Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Byron, Churchill, Harrow & Napoleon

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Wellington, himself an old Etonian, is often misquoted as saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.(1) It is strange that Harrow, Eton's strongest rival, has produced three of the biggest admirers of Wellington's opponent at Waterloo!

The David picture above, some seven feet high, was commissioned in 1811 by the first of our old Harrovians, Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852). Hamilton, a Scottish Whig politician, apparently had a tendency to emphasise the importance of ancient birth, but this curiously did not prevent him from supporting Napoleon, an upstart whose career and credo symbolised equality of opportunity. In 1882 the painting that Hamilton had commissioned was acquired by Lord Rosebery, like Hamilton a Scottish politician of Whig ancestry.

A Liberal Imperialist who briefly served as Foreign Secretary twice, and then Prime Minister(1894-1895), Rosebery's marriage to Hannah Rothschild (1878) enabled him to buy a priceless collection of art, including a number of valuable Napoleon memorabilia, to fill his twelve houses. (2) Rosebery was the author of an excellent study of Napoleon's exile which is still worth reading, and also commissioned the famous portrait of Napoleon by James Sant.

Rosebery was an old Etonian, but whilst the David painting was in his possession it caught the admiring gaze of the second of our old Harrovians, the young Conservative politician, Winston Churchill, a passionate devotee of Napoleon.

This was the first time that Churchill had been confronted by a large life-size picture of his hero. It made such an impression on him that the very next day he wrote to Rosebery about it:

I carried away quite a queer sensation from the Napoleon picture yesterday. It seems pervaded with his personality; and I felt as if I had looked furtively into the very room where he was working, and only just got out of the way to avoid being seen. (3)

I have written a number of posts about Winston Churchill's intense admiration for Napoleon, and a recent reading of Michael Sheldon's Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, the only biography which has focused on his early political career, has shed further light on this:

In 1912, now a Liberal and First Lord of the Admiralty, travelling by train across the Alps to Naples to try to persuade the retired Lord Fisher to help the Government with its naval plans, Churchill waxed so eloquently about Napoleon's crossing the Alps that his wife in the next compartment thought he was reading aloud. (4)

Photograph Churchill sent to Gilbert Martineau in May 1961, now exhibited at Longwood House

In April 1915, critical of the performance of the Navy in the early stages of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign he quoted Napoleon to Admiral Fisher,

'We are defeated at sea because our Admirals have learned--where I know not--that war can be made without running risks' [Napoleon] (5)

Contemporaries were of course well aware of his passion for Napoleon. "He thinks himself Napoleon " said Lord Esher, his superior at the Colonial Office. His friend John Morley, Gladstone's biographer, when told that Churchill was reading another book on Napoleon commented,

He would do better to study the drab heroes of life. Framing oneself upon Napoleon has proved a danger to many a man before him. (6)

Letter from Winston Churchill to Gilbert Martineau May 1961, exhibited at Longwood House

Perhaps the strongest criticism came from a political opponent, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who described him in a Unionist rally in Hyde Park in 1914 as an enemy of Ulster and a danger to the State, a "Lilliput Napoleon. A man with an unbalanced mind. An egomaniac ..!" (7)

The third of our old Harrovian aristocratic admirers of Napoleon was of course Lord Byron, from whom Churchill drew great inspiration. Both Byron and Churchill kept busts of Napoleon on their desks. Byron seemed in Churchill's mind to resemble his own father whose career had been tragically cut short, and to possess that combination of energy, action, vision and free thinking which he so admired.

Shelden's study suggests that as a young man Churchill very much saw himself as a Byronic romantic hero, a protagonist of domestic reform, determined to change the world for the better, and one whose political career looked to have come to an end with the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign. Churchill though did not perhaps quite look the part, and the book throws new light on his passionate if unsuccessful pursuit of three of the most beautiful women of his time. (8)

Churchill was a great lover of Byron's poetry and could recite long passages from it, and often drew on it as in his famous promise in 1940 of only "Blood Sweat and Tears" which echoed Byron's reference in his Age of Bronze to the war profiteering of the landed gentry who enriched themselves with their "blood, sweat and tear-rung millions". (9)

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1. Others have claimed that what he actually said decades later when observing an Eton cricket match was "There grows the stuff that won Waterloo".

