Saturday, 15 December 2018

Homes and homelessness at Christmas by Fay Bound Alberti

This month my blog is a brief one. The reason is simple: I am moving house for the second time since August. I write surrounded by boxes that are yet to be unpacked and glasses without a home. But amidst the debris of the move, I am minded how lucky I am to have a home when so many do not.

We have become accustomed, of late, to think of the lonely at Christmas; those without family or friends, those who are widowed or suddenly alone after a period of togetherness. Media coverage tends to focus on elderly people at Christmas, quite justifiably conscious of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of social connection and belonging during a season marked by togetherness.

The world's first Christmas card, produced in 1834

Of course, for many people, families bring sadness and discomfort and a gap between the real and the ideal. The Victorian invention of Christmas, with all its trimmings: turkeys and sprouts, long hours spent at leisure, Christmas cards and carols, is just that for many: an invention. I have written about this invention for the Wellcome Collection, which is devoting a series of articles to loneliness during the Christmas week.

There are many kinds of Christmases, many different versions of family. Yet for homeless people and refugees, Christmas brings a particular kind of loneliness. The history of loneliness has received very little attention, though we know it is both an urban, modern problem. Early modern politicians worried about 'masterless men' roaming the countryside, many of whom were soldiers, but homelessness grew exponentially as a result of urbanisation and industrialisation in the nineteenth century.

It is impossible as 2018 draws to a close, not to see the numbers of homeless people increasing.  Since the 1980s, homelessness has been a particularly growing problem in the UK (and the US), but never before has it been so visible on our streets. Tory austerity and benefit cuts have resulted in more people than ever before being homeless at Christmas, as well as all year round. This Christmas, more than 24,000 people will sleep rough in Britain over the festive period. It's a shocking statistic.

As the weather becomes colder and the spirit of Christmas falls upon us, why not spare a thought for those with no place to call home. Organisations that support the homeless at Christmas include Crisis, which not only provides a Christmas meal and companionship, but also crucial medical and physical care. The Salvation Army provides support for homeless families and individuals, while other charities support specific groups, like veterans.

Support for the homeless is needed all year round, not only at Christmas. Charities facing a glut of volunteer in the festive season find themselves chronically understaffed  the rest of the year.  Like loneliness, the emotional effects of homelessness are exacerbated by the symbolism of the season. Not everyone wants to be with other people at Christmas; not everyone celebrates Christmas. But everyone wants a place to feel safe, and somewhere to come home to.

Wishing all readers and fellow History Girls a safe and happy Christmas.

www.fayboundalberti.com




Friday, 14 December 2018

Under the Volcano - by Lesley Downer


On August 11th 1863 seven British warships steamed into Kinko Bay in the southern Japanese province of Satsuma and dropped anchor in the shadow of the great volcano, Sakurajima, draped, then as now, with a plume of black ash.

The British crew and marines and legation officers on board were some of the first westerners ever to see the beautiful bay with its fringe of palm trees, balmy blue skies and precipitous hills soaring behind. I was there just last month and found myself trying to imagine how they must have felt as they saw this scene which has changed surprisingly little in the last 155 years. Later visitors called it the Naples of Japan.

But the British hadn’t come to sightsee. They’d come to attack the city of Kagoshima on the opposite shore.
Sengan-en Villa with Sakurajima behind

In those days Japan was made up of two hundred and sixty princedoms, each ruled by a daimyo lord, much like the earls and barons of Elizabeth I’s day. The Satsuma domain, in the far south, was so far from the capital, Edo, that it felt like another country. To this day the people of the area still think of themselves not so much as Japanese but Satsuma. The old clan loyalties remain.

