Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Blyth during the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815

Two hundred years ago in Blyth there were celebrations lasting several days, involving much music, dancing, drinking and parading through the streets led by a detachment of the Northumberland Militia. John Wallace in his 1862 History of Blyth described the events of 1814 following the Napoleonic Wars:
Great rejoicings took place at the return of peace of which the effigies of James Nicholson and John Robinson were paraded through the town, and then burnt opposite the Star and Garter. These persons were called Jacobins, which was understood to mean a leaning towards the principles of the French revolution; or being reformers in politics, and somewhat sceptical in religion: everything French being at that time viewed with intense aversion. But the fact was that these men were the two best informed men of their class in the town, and their political opinions would have now been esteemed as that of moderate reformers. But in a very few years they were amply avenged for the indignities now heaped upon them on account of their opinions. In the years that followed, it was found that Plenty had not come with Peace. The general and long continued stagnation of trade which followed the peace bore hard upon the working classes, and prepared them to listen with readiness to the highly seasoned political teachings of the Black Dwarf and Cobbett's Register; so that the Radical Reform movement gathered around it the whole of the younger portions of the community, and those who had been the most active in burning their neighbours in effigy for their alleged Jacobinism in 1814 were themselves the most ardent Radicals in 1818.
"Battle of Waterloo 1815" by William Sadler II - http://www.napoleon.org.pl/forum/download/file.php?id=2049&mode=view. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Waterloo_1815.PNG#mediaviewer/File:Battle_of_Waterloo_1815.PNG

The celebrations of 1814 were premature however. Napoleon escaped from exile and conflict resumed. However, the next year The Battle of Waterloo on the 18th June 1815 proved decisive in finally ending the war and a district of Blyth, developed soon after this time, was named Waterloo in commemoration.

I wanted to find out why the French war was of so much importance to a small town on the North East coast of England?

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of wars between Napoleon's French Empire and a series of opposing coalitions. It was a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789. The revolution was viewed with alarm by France's neighbours for fear the revolutionary ideas spread into their own country.

The population of South Blyth and Newsham in 1801 was 1170 rising to 1522 by the year 1811, an increase of 30.09%,  in approx 211 dwellings. The population had increased again by 1821 to 1805 persons an increase of 6.23% in 246 dwellings. To put this into some perspective the population at this time was 3-4% of the current levels. The housing was mostly centred on a small area on the river banks around what is now the quayside. The size was, however, sufficient to make Blyth a viable and vibrant community. For example, by 1827 trade directories list 23 grocers, drapers and shopkeepers, and eight public houses. A church had been erected for the inhabitants in 1751 by the landowner, the entrepreneurial Sir MW Ridley.

Features and limit of building development in Blyth c1813 (click to enlarge)
Visit the interactive Google Map at this link...   https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zBuPWRZAqeKE.kIjP71dDiBSY

A colliery had been sunk at Cowpen in 1794 and this partly explains the increased growth of the town. Shipbuilding had begun at Blyth in 1750. The harbour and river channel were still as nature had formed them. It was not until the 1850s that serious improvements were made to the mouth of the river making the harbour we know today with piers, quays and a depth of water which allows the largest of shipping to enter the river. The south beach extended all the way to the present-day quayside and at low tide the river was actually fordable at this point. The arrival of steam ships and copper bottom vessels in the 19th century made the dredging of the river a necessity, but in the 18th century the ships were wind powered.

1820s Blyth at the river mouth  by Balmer

In 1761 only three ships were registered to the port of Blyth, but by 1789 twenty-three vessels belonged to Blyth owners, rising to ninety-five by 1827. The number was growing rapidly. Six boatbuilders were listed in 1805. Cowpen Quay had been constructed in 1795 and the first dry shipbuilding dock was built in 1811. The merchant ships of Blyth largely traded with other east-coast ports, Lynn being a common destination.

Blyth in 1813 (The plessey wagonway is now the course of Plessey Road)

Wallace is the most useful source for a description of what was occurring in Blyth at this time. His History of Blyth was written in 1862 and he must have been able to collect oral evidence and tradition from those involved and also contemporary newspaper reports.

