Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Briars: Napoleon's 1st Home on St. Helena

Now to the Briars, the home of the Balcombe family, where Napoleon spent the first two least unhappy months of his exile, and where the Duke of Wellingon had stayed some years before.

From Maldivia we took the road that twists up the mountain. At the junction at the top there is the most difficult of right turns into the road to the Briars. Sensible people take the left fork from the centre of Jamestown, up Napoleon Street, which takes a less twisty approach to the same junction and avoids the sharp right turn. The best approach is to abandon your car in upper Jamestown and walk on the old pathway marked as the Barnes Road.

The story of how Napoleon came to stay at the Briars is well known. He spotted an oasis of green on his way back from inspecting Longwood, rode down to investigate, and indicated to Admiral Cockburn who accompanied him, that he would rather stay there than go back to Jamestown, where he was naturally the object of curiosity. The Balcombe family offered him their house; he accepted the one roomed Pavilion. There he stayed, until Longwood was ready.

The story of his stay is delightfully told in Betsy Balcombe's book, mentioned previously.

Some idea of how the Briars must have looked is given in the print below - although it dates from a half century later. (Views of St. Helena, Published by T.E. Fowler, St Helena, 1863).

The Balcombes' house can be spotted on the top left hand of the picture, and the smaller Pavilion just to its right. (Again you will need to click on the picture)

The surrounding hills have not been built on, and the heart shaped waterfall is still recognisable, although it was without water at the time of our visit. Much of the land surrounding the Briars, including the heart shaped waterfall, has been purchased and given to the National Trust by Michel, thereby securing the whole location for future generations.

The Balcombes' house has gone, demolished after the second world war. In the grounds as you approach is a later cottage, being renovated by the curator of the French properties (not personally!), pictures of which can be seen on his blog.

I have to confess that my first impression was not very favourable. I am not sure why. Perhaps it was the approach to the Briars - what Kauffmann described some 15 years ago as having the appearance of "an abandoned worksite". Cable and Wireless still own a large chunk of what was once the Balcombes' estate, and they have different priorities.

Perhaps it is simply that I preferred the more English pastoral scenery around Plantation House, Oaklands and Farm Lodge which I had seen previously. My reaction was not shared by my wife, who loves the mountain landscapes of her native Norway, and also immediately liked the Briars.

So this is it. Napoleon's first home since his brief and poignant stay at Malmaison at the end of June, where he had said his farewells to his brother Joseph, his stoic mother and his tearful step-daughter Hortense, bound he then hoped, for the United States.

"I do not know what is in store for me. I am still in good health and I have fifteen years ahead of me. I sleep and wake up when I want to; I can ride four hours on end and work ten hours a day. My food does not cost much. I could live very well on a lois a day. We shall see." So he reportedly told Jacques Lafitte before he left.

Kauffmann describes his entrance into the pavilion at the Briars as "quite a banal moment ... it has no dramatic significance at all"

The pavilion itself has been faithfully restored since 1959 when it was offered to the French Government by Dame Mabel Brooks, and so became the third of the French Properties on the island.

Mabel Brookes was a descendant of William Balcombe, and an admirer of Napoleon. She was the wife of Sir Norman Brookes, the first Australian to win Wimbledon. She herself had a distinguished public career and was awarded the CBE in 1933 and in 1955 became a Dame of the British Empire. In 1960 she was appointed a Chevalier (Knight) in the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest decoration which had been instituted by the Emperor Napoleon. She appropriately received this honour at Malmaison.

In the early years of the twentieth century the Pavilion housed a director of the Eastern Telegraph Company which owned the whole estate. Before then the estate had been owned for half a century by George Moss, employee and business associate of Saul Solomon, and French vice-consul from 1847 until 1889. Among his other jobs he was for a time (from 1857) Consul for his Majesty the King of Sardinia!

This is a similar view to the one that the Emperor would have had every morning - except that I would not be there, and there was a marquee on the lawn in which he dined and slept. (1)

The sea off Jamestown can just be seen in the background.

It should be noted that the two wings of the Pavilion were added after he left, when the Pavilion became the residence of the British Admirals who were stationed on the island during his captivity. Napoleon himself never returned to the Briars. The whole building now is I believe the official residence of the Curator of the French Properties, although the current one does not live there.

We returned to the Briars a number of times, and I came to appreciate its calmness and its beauty. Under the guidance of Michel I discovered the pathway that Napoleon had called the "Philosophers Walk" - a place where he could walk and contemplate, unseen by any curious visitors. We also saw what I call the Briars' allotments.

Here I am told there is no shortage of water, and you can grow three crops of potatoes a year, but there are few takers. In England there would be a very long waiting list.

Fellow visitors to the island often speculated as to why so little is grown on the island now - particularly as we searched the shops in vain for onions!

In Betsy Balcombe's day all manner of tropical fruits were grown at the Briars, and she claimed that her family made £500 a year profit from the sales, not an inconsiderable sum in those days.

So what began with the story of Napoleon's brief sojourn at the Briars ends with gardening. Perhaps not inappropriate since he too for a short time found the therapeutic effects of gardening at his next and final home.


1. "There was a small lawn in front, railed round, and in this railing the marquee was pitched, connected with the house by a covered way. The marquee was divided into two compartments, the inner one forming Napoleon's bedroom ... Between the two divisions of the tent was a crown, which his devoted servants had carved out of the turf floor.." Betsy Balcombe's Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena p. 50.

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