The Prince of Satsuma was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the land. Besides his imposing castle set against a dramatic hillside covered in dense forest, he had an exquisite seaside villa surrounded by pleasure gardens, overlooking the bay.
Replica of Princess Atsu's lavish palanquin,
 belonging to Shimazu Nariakira

But the lord who had brought the domain to its pinnacle had died five years before the British arrived. Shimazu Nariakira, a brilliant and wise man, was fascinated by Dutch knowledge, the only western knowledge available in Japan at the time. He spoke Dutch, met the Dutch scholars who spent time in Japan, collected western books, studied western technology, and even kept a diary written in the Roman alphabet. He had a telegraph system, the only one in Japan, installed in his castle grounds, and owned Japan’s first camera, a daguerreotype, bought in 1853 in Nagasaki. The first photograph to be taken in Japan was of his castle and the first photographic portrait was of him.
Kagoshima Castle

He also established Japan’s first glass works which produced beautiful red and blue Satsuma cut glass. And he had built a whole industrial complex under the cliffs down by the bay, looking across to the volcano. There he had a foundry and the first reverberating furnace in Japan where he cast cannon. He also had a secret shipbuilding yard on the lower slopes of the volcano where he built his own warships in defiance of the shogunal decree forbidding such activity because he anticipated western attack and wanted to be ready.

But this great and enlightened lord had no surviving children and when he died was succeeded by the young son of his ruthless and unscrupulous half brother, Hisamitsu, who thereafter held the reins of power.

Satsuma glass ware with Sakurajima behind
  When the British sailed into Kinko Bay it was ten years after Commodore Perry had appeared in Edo Bay with his four Black Ships to force Japan to open to the west. So the people of Kagoshima had certainly heard of these monstrous ships even if they hadn’t seen them. All the same it must have been an awe-inspiring sight - seven mammoth warships, fifteen times bigger than the largest Japanese ship, steaming into the bay in a long line, bristling with cannon..

First the British seized three merchant ships and pillaged them. But the people of Satsuma were not easily frightened. Hearing the British were on their way they set up gun emplacements all along the seafront and turned the cannons, cast in the late lord Shimazu Nariakira’s iron foundry, on the British ships.

Bombardment of Kagoshima by the Royal Navy
August 15th 1863, Le Monde Illustre
They also knew there was a typhoon coming and that it would cause havoc for the British ships. The British were taken by surprise. They'd seen themselves as administering punishment to unruly natives; they didn’t expect the Satsuma to fight back. It took them a couple of hours to regroup. Then they sailed along the coast bombarding the city.

The reason for the attack was the death of a British merchant, killed the previous year by samurai of the Satsuma domain. Charles Richardson, a British merchant from Shanghai, had been visiting Yokohama for a few days and wanted to go riding. He’d been warned not to go on the highway because there was a huge procession coming through. But he ignored the advice. After all, he was British.

He and three friends were on the Tokaido highway riding towards Edo. At Namamugi village they met Hisamitsu himself, Nariakira's haughty half brother, heading straight towards them at the centre of a huge procession with an escort of a thousand retainers. The procession was a mile long. It filled the entire road, from one side to the other. Like Trooping the Colour, it didn’t do to barge into it. When such a procession passed, Japanese fell to their knees and bowed their heads. An American merchant, Eugene Van Reed, meeting this same procession did the same, to the disgust of the foreign community. But at least he managed to keep his head.

Richardson (in the middle, with hat) meets Hisamitsu (to the right) at Namamugi
Richardson refused to dismount. He rode down the middle of road and came between Hisamitsu’s palanquin and his bodyguards - like getting right up close to the queen’s carriage at Trooping the Colour. The bodyguards cut him down. 

The British were outraged. The death of an Englishman was an unforgivable offence. They demanded that the shogun’s government pay a huge indemnity of £100,000, more than £10 million today, and 1/3 of the Japanese government’s annual revenues, enough to bankrupt the shogunate. They threatened to bombard Edo if payment was not made. They also demanded that the offending clan, the Satsuma, arrest the perpetrators and pay £25,000 compensation, nearly £3 million today.

The shogunate paid up but Satsuma refused. The British waited a year and eventually sent seven ships from Yokohama to attack Kagoshima.