2. The David painting was bought by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954 and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

3. Churchill to Rosebery, 4th Sept 1901 p. 45 Michael Shelden, Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, Great Britain, 2014.

4. Shelden pp. 278-9.

5. Winston, Churchill to Admiral Lord Fisher, April 8th 1815. Churchill Archives.

6. Shelden p. 92

7. Shelden pp. 195, 270.

8. Shelden pp 7-10.

9. Apparently when in 1941 Franklin Roosevelt suggested that the allies should call themselves the United Nations Churchill immediately quoted a verse from Byron, "Here, where the sword united nations drew .." Shelden pp 6-7.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Guns of St Helena


"Long Tom" being transported to Mundens 1903 (Not Ladder Hill - see postscript)

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the Friends of St. Helena's new Facebook page and the excellent collection of 1890-1930 photographs to be found there.

One that caught my eye was that of a large gun being wheeled up the main street in Jamestown. I asked then if anybody could tell me anything about it, and now Ian Bruce, the creator of the Facebook page has helped me out. An article he has written,to be published next year in The Wirebird, the Friends of St Helena magazine, provides the historical context about the island's garrison.

In 1902, at the end of the Boer War, the St. Helena garrison reached a peak of over 1500, and in 1903 two large modern guns were installed to guard the island. These "Long Tom" guns, were wrongly believed to have been French made Creuset guns captured from the Boers, which had done a great deal of damage during the war. (But see postscript below) Shortly after the guns arrived the garrison was run down to a little over 200 men, with predictable economic consequences for the island, similar to the rundown after the death of Napoleon.

In 1906 the new Liberal Government, elected on a platform of retrenchment, and doubtless aware of the declining military value of St Helena as a coaling station as the Royal Navy shifted to oil, decided to close the garrison altogether. Despite public outcry on St Helena, and the organisation of a Committee in the UK which bizarrely and futilely tried to gain compensation for St Helena's landowners, the Government held firm.

Winston Churchill, holding office for the first time as Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, defended the policy, arguing that they should await the results of an expert being sent to the island to investigate. This expert concluded that the establishment of a flax industry was the only possibility for avoiding economic depression. (1)

In 1907 Parliament voted a grant to set up the flax industry, and so another chapter in the island's precarious history began, to be ended, so legend has it, by another peremptory decision in the 1960's. (2)

Quite what happened to the redundant guns is a mystery to me.

POSTSCRIPT Since writing this post I have received the following from a highly respected source:

What you see in the Bruce photos is the barrel of a 6 inch Mark VII Elswick coastal defence wire gun, the type of gun you can see in situ today at Ladder Hill. The Bruce photos are probably from when the guns first arrived in 1903. Although four emplacements were built, two at LH and two on the top of Mundens, I don't think there were ever more than two guns. A former RA captain I knew years ago, long since dead, who was stationed on SH during WWII, once told me that to keep the chaps occupied, they used to strip down a gun, move it to the other side of JT, set it up and fire it, then reverse the process! The barrel alone weighs over 3 tons! They also used to do blind target practice, firing shells over the top of the Island, to hit targets on Prosperous Bay Plain. Airport construction has turned up some of the shells.

The Bruce photo captioned "Long Tom on its way to Ladder Hill fort" is clearly taken on the Mundens road.

Incidentally, the trolley you can see the guys using is the one still in use in the Star to display the veg!

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1. "The First Dozen Years", draft article by Ian Bruce, kindly supplied by the author.

2. The conventional wisdom is that a decision at a fairly low level in the Post Office to abandon the use of flax for mail bags led to the shutdown of the flax industry. The explanation may be rather more complex, as Laurence Carter's blog suggests.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Napoleon: second only to Jesus Christ!



