WSHOMS Nov 10th 2018

Last Updated on March 11, 2021 by Afifah Hamilton
Read Time: 7 min

1, Death and Disease at Norman Cross Prison

– the health of prisoners-of-war 1797 – 1814

Lecture by Paul Chamberlain FIBMS FINS

Paul Chamberlain FIBMS FINS

It is incredible to think that there was once a large prisoner of war (PoW) camp located in England — something we tend to associate with “the other side” — but this is what I learned in todays fascinating lecture. Norman Cross Prison Camp — near Peterborough originally part of Northamptonshire, but now Cambridgeshire — was one of the major destinations for around 200,000 prisoners of war who were brought to England between 1793 and 1815, From here, many were transferred to other camps in the country, or wisely joined up with British forces, to fight against Napoleon. At this time the PoW system was administered by The Admiralty over all, but the Prison Ships Depots were run by the Royal Marines, the Land Prisons by the Militia and the Parole Prisons were run by the Yeomanry. Norman Cross camp was the first purpose-built prison to house those who had been held on Prison Ships.

And what a camp it was! 200 years ago the city of Peterborough, with its stupendous 12th century cathedral, only had a population of only 3,500, but five miles to the west Norman Cross Prison Depot housed double that number, albeit in less salubrious circumstances than the townspeople of Peterborough could have enjoyed. The camp included the handsome Depot Agent’s house (see below), the surgeons house, two story barrack-style housing for the prisoners, which had 2-3 tiers of hammock beds (no heating or ventilation though!) and administration buildings, a hospital, school, a theater, and a cemetery, cook house with ovens (see below), two wells, laundry facilities etc. All the features expected of a functioning town.

Prisoners held at Norman Cross were not only French, but included some Dutch, Spanish, Swedish and Italians, along with East and West Indians. Although predominately male, female prisoners were not unknown. Unfortunately these captives arriving from far flung lands after long periods as sea, brought with them, a heavy burden of disease, including parasites, like the typhus louse, yellow fever, malaria and smallpox. One can only imagine how this went down with the good people of the little nearby town of Yaxley who no doubt wished the PoW camp had been built further away! Nevertheless, it provided work for local people so perhaps there were trade-offs, such as work carting away stacks of euphemistically termed ‘night soil’ each morning. As they say, “where there’s muck there’s brass”, amongst other lucrative opportunities.

Readers may know that, until the end of the First World War the term The Great War referred to the wars with Napoleon, the army general and self appointed Emperor of France, who was curtailed in his expansionist ambition by Britain and her allies, culminating in his exile and house imprisonment on the island of Elba in 1814. Good treatment of prisoners here in England was important, as their well being ensured the good treatment of our own men, captured by our enemies. Exchanges could and did take place.

Barracks, laundry and ovens in use at Normans Cross

Conditions were, however, far from ideal, as the excellent hospital records reveal. Meticulously filled in documents exist describing the health records of inmates and the treatments used, such as head shaving for lice, cinchona bark for malaria, lemonade for scurvy, calumba root for diarrhoea etc. Food rations for inmates are listed, and the cost of everything is noted. Finally death certificates are in tact. Indeed the information and data gathered here contributed not only to contemporary public medical journals, but to our historical insights.

Amazingly when Channel 4’s Time Team were preparing to do an episode on Norman Cross, the locals got involved and actually found the cemetery! It was near the hospital area of the site, i.e. the south west corner. Coffins were buried just 3 ft deep. Here is that episode for your delectation from July 2009. Well worth the watch if you can find it.

Lots of information has now been gathered about this extraordinary little chunk of British history. The recently published book on the subject by our speaker will be a treasure trove of insights I am sure. It is called The Napoleonic Prison of Norman Cross and is available at all good book shops, in hardback, paperback and even on Kindle.

The Main House for the POW camp in the NW corner of the site, as it looks now:

The former Agent’s House with section of perimeter wall behind (Source: Peterborough Archaeology Group)

Below is a close-up of the original bronze French Imperial Eagle, raised on a stone column on 28th July 1914 by the Entente Cordiale Society (which had been in existence for a decade) as a memorial to the war dead of the Napoleonic Wars a hundred years earlier.
On 28th June 1914, one month prior to the memorial going up, and the same day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the act that set WW1 in motion, Walter Rothschild had been at the site of Normans Cross, at the side of the A1, discussing the eagle memorial.