In the end Kagoshima burnt down and many beautiful buildings and treasures were lost. However the city had already been evacuated and only 5 Japanese were killed as opposed to 11 British.
Under the volcano: Sengan-en Villa with Sakurajima behind

To the British it was just another small war, a very long way away. Probably very few British people ever even heard of it. This was an era when Britain was waging wars and taking colonies all over the globe. It was not long after the Crimean War in which Britain along with France and the Ottoman Empire had defeated Russia while in China the Second Opium War had only recently come to an end. Britannia definitively ruled the waves. But in the annals of Satsuma it looms large as the Anglo Satsuma War.

The long term result was that Satsuma recognised the superior fire power of Britain and wooed the British who were impressed in their turn by the spirit of the Satsuma. They ended up backing them against the shogunate and, as usually happened in those days, the side the British backed won.


Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is the epic tale of Princess Atsu, Shimazu Nariakira's adopted daughter, whom he sent to Edo to marry the shogun. Out now in paperback. 

For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

The pictures of Kagoshima Castle, the bombardment of Kagoshima and Charles Richardson at Namamugi are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The rest are mine.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Jersey in WW2 - Organisation Todt

by Deborah Swift

Russian Slave Workers of Organisation Todt

My latest research has been into the German Occupation of Jersey during WW2. At first, the surrender by the British and the occupation by the Germans was polite, and the aim by both sides was to make as little disruption as possible, but inevitably as time progressed, relationships between the German occupiers and British citizens began to break down, leading to many reports of trauma and atrocity.

One of the things that caused fear and distress on the island of Jersey was the treatment of the forced labourers of Oganisation Todt. Named for its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi, Organisation Todt was a civil and military engineering confederation responsible for building infrastructure such as defence works and railways.

Hitler saw The Channel Islands as key to the control of Europe and Great Britain. With this in mind, he became obsessed with the idea that The Channel Islands should not be lost, and became determined to defend them, with the idea that eventually, after Europe was defeated, they would become the ideal base for Nazi families to enjoy holidays in a 'Strength through Joy' (Kraft Durch Freude) Camp. Worryingly, when I searched for more about the KDF, I found it still exists, and has branches in the North of England. Here is a typical Propaganda poster, the only one I could find not emblazoned with swastikas.


In order to defend the islands a massive programme of fortification began, and the Organisation Todt provided the labour. This obsession with Jersey was seen by many Germans as Hitlers inselwahn - island madness. Before Hitler's supposed final victory, the islands were to be a stronghold and submarine base for forays into English waters.

For those living on the island, they had to endure the appearance of nearly 500,000 metres of reinforced concrete to make anti tank walls, gun emplacements, underground barracks and bolt holes. Historic castles were fortified with concrete, and new roads cut through the previously quiet lanes to carry truckloads of building materials, plus the many workers needed for this enormous enterprise. To prevent landing by sea, the beaches were mined by more than 100,000 mines.


The workers for this frenzy of building were imported labourers and prisoners of war from Russia, Poland and the Ukraine. According to Nazi propaganda, the Slav races were untermenschen and treated as slaves to the Nazi building machine.

To house the workers,  camps known as lagers were constructed in several places, all named after famous German poilots such as ‘Richthofen’ and ‘Immelmann’. The treatment of the workers was appalling, and most were on inadequate rations because the food was progressively stolen by German employees and guards - either for their own use, or for sale on the black market. The lorry that brought the inadequate soup to the quarries and construction sites, also took away the corpses of those who had died from malnutrition, cold, exhaustion or disease.

Note the armed guard supervising these construction workers

Jersey people were suddenly reminded through these atrocities, that their occupying force could treat pepople in this barbaric way, and this made the constant fear of the occupation much worse. The Germans shot workers caught stealing potatoes from the fields. Suddenly, their Germman neighbours seemed much less civilized when the treatment of their 'slaves' was exposed. Civilians were warned of the penalties for giving the workers food, but a number of Jersey people did try to rescue them, taking them into their homes at great risk to themselves.

According to 'The IslandWiki' - the Channel Island Website, German records show that by May 1943 there was a total of 16,000 foreign workers in Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney. In November of the same year, numbers had halved to 8,959 and by July 1944 only 817 remained.

