Alnwick and District Local History Society

The Alnwick and District Local History Society welcomed Bob Harrison, one of its own members to its February meeting.

Having read widely about the Napoleonic Wars, he related a number of anecdotes which revealed much about the conditions and history of these times.

There were a number of stories about cannon-balls. On the battlefield, these weighed around three to four pounds, while those fired at sea were much larger, some 36lbs in weight.

At Waterloo, one rookie soldier put out his foot to stop a cannon-ball. His foot was shot off, although the ball had bounced and lost some of its momentum.

At Trafalgar, a man died from the shock-wave of a ball, which had missed him. Nelson’s clerk was cut in two by a cannon-ball.

It was practice on British ships to immediately throw the body parts overboard. It was felt that dead, decaying bodies collecting on board hampered action and lowered morale.

However, practice on French and Spanish (Catholic) ships was different and bodies were taken back to port to be buried on consecrated land.

Bob told a number of very moving stories. One 13-year-old boy was hit and had to have his arm taken off at the elbow. He made no sound during the operation, without anaesthetic, and then asked if he had borne it like a man. He was told that he had, and died.

One of the most remarkable stories was about four sailors who had escaped from the siege of Valencia.

They were hidden for four to five months by a sympathetic publican, before finding their way to Ostend. Forty years later, one of the men went back to find his saviour. He found her alive, but blind and destitute. The sailor, who was by then a captain, made arrangements for her to be looked after.

Women also feature in some stories, which illustrate the very different attitudes of men.

A Frenchwoman, Jeannette, sheltered at the stern of a ship until lead began to melt onto her. She stripped and jumped into the sea. She tried to get on a spar, but was kicked off.

Another man, however, gave her a plank for support. When the longboat arrived to pick up the survivors, there was much embarrassment. One (English) man gave her a jacket, while another gave his trousers.

On the Revenge, she was given two shirts, a needle and thread, some silk stockings, a pair of shoes and two cabins.

The rest of the prisoners were elsewhere. She was delighted to find her husband, who she had thought lost, among them.

Women made up to eight per cent of the total personnel of a ship and played a useful role during battle, assisting the surgeon and carrying powder for the guns, etc.

Slavery had just been abolished and a number of freed slaves worked on ships.

The job was good with relatively high pay. A number of black seamen gained promotion and did well.

One black seaman saved the life of a lieutenant and he was looked after for the rest of his life. There seems to have been no colour bar at this time.

Bob Harrison was thanked for his enjoyable and unusual presentation.

The next meeting of the Society will be on Tuesday, March 25, at 7.30pm when John Almond will give a talk on Border History.