1. Jesus (Holman Hunt) 2. Napoleon 3. Will Shakespeare

It is always a pleasure to read Margaret Rodenberg's blog, Finding Napoleon. A knowledgeable, considered writer who eschews historical clichés and is well aware of the complexity of Napoleon's character, Margaret has written a novel from Napoleon's point of view. This is a very different undertaking from the well researched novel Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin, another North American author, which I reviewed a few weeks back.

In 2011, as part of her research, Margaret visited Paris, Corsica and St Helena, which may well be more than any previous Napoleonic writer has achieved in the space of a single year! She has set herself a most difficult task, and I look forward to reading her book when it is published.

Her most recent post entitled Big Data Shows Napoleon Bonaparte is History’s 2nd Biggest Figure referred to a book recently published which has attempted to use quantitate methods to assess the importance of historical figures.

Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank Steven Skiena & Charles B. Ward

Unsurprisingly, to me at least, Napoleon came second. A.J.P. Taylor, without the mathematical research, pointed out in 1969 that there were more books about Napoleon than any other human being,"(a phrase carefully chosen in order to rule out Jesus Christ)"

The reason for this is impossible fully to explain, but I like A.J.P. Taylor's explanation,

He [Napoleon] actually provides pleasure for those who write about him. It is very rare to pick up a book about Napoleon which has the air of being a hack job. Nearly every author seems to be in the game for the love of the thing.

What I found pleasing is that at number three came the man who would always get my vote as the greatest ever English man (or woman). I speak of course of William Shakespeare!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Theft from Briars Melbourne - Postscript


Sterling Silver Inkwell (Inset with three Gold Napoleons), Garrard and Co. London 1821-1822

Since publishing an account of the robbery from the Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection, I have had further information from Sue Dale, who grew up in Australia about 15 miles from the Briars and knows it very well. Sue, who now lives in Congleton, has also visited St Helena, and is currently researching the life of Sir Thomas Reade who was born in Congleton in 1782.

Sue is particularly distressed by the theft of the silver inkwell, which has connections with Thomas Reade and Congleton and, in a curious way, with the Briars on St Helena. The inscription on the base of the inkwell reads:

These Napoleons, presented to Mrs Egerton by Sir Thomas Reade, Lieut. Gov. of St Helena, were found in the pocket of Napoleon Buonaparte after his death there, 5 May 1821

Now whether these gold coins were actually in Napoleon's pocket, and if so how Sir Thomas Reade came by them, is another matter! So far Sue is unable to trace who Mrs Egerton was, but it is a distinguished family name in Cheshire, and perhaps Garrard and Co will still have records of the commission.

What is to me even more interesting though is how it came to be in the hands of Dame Mabel Brookes: according to the 2010 catalogue it was presented to her on the occasion of receiving the Légion d'honneur. Dame Mabel, the great grand-daughter of William Balcombe, received that award in 1960 for saving the Briars Pavilion on St Helena and handing it over to the French nation. Apparently she visited St Helena in 1957 and the transfer was completed some two years later, at an extortionate price. One cannot begin to imagine the difficulties she would have encountered in making this purchase and transfer. It makes it all the more sad that this item, connecting the Briars in Melbourne with the original Briars on St Helena, has now been stolen. I do hope that it and the other items are recovered.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Theft of Napoleon Memorabilia from the Briars (Australia)


I am saddened to hear of a major theft from the The Briars Homestead at Mount Martha, Victoria, Australia. originally the home of William Balcombe, father of Betsy, and the owner of the Briars on St Helena when Napoleon stayed there in 1815.

Below I have posted images of the valuable objects stolen.


DMB 86 Book of Fate

DMB 183 Miniature of Napoleon

DMB 184 Miniature of Josephine

DMB 246 Inkwell with three Napoleon gold coins set into base

DMB 271 Lock of Napoleon’s hair sewn onto a piece of paper

DMB 249 Rosicrucian Medal

DMB 257 Gold ring set with pearls and emeralds set around a woven piece of Napoleon’s hair

DMB 274 Gold locket with floral design of lacquered hair from Napoleon

Small portrait of Napoleon

DMB 259 Horn snuff box with central gold medallion

It is important that information about this theft is circulated as widely as possible to aid the efforts to recover them, so I would encourage anyone who has a web page to publish these images.