Workers from Organisation Todt feature in one of the stories in a new collaboration by writers fron many countries - all proceeds are in aid of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The stories focus on the theme of Resistance, and the collection of ten novellas is available now.

More about the stories here


Sources: The Model Occupation - Madeleine Bunting
The First Casualty - Jersey's Occupation Experience
Jersey Evening Post

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Reading for pleasure

by Antonia Senior

I was a bookish child who became a bookish teenager. I was not entirely the introverted stereotype - there was a sociable wildness as well, and a fondness for boozing, smoking and boys. But always with a book, just in case.

Always. I would leave parties early to read; or if I couldn't escape, hide behind a sofa with a book. I would abandon the dancing, and read in the toilets of dodgy nightclubs, waiting for my friends to be ready to leave. My college boyfriend once almost dumped me when he caught me reading my book underneath the table during lunch with friends. 'But it's A Suitable Boy!' I argued, to little effect.

I'm telling you this to remind myself of that girl - the one who curled into the corners of loud rooms to read; the one who was never, ever bookless. About 60 per cent of the time, the book was historical fiction: Mary Renault and CS Forester, Patrick O'Brian and James Clavell. Some people used those nightclub toilets to shag someone or snort something - I was on a frigate rounding the Horn, or standing shield by shield with my lover against the advancing Spartans.

My shelves of best beloved books I have carried round with me for twenty odd years. Minus my lost, much lamented copy of Last of the Wine.

Sometimes, I need reminding of that girl because the downside of reviewing historical fiction is that it has turned my passion into something which can feel a little joyless. A compulsory TBR pile is daunting. A chore. But it also a privilege, and when I look askance at my 2019 pile building up, book by book, I imagine turning to that girl and telling her that she will one day review historical fiction for The Times. She would swear, and leap for joy, and down a shot of something.


My TBR Jenga
There are books which still make me excited. Books I would hide in toilets to read, in the unlikely event I ever again find myself in a nightclub in Hoxton at 2AM. These are the ten books I loved best in 2018, which appeared in The Times' Christmas pics:

Top Ten 2018
The Black Earth, Philip Kazan (Allison & Busby, £14.99)
Mr Peacock’s Possessions, Lydia Syson (Zaffre, £12.99)
Only Thieves and Killers, Paul Howarth (One, £16.99)
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harvill Secker, £12.99)
Frieda: The original Lady Chatterly, Annabel Abbs (Two Roads, £14.99)
Little, Edward Carey (Aardvark Bureau, £14.99)
The Poison Bed, EC Fremantle (Michael Joseph, £12.99)
A Treachery of Spies, Manda Scott (Bantam Press, £16.99)
Smile of the Wolf, Tim Leach (Head of Zeus, £18.99)
Dark Water, Elizabeth Lowry (Riverrun, £16.99)

There are plenty of upcoming books that are making my pulse quicken. Top among these is Philip Kazan's The Phoenix of Florence, out in February from Allison & Busby. Kazan's The Black Earth was one of my favourite books of 2018, a love story set in WW2.  He is back on his usual ground of Renaissance Italy in this one. Kazan writes beautifully - and has a rare knack of conjuring joy as deftly as sorrow.

I'm also looking forward to Wakenhyrst, the new adult novel from Michelle Paver, out in April from Head of Zeus. Her previous horror-laced stories were mesmerising. My daughters love her children's books as well, and they have entertained all of us on more than one long car journey, which makes me well disposed towards her.

Blood & Sugar, a debut from Laura Sheperd-Robinson, out in January from Mantle, looks tasty; as does A River in the Trees by Jaqueline O'Mahoney, also out next month from Quercus. I'm hearing good things about The Binding by Bridget Collins, from HarperCollins. What are you looking forward to reading in 2019? What have I missed.

When the TBR jenga gets too high, or I get eye-rollingly irritated by the deluge of books with ghosts in them, or historical celebrities investigating murders (fashions come and go in publishing) I need to imagine a conversation with the young me. 'When you are old and saggy, you will get to review historical fiction for The Times.'