You may recall that his banking family had funded both sides in that long and bloody war, and gamed the system at the end such that phenomenal wealth flooded their coffers as they bought up all the stock that they had been instrumental is reducing in value. It is worth reading the brief section on The Napoleonic Wars in subheading 2 on the Wikipedia page on the Rothschild Family.) Was it a coincidence that Lord Rothschild, with all that war and profit history, was at this place, on this fateful and historic day that changed the world for ever? Comments below please!

In 1990 the original bronze eagle was stolen (how? I do not know) and was replaced in 2005 by this bronze eagle, which looks less French to me, created by sculptor John Doubleday. It remains in place today, a landmark and a memorial.


2. The Lady Of The Black Horse – Mabel Stobart

Lecture by Dr Peter Down MB BS FRCP DHMSA


This is the story of a Lady who, from an early age, must have really fancied herself as suited not only to adventure but to valour and leadership. And she was right!

Born in 1862 to the wealthy Sir Samuel Bagster Boulton, 1st Baronet of Copped Hall, and his wife Sophia, Mabel enjoyed an idyllic childhood of swimming, shooting, fishing, riding and general outdoorsy activities with her sisters and brothers. Strong and capable at the age of 22 she made a good marriage to St Clair Kelburn Mulholland Stobart, a wealthy granite merchant of Irish descent, and bore him two healthy sons.

But, when his investments suddenly failed they elected to up sticks and start afresh in the Transvaal of South Africa where land was offered to those ready to seek their fortunes. Facing ruin when their farm failed (they were not familiar with the climatic differences of the region) she set up a store trading with locals to keep the family afloat.

Life was tough and dangerous but this experience proved to be the making of Mabel. The Stobarts intended to return to England in 1907 and for some reason travelled in separate ships, and, terribly unfortunately her husband died during the voyage home (I am not sure why), so Mabel, arriving home and finding herself widowed, had to set herself up, without his support, and chose to make Studland in Dorset, her home.

Seeing which way the wind was blowing re German aggression, she set up the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps (WSWCC), holding training camps in Studland and Rottingdean, where her members strode around in practical culotte-style skirts doing drills and practicing their first aid and generally looking purposeful and capable. Mabel raised funds for her Corps by successfully seeking the support of her wealthy and influential friends in London.

Mabel had an uncanny ability to get things done, and in a mere six weeks she put together a unit of 45 women willing and able to go to Serbia. As well as doctors, nurses, cooks, orderlies, chauffeurs and interpreters, she had 60 specially made tents, medical equipment, an X-ray machine, six motor ambulances and an ox wagon. Typhus (again) raged in Serbia, leading to the morbidity and mortality of large numbers of Serbians, but Mabel and her team were coming to the rescue them, and to nurse and nurture the sick back to health.

More than once she lead mobile hospital columns through extremely hostile mountainous terrain, on starvation rations, in all weathers, to successful conclusions each time. On one of these missions they had to chop an ox wagon in half, lengthwise, in order to shift it and the contents, bicycle-wise, along almost non-existent mountain paths. It is astonishing that anyone made it, let alone all of them, and huge credit must go to Mabel’s courage, determination, compassion and leadership.

Lady of the Black Horse, 1916 by George Rankin; “A cover girl for The Tatler Mabel Stobart remains a hero in Serbia, and yet the remarkable story of her leading a women-only medical team to war torn Serbia in 1915 had all but been forgotten until now” (Dorset Magazine)

In their gratitude to the service she gave, the Serbian Army honoured Mabel with the rank of Major.

Back in England she wrote a book, Women and War, based on the daily diaries she had kept on her almost disastrous adventures, and she went on speaking tours, raising money again, which she was remarkably efficient at, setting up a hospital in a chateau in Cherbourg in 1914.

Mabel died in 7 December 1954 at the age of 92, by now somewhat forgotten compared to her hey day, and possibly rather lonely, as by now both her sons had died as had her second husband, but she had the satisfaction of knowing her efforts of extraordinary courage and confidence, really did achieve what she wanted, and many, many were grateful. Indeed she is still celebrated in Serbia.

Someone has made a spoken word recording, no images,  of Mabel Stobart’s book, which I have not heard yet, but have linked to it for your delight.

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