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Norman Cross

At the Norman Cross roundabout at Peterborough, Cambridgeshire stands a memorial: a towering brass eagle upon a concrete column and plinth, with brass nameplate.

The undistinguished field behind the monument was the burial site during the Napoleonic Wars for 1770 bodies of sailors and marines of mostly French and Dutch origin.

The prisoners were captured mainly in naval engagements and detained in the only purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp in England at that time. The site, a forty-acre filed, was purchased by the government in 1796. 500 carpenters and labourers erected what was considered at the time to be permanent buildings. Approximately 30 wells were sunk to draw drinking water for the prisoners.

The prison barracks were planned to hold adequately between five to six thousand prisoners. The prisoners’ quarters were two-storey high, red-tiled buildings with four separate buildings inside a rectangle. Four of these rectangles were centred in the field, each surrounded by its own wall. A further wall then surrounded the four rectangles with their sixteen buildings. Outside this, the garrison troops had their buildings along with storage sheds, kitchens and officers’ buildings, etc. A further wall, complete with main gatehouse then encased these. The prisoners were mostly marched to the prison four abreast, although occasionally they would be loaded into barges at King's Lynn and brought up the river Nene to Peterborough Quay.

Problems emerged during the summer months of 1897 arising from the countless numbers of local people, and some not so local, who visited the prisoners. The guards found it difficult to control these crowds and to observe the prioress. Eventually many visitors were prevented from entering the compounds unless accompanied by military personnel. During this time, two of the French prisoners took advantage of the confusion and made their escape, but only as far as Wisbech, in the Cambridge fens, before they were caught and returned. A French officer who escaped during December was never recaptured and was assumed to have been successful.

The conditions in which the prisoners lived had deteriorated rapidly by 1800 and many leading people in the capital, as well as locals, expressed concern. In 1801 the British government issued statements blaming the French Consul for not supplying sufficient clothing (the British government had paid the French for all English prioress held in France and French colonies to be clothed).

The French prisoners, whose sole interest appeared to be gambling, were accused by the British government of selling their clothes and few personal possessions to raise money for further gambling.

The prominent Doctor Johnson[?] and a Mr Serle[?], who visited the barracks, complied a report on behalf of the British government, stating that the proportion of food allowance was fully sufficient to maintain both life and health, but added: “provided it is not shamefully lost by gambling.”

The Lords of the admiralty[?], along with Doctor Johnson, instructed that naked prisoners should be clothed at once, without waiting for the French supply or payment for clothing.

During April of the same year six prisoners escaped; three of them were caught at Boston, Lincolnshire, the remaining three were caught in a fishing boat off the Norfolk coast.

Each year the number of attempts to escape increased, as did the numbers in each escape. The number of prisoners held in the barracks also increased. In July 1804 approximately 1600 prisoners were held at the barracks; this figure had risen to 3300 by October.

Insubordination was rife amongst prisoners. A force of Shropshire militia, a battalion of army reserve and a volunteer force from Peterborough were required to restrain the prisoners from breaking out during a particular period of defiance.

Escapes still continued. On three separate incidences, groups of sixteen men escaped. Tunnels were also discovered, prior to their completion.

During December 1804 it was discovered that the prisoners had taken to forgery. Engraved plates of a very high standard and various printing implements were found.

In January 1812 a French prisoner was shot whilst escaping after he had overpowered a guard and stolen a bayonet. During August of the following year, escaped prisoners from Norman Cross were discovered as far away as Hampshire.

Peace was finally proclaimed with France in 1814, following Napoleon’s defeat and consequent abdication. The prisoners, the garrison guards and local people joined together in celebrations. All the prisoners had left the garrison by June of the same year, and exactly two years later in June 1816 the buildings were demolished.

The memorial to the men whose remains are still interred deep within the fields of Norman Cross was purchased and erected in 1914 by the Entente Cordiale Society[?].

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