'Fuck me, you're not serious,' she'd say, drawing deep on a B&H. 'You get sent a load of books for free, and you get to review them in a national newspaper, and champion the ones you really, really love. And you get paid for that? And she'd whoop, and cheer, and crack open a beer and settle in the corner of any room for a celebratory read of HMS Surprise. 

@tonisenior

Monday, 10 December 2018

The Good Death II – Michelle Lovric

Five years ago I posted a piece about a fascinating and little-known Venetian scuola – The Company of Christ and the Good Death, the kind men who retrieved drowned bodies from the canals and provided funerals for those corpses who were not reclaimed by any family or friend.

On many afternoons, over many years, I’ve stood wistfully outside this 1644 building at San Marcuola and tried to imagine what it was like inside. It was always closed. Until I could see the interior for myself, I could not use it in my latest novel.

My interest was regenerated when I came across this strange painting at the tiny museum above Sant’Apollonia. It shows the Company at work, accompanying a corpse, dressed in extraordinary and rather terrifying costumes. (Apologies for the bad photograph, snatched against the rules.)

Then, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I limped off the vaporetto at San Marcuola. I was tired, full of notes that desperately needed transcribing (before even I myself would be unable to decipher my doctor’s-daughter scrawls). But, for some reason, instead of turning right towards home, I wandered off to the left. And so I came across the entrance of the scuola – not only open for the first time in my experience, but also bedecked with intriguing objects.

The scuola had been opened for a charity sale to support the parish.

The items for sale would be described in Italian as 'cianfrusaglie' - stuff/bits & pieces. A judgmental person might translate 'cianfrusaglie' as 'junk' or even 'frippery'. I am not that person.

You can guess how fast I scampered inside, and how earnestly I asked for permission to take photographs. Here they are.



Surely these are the processional lamps brandished by the Company in the painting above left?


The building’s interior appears greatly foreshortened – there are two rooms and a staircase behind the altar. Surely these steps (below) lead up to the chambers where the bodies were laid out and prepared for burial. What remained up there? I was shooed away from a full inspection when I dared to open the doors for this tantalizing glimpse.

Now my imagination needs to declutter the space and find my way to its original state, with at least three important paintings on the wall, the candle-holders arrayed with fragrant wax and disposed with dignity, men quietly praying.

I’m working on it.

Michelle Lovric's website 

Sunday, 9 December 2018

What to Bring to a Saturnalia Feast

Our Saturnalia host, Steve Cockings
by Caroline Lawrence

For many years, my motive for studying Classics and writing historical fiction has been an intense desire to know what it would really have been like in the ancient world of Greece and Rome. So when I was invited to a Saturnalia banquet in Bedford around this time last year, I jumped at the chance. 

Steve Cockings is a re-enactor who loves to collect real and replica artefacts. He is a stickler for detail and has read several early drafts of my books, always coming back with valuable corrections.

Alisa, Simon, Caroline and Elizabeth

Alisa fights in many countries
There were five of us in all. Steve, his wife, gladiatrix Alisa and her husband Simon, also a re-enactor. We all dressed up in Roman garb. Although we didn't recline and there were no frescoes on the walls, we ate recipes from Apicius off real Samian plates with antique Roman spoons to the flickering light of oil-lamps. Roman music played softly in the background and Steve had prepared Saturnalia gifts for each of us: epigrams of the poet Martial, translated into English, written on papyrus, wrapped around a candle and tied with a thin strip of red-dyed leather.  

hard boiled eggs in sauce
The three course meal consisted of:
1) Gustatio (Starter)
• Hard boiled eggs in a sauce of honey, fish sauce, ground pepper, celery seed and chopped almonds.
2) Mensa Prima (Main Course)
• Chicken in Thyme (chicken, ground pepper, thyme, cumin, fennel, mint, rosemary, wine vinegar chopped dates, honey and olive oil)
• Leeks with Celery in a pepper honey sauce.  
• Mushrooms with a Rich Sauce of honey, olive oil, ground pepper and celery seed.
3) Mensa Secunda (Dessert)
• Poached Pears in a sauce of cinnamon, cumin, honey, sweet white wine, olive oil, egg yolks and nutmeg
• Walnut Cake
• Figs, grapes and apples

pears poached in sauce of honey, wine, olive oil and spices

The experience was illuminating in many ways. 

