King’s Lynn’s Napoleonic Heritage

Antique Too Big

King’s Lynn has a continental antique that even BBC’s Antiques Roadshow would find too big to handle.

This antique is believed to have been made by European soldiers. These soldiers had been fighting against Britain in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815. In order to help them avoid boredom, they made things while being transported from the continent through Lynn to their prison camp at Norman Cross near Peterborough.

Some of the antiques were the kind of things you would expect – chess sets and boxes made from wood and bone. And King’s Lynn museum has examples of these.

However, another object was made while they were stationed in Lynn awaiting transport on to Peterborough. It is known that the prisoners were set to work putting a stone floor to lanes between the medieval part of the town and the quay were they were imprisoned – King’s Staithe Lane, St Margaret’s Lane, College Lane, Devil’s Alley.

Sett Lane

Granite Setts, King’s Staithe Lane, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2021
St. Margaret’s Lane, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2021

When walking on King’s Staithe Lane people often think the flooring is cobbled.

However, cobbles are rounded stones and are difficult for horses’ hooves. The flooring in this lane is made from hand-cropped granite setts. The floor would certainly have been much kinder to the horses belonging to Lynn’s late Eighteenth Century merchants and their cart drivers who frequented the area.

St. Margaret’s Lane looks very similar.

Four Ports Plus One

The four ports designated for the reception of the prisoners transported from the French port of Morlaix were those of King’s Lynn, Plymouth, Dartmouth and Portsmouth. Great Yarmouth was later added. Those arriving at Great Yarmouth were generally taken by sea to King’s Lynn. The less fortunate ones were marched to Norwich and then to Lynn. All arrivals in Lynn were often temporarily “accommodated” in a warehouse on King’s Staithe. From there they were taken by inland waterway to Peterborough and then marched to Norman Cross.

Hundreds of Prisoners in Lynn

Mr Ray Wilson, King’s Lynn’s former Chief Librarian, reports some of the records of prisoners passing through King’s Lynn:

  • 23 March, 1797 – the first prisoners arrived at Norman Cross from Lynn in barges.
  • 2 April, 1797 – six ships arrived in Lynn with 900 French prisoners
  • 12 May 1797 – 800 or 900 French prisoners went to Peterborough. (This was possibly, but not necessarily the same group mentioned on 2 April). The French captain escaped from the Purfleet.
  • September 1797 – saw further arrivals when 141 prisoners arrived at Norman Cross from Yarmouth via Lynn. “The captain of a French privateer made good his escape, while lodged in Norwich Castle.”
  •  March and August 1798 – following the Battle of Camperdown (see another King’s Lynn legacy from Camperdown here) many Dutch prisoners were taken into captivity 350 Dutch prisoners passed through Lynn.
  • 1799 – the last recorded year for the arrival of prisoners at Lynn bound for Norman Cross.

In 1814 the war ended and Napoleon was imprisoned on the Island of Elba. (He later escaped, before being defeated at Waterloo and being sent to St Helena where he eventually died in 1821.)

Foreigners At Large

At the end of the war the prisoners made their way back to Lynn before being transported to Dunkirk. On June 14, 1814, a report from Lynn stated: “Upwards of 1,400 French prisoners of war have arrived in the town … In consequence of the wind having been hitherto unfavourable they have been prevented from sailing, and we are glad to say their conduct in this town has been hitherto very orderly; and although they are continually perambulating the street, and some of them indulging in tolerable libations of ale, we have not heard of a single act of indecorum taking place in consequence.”

Despite these assurances, Captain Daniel Woodriff RN, superintendent of the transport of the prisoners, received  a strong rebuke from the Lynn Mayor. His Worship complained of the number of prisoners at large in the town, unguarded, waiting with Norman Cross passports for cartel ships to take them back to France.

© James Rye 2021


Websites accessed October 2021

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