Friday, 10 July 2009

Rev Boys and Napoleon's Chair - an Unlikely Story?

BOYS, Richard, The Reverend (1785-1867). Chaplain to the Honourable East India Company on St. Helena, 1811 to 1830.

The Rev. Richard Boys was previously mentioned in my entry of December 9th 2008

Napoleon's Chair Discovered in Maidstone, 2009

A chair that belonged to Rev. Boys has now been discovered - or rather rediscovered - in Maidstone Museum. In a video embedded in a recent BBC article it is claimed that Napoleon used to sit, or rather fidget, in this chair when he visited Rev. Boys.

I have very serious doubts about the veracity of this claim - but would welcome any evidence to the contrary.

Napoleon visited very few houses on St. Helena, and as far as I am aware the house of Rev. Boys, appropriately known at the time as Kent Cottage, was not among them. (1) Had he done so, the Governor would have been informed, and there would surely be documentary evidence about the visits.

Rev Boys was a thorn in the flesh of the authorities on St Helena both before Napoleon arrived and after he had died. Any report that he was meeting Napoleon would I am fairly certain have met with some reaction. The Governor would I suspect have been glad of any excuse to get Rev. Boys off the island!

Arnold Chapin made this comment about Boys and Napoleon:

So far as the captivity was concerned, Mr Boys was brought into contact with Napoleon on one occasion only .He buried Cipriani, and for this service was given by Napoleon on April 18th, 1818, a snuff-box for himself and £25 for the poor. The snuff-box was returned, however, on account of having been given in a manner contrary to the regulations. (2)

I do think that the chair was probably Napoleon's, or to be more precise, that the chair came from Longwood. Whether Napoleon used to sit in it and was responsible for the markings on it is another matter!

Napoleon's Chair Discovered in Maidstone, 1911

After Napoleon's death the contents of Longwood were sold off to all and sundry, and it is conceivable that the Rev Boys obtained this item at that time. This at least was the view of an article which appeared in the New York Times in 1911 when the chair was last discovered!

At that time the chair on display in Maidstone museum bore the foillowing inscription:

This chair was used by Napoleon Bonaparte during his captivity in St. Helena. After his decease it was purchased by the Rev. R. Boys, then Chaplain to Sir Hudson Lowe, Governor of St. Helena, and subsequently Vicar of Loose, near Maidstone. At his decease it was purchased and presented to this museum by Alexander Randall, Esq. (3)

That sounds to me a more plausible explanation! I would be happy to be corrected.
1. This house has also at times been known as Smith’s Gate House and Stone Top Cottage. – It is more famous as the prison of the Boer General, Pieter Arnoldus Cronjé.

2. Arnold Chapin, A St. Helena Who's Who (London 1919). An earlier edition used the word "Longwood" instead of "Napoleon", which casts a little doubt as to whether Boys ever met Napoleon in person.

3. The article is entitled Marryat's Sketch of Napoleon on His Bier, but it refers to the chair in Maidstone Museum as well as the sketch.


Unknown said...

The snuff box was eventually given to Mr Boys. This could only happen after Napoleon's death as receiving gifts from Napoleon was strictly prohibited at that time. The snuff box has been passed down generations of Boys descendants and is still in excellent condition with a very faint inscription Mr R Boys on its lower surface.

John Tyrrell said...

Thanks for the comment. Very interesting. Don't suppose there is any chance of a photo. Would be pleased to put it on the blog.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

"The first man Napoleon spoke to on landing at St. Helena was the Rev. Richard Boys, and when Ciprian, Napoleon's major-domo and a Catholic, died, there being no priest on the island, Boys and his junior chaplain buried the man according to the rites of the Protestant Church. Napoleon was astonished when he heard of it, and said a priest would not have done so much for a Protestant. As a token of appreciation of their conduct Napoleon desired to give the two chaplains a present; a snuffbox was offered to Boys, but was refused owing to the severe penalties attached to any acceptance of presents from Napoleon, but it was given to Boys after his death. Napoleon also left Boys an armchair and walking stick, which still remain cherished possessions of the family."

"The Rev. Richard, 1785-1866, fourth son of John Boys and Mary (Harvey), was educated at King's School, Canterbury. He joined the Royal Engineers, but later took his degree M.D. at Cambridge. He was appointed chaplain to the East India Company, and junior chaplain at St. Helena, 1811, and in 1815 senior chaplain, being incumbent of St. Paul's, the country church just above Plantation House."

John, the above excerpts are from "Under Thirty-Seven Kings" by Lilian Boys Behrens, published in 1926 by The Saint Catherine Press, London. This is a very rare book containing a wealth of information.

If possible the armchair should be extremely carefully examined for any markings. Should any be found I would be willing to send a photograph of the hand written inscription on the snuff box so that the unique style of handwriting could be compared. The inscription on Napoleon's snuffbox was so fine I could not see it at first; it was only found by the sharp eyes of my 10 year old son.

Thank you kindly for posting this story and the links to the BBC News site.

John Tyrrell said...

Very interesting - particularly re the book and the claim that Napoleon spoke to Rev Boys on arrival. I assume that there are no records of further meetings in the book.

I am not in a position to examine the armchair, but someone from the museum might be interested in hearing from you.

Would be glad to get an email from you. I would of course not betray confidentiality.

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau said...

Hi John... Long time I did leave a comment...
This story of the armchair if it may come from SH I have my doubts when it is said it comes from LH... It sounds like the story of the x numbers of Napoleon’s death masks... also supposing coming from Rev Boys and turned to be fakes...
The saddest part in this story is the name of the Reverend is now associated with those “jumping to conclusion” studies because of his own descendants (I am specially thinking to his son-in-law...).
Take care and enjoy the summer... here it’s miserable !!!


John Tyrrell said...

Good to hear from you. Good weather here! I had heard about the bad St. Helena weather from Audrey.

Think you may be right about the armchair - but I am now a little confused. Don't think there is any doubt though that one of Napoleon's snuff boxes now resides with a member of the Boys family.

Unknown said...

Dear Michel, the controversy about the different, yet identically sized casts of Napoleon's Death Mask has been analysed in the greatest of detail by leading expert Craniologist and Anthropologists.

Please view the extensive research in "Mystery of Napoleon Death Mask" published by The New York Times, August 15, 1915.

It confirms that the cast in England of Dr Sankey is indeed genuine. Dr Sankey is the grandson of Rev Richard Boys.

The final paragraphs account for the differences in appearance of the later moulds.

You can view the full article online. I will email a copy to John Tyrrell just in case it becomes unavailable in the future.

albertuk said...

here is my opinion on these topics:

1- there is no evidence of any contact made by Napoleon on landing at St Helena; to the contrary, he wanted to avoid any contact; he disembarked at night hours, and the onlookers remain silent while he was directed to Porteous house where he spent the first night; the next day, he stayed at the Briars

2- armchair? no idea; but there was a public auction sale in 1822 for the Govt items that were used at Longwood; maybe Boys bought such chair? someone could search for it in the auction sale report

3- death mask: as Michel said, it is a fake; it is known fact that plaster could not be found in the island to even make on death mask; Dr Burton went to get gypsum and created just enough plaster to take one single mould of the entire head, but only the facial part was taken to Europe, the other one destroyed; all the so-called deathmasks made at St Helena are fakes that only appeared in later years, and probably simply made up from the commercialised version of the death bust from 1833
But, the official Antommarchi bust is a partial fake too, because only the facial part could possibly be derived from the original mould; the rest of the head was all made up by artist