I saw what felt right. 

I saw what was very un-Roman.

I saw what might have been improved. 

It is traditional to give gifts on the Saturnalia. Next time I attend such a dinner I’ll know what gifts to bring. 

a thirsty bronze double-flame oil-lamp
I. Olive oil 
Oil-lamps guzzle oil and need to be refilled fairly often. I took one of my own replica oil-lamps one with a chariot design bought from the British Museum gift shop perhaps a decade ago. I had a piece of twine in it but Steve said it should be plaited linen. The thicker the wick, the brighter the flame. At one point I tried to ‘trim the wick’ with a tiny pair of real Roman tweezers and sent a shower of angry embers onto the linen tablecloth. 

linen wicks
II. Linen wicks
I should have brought some proper linen wicks. You can order them on Amazon, mainly in cotton. They are intended for use with kerosene lamps. 


III. A fan 
Every time a wick was replaced or oil replenished I got a lungful of smoke. A papyrus or silk fan would have discreetly dispersed the offending miasma.  


A loom woven linen napkin from Naples
IV. A napkin
Even using my dual-purpose Roman spoon (one end pointy, one end spoonish), my fingers quickly became very sticky. Most ancient Romans carried a napkin down the front of their tunics. This multi-purpose item can be spread over your clothes to avoid stains, used to wipe mouth and fingers, as a handkerchief for a runny nose and as a personal doggy bag. 


real and replica glass vessels
V. Wine
You need wine to wash down those strange Roman dishes. I bought the cheapest, blackest wine I could find: a £4 bottle of Australian Shiraz from my local Co-op. It was fabulous. 


VI. A replica beaker or jug  
In Roman times it was considered barbaric to drink wine neat. What with watering down the wine, you need as many beakers and jugs as possible. 

Saturnalia scene from The Roman Mysteries TV series
VII. Pillei 
Professor Llewelyn Morgan, an illustrious Oxford Latinist, saw my tweets and asked, ‘Where are your pillei?!’ And he’s right. We should be wearing the conical hats that show we are free from the usual restrictions. A real pilleum would have been made of coloured wool or felt. For a cheap one buy a Santa hat at Poundland and take off the fake fur trim. After all, the origin of Santa hats are the Saturnalia. 

clay figurines of girls dicing
VIII. Dice
I should have brought dice. They can make everything fun. Roll the dice to see who gets the real Samian ware plate. Roll the dice to see who gets the antique Roman spoon. Roll the dice to see who gets the last poached pear in a sauce of honey, cinnamon and olive oil. 

CD of Roman Music
IX. Music
Ideally a live performance of lyre, tambourine, pan-pipes and aulos. But re-imagined Roman music will do nicely. Our host was playing the very well-researched CD Musica Romana Pugnate on a vintage boom box hidden behind a tapestry. But you could play tunes curated by Armand D'Angour as well, easily found on YouTube. 

X. Epigrams of Martial 
It is my personal theory that these were the origins of the mottoes in Christmas crackers. A little two-line poem that also served as a gift tag. Ideally on papyrus in both Latin and English.

Epigram of Martial on papyrus

And speaking of Martial, here is one of his Saturnalia poems: 


Unctis falciferi senis diebus
regnator quibus imperat fritillus
versu ludere non laborioso
permittis, puto, pilleata Roma. 

In these well-oiled days of scythe-bearing Saturn
When the dice box is king of all
I pray that all you cap-wearing Romans
Will permit me some playful poems... 

(Martial XI.6)

Saturday, 8 December 2018

'The American POW's Who Built A Church In England' by Karen Maitland


St Michael and All Angels, Princetown, Dartmoor
Photographer: Theroadislong
Situated 436 metres above sea level, St Michael and All Angels in Princetown, Devon is one of the highest locations for a church in the country. But it is also unique in being the only church in England to have been constructed by American prisoners of war. Most British people know that Napoleonic prisoners were incarcerated in England, but we often forget that American POWs were also imprisoned in England at the beginning of the 19th century.

