The Finistère Convicts Register - Was Your Ancestor an Escaped Convict or Prisoner of War in Napoleonic France?
27 November 2022
Earlier this year, we went on a marvelous archives junket to Bretagne. One of the most important things on our list was to examine much more carefully and thoroughly this superb register of recaptured escapees of all sorts during the Napoleonic era.
To describe it properly, this register is an Alphabetical List of recaptured French and foreign prisoners who had been released or who had escaped and who subsequently were held in various prisons in the department of Finistère (Forçats français, étrangers : liste alphabetique des détenus, libérés, ou évadés de differentes prisons, Code 1Y88 in the Brest Annex of the Departmental Archives of Finistère) On the cover is written that it spans the years 1800 to 1815 but it seems to be more from the middle years of that period. It has about two hundred pages, with roughly twenty-five to thirty-five names per page. That makes for something between five and seven thousand names of convicts and escapees.
The presentation within is tidy enough. One finds the prisoner's surname and first names, their status and the prisons from which they escaped. There are many types of status or descriptions, but the most common are:
- forçat libéré - released convict
- forçat évadé - escaped convict
- condamné et évadé - convicted and escaped
- prisonnier de guerre évadé - escaped prisoner of war
Here is a sample page:
As you can see, the columns to the left of the names refer to lists and dossiers that should have provided more detail. Frustratingly, these would seem to have been lost.
Nevertheless, there is some interesting information to be found in this register. On just this one page, we find that:
- There seems to have been a mass break-out at Rham, in Luxembourg, with many men recaptured.
- François Bureau escaped from prison at Brest
- Claude Breugnot was held on suspicion of the kidnapping of Charlotte Seure
- Ralph Billings was a prisoner of war escaped from the depot at Verdun, as were William Brown and Thomas Benninck
The book is filled with convicts who came to the west of France from all over the territory of the French Empire. It sometimes gives a small detail of their conviction, such as that a man was condemned to years in irons or that he had escaped during the march to a prison. Most of the entries, of course, are escaped criminals and those suspected of every type of crime, including murder, rape, fraud, theft. Quite a few managed their escapes from hospitals. The escaped prisoners of war were of all nationalities: Spanish and English especially, but also Italian, Polish and Austrian. Many in the list were conscripts and deserters from Napoleon's army. There are a small number of women and a few runaway children. They had made their way to the coast, hoping to find a boat to make their escape from France. Each of them, somehow, in some way, was nabbed.
This register is a wonderful view on a particular part of French society at a very particular time in French history. Combined with other archival resources, it could help to enhance your research on an ancestor. As just a couple of examples:
- For those of you with a convict ancestor who escaped from the Bagne de Brest, you could compare his entries in the two registers. (The registers of the other port forced labour prisons of Rochefort, Toulon, Lorient and Cherbourg, from which there were many escapes, are not online and would have to be examined in the archives.)
- For those of you with an ancestor whose military records show that he deserted, you might find evidence of his capture here.
The escaped prisoners of war form an interesting group. We are not informed as to the accounts and archives concerning the prisoners of war of Spanish, Italian, Polish, Austrian or other nationalities, but we do know a bit about some of the British prisoners of war in Napoleonic France. We have discussed the civilian British prisoners here and, briefly, the prisoners of war here. They are listed in Admiralty records digitized on FindMyPast. Additionally, those who were still being held in 1812 can be found listed in the "Report from the Committee for the Relief of the British Prisoners in France; with a list of the prisoners". After the wars, a number of British ex-prisoners published accounts of their experiences, including their "escapes".
We counted in this register just under 880 names of escaped British prisoners of war who were recaptured and held in Finistère, amongst them:
- Beaumont Dixie, escaped from Verdun
- Edward Boys, escaped from Valenciennes
- Joshua Done, escaped from Verdun
- Phillip Levesconte, escaped from Verdun
- Hugh Falconer Macfarland, escaped from Verdun
- Two Thomas Mains, father and son, escaped from Valenciennes
- Edward Montagu, escaped from Verdun
- John Moore, escaped from Bitche
- Denis OBrien, escaped from Bitche
- Sidney Smith, escaped from Verdun
- Charles Sturt, escaped from Meaux
In the accounts written by some of the above, there is no mention of recapture, which does call into question the rest of what they wrote. On the other hand, some of the above most certainly did escape France, most notably Charles Sturt, which could indicate that at least one prison guard was not above accepting a bribe, or that, after being returned to prison, they had to escape all over again. Indeed, a few of them did just that.
Recall our recent post about a trove of letters from British prisoners of war held at the harsher prisons of Bitche and Sarrelibre. Men usually were sent there from other prisons if they were troublesome or if they had attempted to escape. Comparing those letters with this register, we can see from the recaptures the probable reason for a man's having been sent to a "punishment prison".
- David Absalon appears in the Finistère Convicts register as having escaped from Verdun; a letter from him appears in the Bitche-Sarrelibre cache
- Thomas Nazeby, appears in the Finistère Convicts register as having escaped from Arras;; he had three letters in the Bitche-Sarrelibre cache
- James Ord appears in the Finistère Convicts register as having escaped from Auxonne; a letter from him appears in the Bitche-Sarrelibre cache
- William Tullidge or Tullage appears in the Finistère Convicts register as having escaped from Cambrai; one letter from him appears in the Bitche-Sarrelibre cache
This lone register is, we believe, a treasure of a find and we hope that it may be digitized soon, along with the registers of the other port bagnes, please.
©2022 Anne Morddel