Napoleon Bonaparte

Old British Letters — A dip into the past

A "Napoleon" Story, 1815

by Eunice Shanahan

"The Inside "Napoleon" Story

At the Quespex 79 Exhibition in Brisbane, I bought a somewhat water-stained old letter because I had never seen the postmark before. It was Plymouth Dock, dated Aug 11 1815. The datestamp incorporated the figure 200, which was the mileage from London. The '11' written in manuscript on the front was the cost for sending a letter a distance between 170 and 330 miles. This rate was in force from 1812 to 1839 when the Penny Post was introduced in Britain.

However, when I opened the letter out fully, the contents were even more interesting. The letter was from a British Naval officer to his uncle and concerned the last days of Napoleon before he was exiled to St Helena. The writer had included in the letter a copied sketch of Napoleon (see picture below). Even though this letter is more than 170 years old and has obviously suffered some water damage, the writing and the sketch are both extremely clear and legible. I have checked in the Encyclopedia Britannica and what the writer has said is completely correct. Napoleon Bonaparte left France on the British Naval vessel the BELLEROPHON and transferred to the vessel the NORTHUMBERLAND and sailed from Plymouth in that vessel August 11, 1815, which arrived in St Helena on October 15,1815.

I have quoted most of the letter as it seems to show how an ordinary family letter can throw light on an actual historical event, bringing it to life.

"My dear Sir,
I have delayed writing so long under the expectation of being sent on the recruiting service and wished to give you an account of our destination. As the war however seems to have come to a close we shall remain for the present where we are."

[Note: the Battle of Waterloo June 15, 1815 was the end of the French/English war, when Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by Wellington's army. After this defeat Napoleon was forced to abdicate and he requested protection from the British Government. This was granted and he was taken to England aboard the BELLEROPHON on July 15, 1815.)

"I send you, as the greatest curiosity I have, the copy of a sketch of Bonaparte done about a week since on board the BELLEROPHON by his secretary Col Lanat — Having had a very good sight of him myself I can pronounce it to be a strong likeness of the outline of his face and head. The day after he arrived here one of our Colonels borrowed the General's boat and I was glad to seize the opportunity of taking Emily to see this wonder of the age. When we arrived near the ship we saw Bonaparte walking backwards and forwards in the cabin in conversation with General Bertrand..."

(General Henri-Gratien Bertrand was a military engineer and Napoleon's friend. He had a distinguished military career, culminating in being appointed the Grand Marshal of the Palace of Napoleon's court in Paris. He had accompanied Napoleon on his previous exile to the island of Elba and was now to accompany him to St Helena.)

The letter goes on ...
"Our boat (which was a very handsome one and filled with Ladies and Officers) having attracted his attention, he came forward and looked at us occasionally with an opera glass, for the space of five minutes. He was dressed in a green coat with red collar and cuffs and gold epaulettes and he wore a Star. After staying good naturedly long enough to satisfy the curiosity of the ladies, he sat down to a writing table and we saw no more of him.

You will have seen by the papers what an extraordinary sensation was created here by Bonaparte's presence however the stories that related of him have no foundation — the fact is that he went away with a very good grace and having been invited to the NORTHUMBERLAND on Monday last, he immediately desired that all the officers should be introduced to him — and that same evening he was seated comfortably at cards with the admiral.

He is accompanied by Bertrand and three other superior officers and two ladies with their children and eight servants. Being desirous that the surgeon of the BELLEROPHON should also accompany him, and the surgeon also being willing to go, he was allowed to have him and has promised him five hundred a year, in addition to his pay. He has taken with him about twenty thousand pounds sterling in French coin (Napoleons). He constantly regretted that he was not allowed to remain in England and domiciliate here, but on taking leave of Lord Keith, he expressed himself satisfied and obliged by his Lordship's civility — and every person who has been near him is pleased with this manner and feels somewhat softened towards him. The NORTHUMBERLAND and the squadron bid a final adieu to our coast this morning and as far as regards Napoleon, Europe may be in peace. But the spirit still exists in France, and I do firmly believe the Bourbons will never reign in quiet."

(He was correct!)

"I have been twice at St. Helena and have dined often in the house which will be Napoleon's residence. It is a delightful spot and with half the comfort that he will have I could make my mind up to live some years there very easily...",

(In fact Napoleon died at St. Helena on My 5 1821, so despite his twenty thousand pounds and the surgeon from the BELLEROPHON, he only survived six years).

The letter is finished by a paragraph above the sketch...
"As I do not wish to spoil my work below, I must conclude and Emily will scold me for not leaving room for her to say with how much pleasure she joins in love and every good wish to my aunt and yourself , Your sincerely
affect. Nephew...."

The signature is the only illegible word in the letter, it could be anything!

Usually letters written in this period had the name and address of the sender written either on the inside or the outside of the letter. In this case I would imagine that this was not necessary, as the uncle would know who had written it, and earlier in the letter it says...

"We continue in the same lodgings and pass our time very comfortably and peaceably receiving much attention from the Gentlemen and Ladies about us"...

So obviously, his uncle would know the address as well.

An interesting side issue is commented on , when he says...
"the markets which had risen a little, in consequence of so many ships being here will now fall again — necessaries of life in general are thirty percent cheaper here than to the eastward which may perhaps be accounted for by the immense quantities of fish which are constantly brought in — I wish we were near enough, I could supply your table with fish at very little expense..."

As a footnote, the two ships BELLEROPHON & NORTHUMBERLAND were ships of the line, both "Seventyfours", so called because they had that number of guns. This type of ship endured the longest and far more of them were built than any other warship. In fact, to the British Public in the 19th century, the words "SEVENTY FOUR" were synonymous with invincible naval superiority.

I hope this article may show why I find postal history so engrossing. I spent some hours verifying the facts in the letter, but I enjoyed it immensely and increased my own knowledge, as I knew almost nothing about Napoleon and nothing at all about General Bertrand. The one inescapable conclusion is that it is also very time consuming — but think what I would have missed if I had only looked at the postmark!

....This article appeared first in Stamp News Australasia May 1990. Copyright by the Author.


The next month's issue of the magazine had this letter to the Editor
"I was very interested to read Eunice Shanahan's article Napoleon at Plymouth. It was not only the philatelic content that interested me but the historic content confirmed some of our family history which I had heard about 60 years ago from my paternal grandmother.

She was a great niece of this surgeon on the Bellerophon and his surname was Gutheridge. I knew that he was the surgeon on the ship at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, but was not sure of the family story that he went to St Helena, and I certainly did not know that he was paid to go there.

Thank you "Stamp News Australia" which keep us in touch and for the postal history in particular.

Tom Mills. President Tintinara Stamp Club South Australia."

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