The granite church sits on the top of windswept and wild Dartmoor, close to the notorious Dartmoor Prison. The building of the church began in 1812, by French prisoners and was completed in 1815 by American POWs. The prisoners had to quarry the hard stone in all weathers, summer and winter, shape them and then transport the great blocks to the site, before each piece could be hoisted in place.

During the war of 1812 between Britain and America, which lasted 32 months, many American prisoners of war were captured during sea-battles They were initially held on the prison ships in Plymouth, ironically, where the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed from, but after riots on board, the authorities decided to move them to the remote and grim prison at Princetown on Dartmoor. In groups of 250, they were marched a gruelling 17 miles up onto the moors, to Princetown, often swathed in mist and rain, surrounded by forbidding tors and deadly sucking mires.
Dartmoor Prison in the Mist
Photographer: Rob Purvis


The prison had been built between 1806-1809 to house 10,000 men. Between 1809 and 1812, 8,000 Napoleonic prisoners had passed through it’s gates, and 6,500 US sailors were imprisoned there in the years between 1813-1815. Conditions were bleak and harsh, with frequent floggings, though these were often ordered by the prisoners’ own courts. But in contrast, there are reports of music and plays being performed by the prisoners. Sadly, more than 280 Americans died in prison from food poisoning, measles, pneumonia and small pox. The stained-glass east window in the church was eventually installed as a memorial to them.

Perez Drinkwater, from Maine, a lieutenant on the schooner Lucy, was captured by the British Navy in 1813. He wrote to his brother in 1814, one of the few letters ever to make it out of Dartmoor Prison.
'We arrived in Plymouth on 20th January was put on board the prison-ship Brave on 24th and landed from her on 31st and marched to this place in a snow storm. The prison is situated on one of the highest places in England and it either snows or rains the whole year round and is cold enough to wear a great coat the whole time. There is 10,000 men here now but the French are about going home … we have but 1lb and a half of black bread and about 3 ounces of beef and a little beef tea to drink and all that makes us one meal a day.
Interior of St Michael's Church with the British, American 
and French Flags.


He also complains about getting little peace between the ‘Englishmen’ and ‘creepers’ (lice and bedbugs) which force them up in the mornings. What seems to have been worse for him is that he had nothing to do or think about except his imprisonment. Working on the church, for some of the prisoners at least, must have at least got them outside those high walls for a few precious hours.

At the end of the war in 1815, there was a delay of some months in releasing and repatriating the prisoners. That and food shortages, led to what some reports called a ‘protest’, others called an ‘uprising’ or ‘riot,’ which was quelled with armed forced. Tragically, seven American prisoners were shot dead and somewhere between 31 and 60 were wounded according to differing accounts.
Some of the small granite stones
marking graves of prisoners 
after 1900.


The churchyard of St Michael's contains over 1,000 burials. When Dartmoor prison was reopened for convicts in 1850, prisoners were buried anonymously in their own area in the churchyard and without a grave marker, unless their families could pay for one. Now, thanks to local researchers their names and history are recorded inside the church. By 1900’s, prisoners were allowed a small granite marker with just their initials and date of death, though when I examined these rows of little stones, even these scant details seem largely unreadable now. There is, however, a large granite cross, with an arrow on each corner, carved by the prisoners themselves to remember all their fellow inmates who lie in unmarked graves.

But it was not just prisoners who had no grave stones. A large empty area between the gates and the cross is where the local people are buried who could not afford a stone, especially during the measles and typhoid epidemic in which some families in Princetown lost several of their children, siblings dying within days or even hours of each other. 

I visited the church just before Armistice day, when like so many across the country, it had been decorated with the transparent outlines of soldiers in the pews. Somehow, these ghostly figures seemed even more poignant inside St Michael’s one of England’s most stark but haunting churches, a moving memorial to the French and Americans POWs who created it.
Poppies and the transparent outline of the solider 
who never returned in the pew in St Michael's church.