He writes that Ships from Blyth played an active part in transport to every major battle of the Wars. Many seamen were captured and confined in French prisons until the war ended. In some cases this was as long as eleven years. There was not a press gang stationed at Blyth during this time, which there had been during the American War of Independence (1775–1783), but many seamen were impressed when delivering cargo in other British ports. This left behind many Blyth families struggling to survive on the charity of the town.

Privateers were merchant ships that had authority from their government to attack the ships of enemy countries. The incentive was the prize money that was hoped to be earned from the captured cargo and vessels. It was akin to legalised piracy. There were many instances of French privateers coming close to Blyth and it was said they plagued the North Sea. It was a constant threat, so much so that in 1803 a gun battery was set up at the entrance to Blyth harbour, although the guns were only fired once, in 1805, at a privateer in pursuit of a merchant ship. Many Blyth ships were taken during the wars though, including the William Harrison, the sloop Nancy, the master deserting and sailing into a French port, three ships in 1807 and later The Caroline among many more.

Napoleon had threatened an invasion of England in the first years of the 19th century. The inhabitants of Blyth took this threat seriously enough as to make an evacuation plan. Women and children were to be transported to Alston Moor in a convoy of numbered carts. An attempt was also made to form a home guard unit. The early abortive attempts eventually ended up with company of pikemen, made up of pilots, trimmers and customs officers, providing what defence they could.

Salisbury and Winchester Journal - Monday 24 July 1815

Several Blyth men served in the Royal Navy. Three men were in notable positions, namely:
William Murton who was on board Nelson's ship Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and marched in Nelson's funeral procession. Robert Nicholson was carpenter on board the ship Bellerophon, which was the fifth ship in the British rear line at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Later on, it was also the ship Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered to. He celebrated the Battle of Trafalgar every year on the 21st October reliving the fighting to anyone within earshot. Henry Wallace was involved in the major naval engagement of 1797, the Battle of Camperdown. He had a long and distinguished naval career.

An unusual incident took place during this period which is described in the Blyth Post's 1957 book The Story of Blyth: 
One Sunday morning in [1811] the town was again thrown into a state of great excitement. Five Frenchmen, officers who had escaped from Edinburgh Castle , were captured by some countrymen returning home along the Plessey Wagonway (route between Blyth and Plessey some six miles away) at night. The Frenchmen were handed over to the soldiers stationed in the town. 
Their captors were rewarded with £5.00 each. But the escape attempt caught the imagination of the townsfolk. Crowds came to the guard house with presents of food for the prisoners while the captors were abused for spoiling the Frenchmen's bid for freedom.
Duke of York
The war also brought about the greatest spectacle Blyth would ever witness. It was an event that to the many that saw it would remain the most exciting day of their lives. The date was August 28th 1795. Seven thousand soldiers, from thirteen regiments of infantry and cavalry, in their finest and most colourful uniforms were lined up along the three-mile stretch of the links between Blyth and Seaton Sluice. At precisely seven o' clock the Duke of York, Duke of Gloucester and other top brass rode on the sands along the entire line inspecting the troops. With the inspection over the army staged a grand display of manoeuvres, drilling and firing which lasted for four hours. Wallace states that 30,000 people witnessed the event. Soldiers were camped out in scattered fields near Blyth (although he was probably using Eneas McKenzie's 1827 Historical Account as his source). The site where the Duke of Gloucester's regiment camped is now marked by Gloucester Lodge Farm. The regiment became known as the Grenadier Guards following the Battle of Waterloo.
Duke of Gloucester

Massed regiments of transiting soldiers camping out around Blyth were to become a familiar sight during the war period and provided a lucrative trade to local shopkeepers.

However, times would remain tough for the residents of Blyth for a while after the end of the war. The number of sailors in the Royal Navy was quickly reduced at the end of the conflict. Merchant shipping also felt a financial downturn which led shipowners to man their vessels at dangerously low levels. Many seamen were thrown out of work. The ones still in employment entered a bitter and often violent strike in 1815.

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