Yesterday I spent a few hours at Brighton Museum with a friend. As we wandered through the galleries and looked at the objects, we noticed something that seemed out of keeping with the pots and tiles that were around it in the Willett gallery. It was a guillotine. Carved out of mutton bones. By French Prisoners of War. In around 1810 (I think the label said, I’ll go back and check sometime). It was beautifully carved, the soldier’s uniforms have buttons, and the guillotine has a heart above its blade (which struck me as somewhat macabre).
My brain scampered off down a lot of ‘but why?’ paths. Why a guillotine? Why mutton bones? Why did the POWs carve it? Who were they? How did it end up in a Brighton museum?
The information at the museum was pretty limited, and I was sad not to be able to assuage my curiosity. But a search on the web has found me some links with answers to some of these questions.
Why a guillotine?
This bone guillotine reflects events in the lives of many of these men. The guillotine was invented by Dr Joseph Guillotine to make execution faster and more humane, and it was the method of executing aristocrats and Royalist supporters during the French Revolution. The model actually works by cutting off the head of the victim.
There seem also to have been ships, domino boxes, dominoes themselves, this model with moving parts also in the Brighton Museum collection. It wasn’t just guillotines. It was things that they had knowledge of or use for.
Why mutton bones?
From this page
Prisoners would keep pig and mutton bones from the food rations issued to them by the English, boil them and bleach them in the sun. But sometimes materials from their meals weren’t enough for their detailed works of art, so they supplemented their supplies with human bones from the shallow graves around camp, uncovered by roving pigs. No one really cared where or from who the bones came from, as long as they helped finish the job.
Supplemented their supplies with human bones! Eek!
And from this auction lot page :
carved of mutton bone with chisels finely fashioned from nails
How did they finely fashion the nails?
Why did the POWs carve it?
From this page again
It was made as a model to be sold in the prison markets.
These markets were open to local civilians who came to see their ‘enemy’ at work and play, and purchased the models as souvenirs. The money the prisoners received enabled them to purchase extra food.
Groups of men would combine their talents and make specific parts of the models, sharing in the proceeds of the sale. Some made enough money to employ other prisoners as servants and cooks and on release some went home with up to 100 guineas in their pocket – this would be worth over £6400 today.
Manufacturing bone models filled their time and allowed them to improve their living conditions with the money earned.
So the Prisoners of War were a spectacle in their own right to local civilians. And buying something carved by them was a souvenir. I guess it would be a talking point in your home. And I’m fascinated by the idea that some master carvers would make enough money to employ others and to leave with a sizeable sum of money. There is a novel, or film, or play in among here somewhere.
Who were they?
From this page again
During the period 1793 to 1815, over 200,000 prisoners of war were brought to Britain to be housed in the infamous prison ships or hulks at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, and the Land depots such as Dartmoor, Norman Cross, Portchester Castle and Perth. Officers resided in the Parole Depots. These were towns and villages around the country where they were billeted upon the inhabitants. During the Waterloo Campaign prisoners of war were held at Dartmoor Prison.
The prisoners were not just French. The population included Dutch, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Danes, Poles and Americans; men, women and children, soldiers, seamen and civilians. Many spent up to 11 years in captivity.
200,000 prisoners of war! Some, indeed maybe many, spending over a decade in captivity. And including women and children as well!
and from this auction lot page :
At the height of the wars there were 8,000 French prisoners in Dartmoor Prison alone
From 1803 to 1815 Britain was at war with Napoleonic France and many thousands of prisoners were taken. To help accommodate them redundant warships were commissioned as floating prisons known as ‘the hulks’. Several hulks were at anchor at Plymouth among other places and conditions were so bad with poor sanitary arrangements, little exercise, lack of fresh air and a poor diet, the death rate rose to an unacceptable level and a prison on land was decided upon. Princetown on Dartmoor was considered a suitable location and that is how Dartmoor Prison came to be built.
I can’t help but wonder what an acceptable level of death was!
also from the Dartmoor Prison site
First prisoners arrived on 22nd May 1809 and the prison was full by the end of the year. It soon became overcrowded and remained so. In April 1813 American prisoners began arriving and the overcrowding became worse. Outbreaks of diseases – pneumonia, typhoid, smallpox, etc. killed more than 11,000 Frenchmen and 271 Americans. Their graveyards and memorials are at the rear of the prison. The wars finally ended and the prisoners were repatriated, the last of them leaving in early 1816. The prison then closed until opening again as a penal establishment for criminals in 1850.
11,000 Frenchmen and 271 Americans died from diseases once settled into the prison. And this was a prison created to stop unacceptable levels of death on the ‘hulks’. The conditions must have been truly horrific. I wonder how many of those 200,000 made it out alive?
How did it end up in Brighton Museum?
No idea. But the fact it is in the Willett Gallery suggests that it was a piece collected by Willett.
So I still have unanswered questions. But less than I started with. I love it when I visit a museum or gallery, even one I’ve been around many times, and have my attention caught by something. I don’t think I even knew there were Prisoners of War held in England during the Napoleonic Wars. Yesterday I was saddened that the information panel didn’t give me more information about it, and to answer some of my questions. Today I am glad as I’ve had the time to find out for myself, and learned much more than if I’d been presented with a more detailed information panel.