen, William to his father and mother, address: Mr. William Stephen, Ship Builder, Aberdeen, N.B. [Scotland]
• Stephen, William, to his brother, David, address: Mr. David Stephen of Aberdeen to the Care of Mr. Ritchie, Iron Monger, Edenburgh, N.B. [Scotland]
• Stephens, Benjamin to his mother, address: Mrs. Jane Stephens, Mumbles, near Swansea, South Wales
• Stewart, William to his parents address: Mrs. H. Stewart, Midwife, Kirkaldy, Fifeshire, N. Britain [Scotland]
• Taylor, John, Capt. from Verdun, address: Major General Macleod[?], Depty adjutant General Rl Artillery, Woolwich, in the care of Mr. Drury, artillery officer
• Taylor, Wm. to his brother, address: Mr. John Teylor Jun., Teingmouth, Devon
• Thomson, Robert to his brother, address: Mr. James Thomson, Messrs. Beckwith & Co., Liverpool
• Tullage, William, to his wife and daughter, addressed to: Mrs. Blunden, Lydd, Kent, England
• Viney, James to his mother and to Miss Sarah Viney address: Little Hampton, England, Sussex
• Wallace, David to his parents, address: Mr. William Wallace, Shore St. Andrews, Fife Shire, N. Britain [Scotland]
• White, John address: Mr. John White, Sign of the Swift Brig, Smith Street, Guernsy
• Whiteway, J to Sarah, address: Mrs. Jos. Whiteway, Ringmore, Teignmouth, Devonshire
• Whiteway, Jos. to Mr. Robert Hyne, Merchant, Dartmouth, Devonshire
• Whitfield, Thomas, to his brother and sister, at either of these addresses: Mr. Robert Parker, Drawing Master near the Turnpike Gate, Stonehouse Road, Plymouth or to Mr. Richard Mills, Windmill Street, No. 60, Plymouth Dock
• Williamson, George to his wife, address: Capt. Geo. Williamson, Aberdeen, North Briton [Scotland]
• Young, Andrew to his brother, address: Mr. David Young, Eastburnwind, St. Andrews, Fifeshire, North Britain [Scotland]
• Yowart, Michael to his wife Mary address: Mrs. Yowart, 21 Aston Street, Poplar, near London

We do hope some of you may find your ancestor amongst them.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*Captain Tucker would seem to have been from an interesting family in Calais, founded by one John Tucker of Deal: "John Tucker, Esq., of Calais, a descendant of an ancient family in the county of Kent, but outlawed for following the Stuarts into exile. ["A literary and biographical history, or bibliographical dictionary, of the English Catholics from the breach with Rome, in 1534, to the present time" - Gillow, Joseph, 1850-1921 Volume 5 p.138 archive.org/stream/a583126605gilluoft#page/138/mode/2up/search/tucker]"

https://gw.geneanet.org/azerty7?n=tucker&oc=&p=john

**Their story of the rescue is in the prisoner file on Burns at the Service Historique de la Défense, ministry of War archives, file number Yj 40.

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