Friday, April 6, 2012

Norman Cross Depot - A new idea...

Norman Cross Depot, near Peterborough, Huntingdonshire, was one of the first purpose-built prisoner of war camps in the world. Until its construction, prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars on European soil had been brought to Britain and housed wherever was convenient--castles, villages, prisons and hulks. It is estimated that over 12,000 Frenchmen died in prison ships between 1803 and 1814.

The housing of prisoners of war was long overdue for improvement. The Royal Navy Transport Board was in charge of prisoners of war. Norman Cross Depot aimed to improve their living conditions, and though it could house only some 5000 men, it was intended as a model for all such prisons to follow.
 The depot was based on the form of an artillery fort. It had a ditch, a stockade and sentries for security and a central guard house, complete with cannon. Being in the north of England, it was thought far enough from France that prisoners could not easily flee home.
The depot was divided into four, with accommodation blocks and 'ablution' blocks in each. There was good water, and plentiful food prepared by cooks from among their number. Prisoners were clothed in a yellow suit and a red waistcoat to facilitate discovery should they escape. Escape attempts were frequent; very few of them were successful. During a search in 1808, some 700 daggers were discovered.
a museum model of Norman Cross Depot
Boredom was the chief enemy of the prisoners. They were given books, and if they could not read and write they were offered instruction. Gambling was endemic, and losses resulted in a great many hungry prisoners as they wagered their food. They also wagered their clothing, and naked, freezing prisoners were not uncommon. The most successful prisoners turned to arts and crafts, and created astonishing works of art which they could sell to local people.
Model, now in Danish museum, created by prisoner of war
This website has more illustrations of the prisoners' handiwork.

It occurs to me to wonder what the residents of Peterborough and area thought when plans were unveiled for the building of the prisoner of war camp in their area. Was there a 'nimby' (not in my backyard) reaction?
from Google maps - red balloon marks the site of Norman Cross
Peterborough is a cathedral town, and was a substantial presence in the northern counties during the Regency era. Burghley House, ancestral home of the Cecils, stands nearby, and the River Nene in its valley crosses the fenland. Did people want a prison camp defacing their surroundings? There is no record of dissent, and certainly the camp brought prosperity to some segments of local society. The food purchased by the depot must have supported local farmers, and the other supplies needed probably enriched many local merchants.

Norman Cross Depot was mentioned in several of the magazines of the time. Cobbett's Weekly Political Register reported in 1802 that 1000 prisoners were moved from the Depot, eventually to be transported to Dunkirk. The Criminal Recorder remarked on the gambling prevalent among the prisoners. The Medical and Physical Journal, volume 12, contains "A Short Statement of the Result in the Practice of the Hospital for Prisoners of War at Norman Cross. Communicated by Leonard Gillespie, appointed Physician to the Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea."

Norman Cross Depot was an important development in the history of war and its effects. It was also a major factor in the social history of the Peterborough area. Given that senior French officers were allowed more freedom in their captivity and sometimes married into local society, detention centres like Norman Cross frequently fire the imaginations of storytellers!

'Til next time,


1 comment:

Anne Gallagher said...

I have just used this prison in my latest Regency story.