A lot of the time, especially when we’re at school, history seems to be this thing that happens in castles and to people whose great great great great grandchildren are still living in said castles, but of course that’s not the case. From the smallest, seemingly trivial, event in a small village to bigger things that you never knew about on your street, even in your house, there are fascinating stories everywhere.
Steve is from Torquay (which is in Devon in the South West of England for those of you with less familiarity with British geography) and is, as you probably have noticed by now, a big fan of Napoleonic war gaming. In all his years of being a proud Devonian and Napoleon ‘fan’ he had not realised a connection between his home town and the Emperor until he last went to visit his dad and was pondering on all things Torquay…
Torquay in 1811.
In April 1814 the Treaty of Fontainebleau had exiled Napoleon to Elba, away from his wife and son, and growing in frustration at the potential return to the system he had revolutionised he escaped in February 1815.
Location of Napoleon’s exile island, Elba. (Map by NormanEinstein)
From March to July of 1815 Napoleon once again took power. Though it was for a mere 100 days he managed to embroil himself in enough battles to keep entertained, and was, of course, defeated at Waterloo. After his defeat he sought passage, and sanctuary, on a British ship (HMS Bellerophon). The Bellerophon docked in Torbay and Torquay met its first international celebrity.
section of “Napoléon dans son cabinet de travail” by Jacques-Louis David, 1812.
The British establishment had sold Napoleon Bonaparte as evil incarnate, but the small Devon town took their new found tourist attraction to their hearts, or at the least their pockets. Charming young ladies sought emperor gossip from the ship’s officers, whilst locals sold trinkets and memorabilia and in the 48 hours that the ship was in dock the emperor contributed a great deal to the burgeoning seaside economy. Indeed in the two days that he docked in Torbay, local boatmen made as much as a month’s wages taking sightseers out to the Bellerophon and her celebrity passenger. Bainbridge (2005) reports that the passengers “enthusiastically [were] chanting ‘Boney! Boney!’ and rewarding every glimpse of Napoleon with great cheers.” The age of celebrity gawpers is not new it seems…
Torquay continued to build up its tourist trade, capitalising on the weather and sand, rather than visiting imprisoned world leaders, and Napoleon continued his imprisonment before being shipped off to St Helena.
Bainbridge, John (2005) Torquay-A History and Celebration of Our Town. Francis Frith, Sailsbury UK.