Thursday, 15 August 2019

British Napoleons entries for people baptised Napoleon, 1803-5

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the grave of Napoleon I came across many years ago in a Suffolk church yard. At the time, with a very conventional view of the history of the early nineteenth century, I thought it amusing and rather odd. I know realise that it was a far from isolated occurrence.

The historian Katrina Navickas did the above search of Napoleons born in 1803-5, at the height of the invasion scare. Her search came up with over 5000 references, some of which were undoubtedly duplicates. My own search in the 1841 census found over 100 people with the name Napoleon, many of which were christenings in the decade before the census. To baptise a child with the name Napoleon at a time when he was the target of an unprecedented amount of state propaganda could not have been an easy matter. Before the introduction of civil registration in 1837 most births were registered in the Church of England, and it seems unlikely that the name "Napoleon" would have been welcomed by Anglican parsons, the very backbone of Loyalism. The incidence of so many cases seems to confirm what the folk songs of the nineteenth century suggest, that Napoleon was a surprisingly popular figure in the United Kingdom.

On the eve of the Peterloo bicentenary it is worth reflecting on the case of one of the Lancashire radical leaders, William Fitton a self proclaimed surgeon of Royton. Fitton came from a radical family, members of which had from time to time fallen foul of local Loyalist mobs. In 1816, at the age of 23, he founded in Royton what was the first "Hampden Club" outside London.(1) For the next three tumultuous years leading up to Peterloo he was very active in Lancashire radicalism. Sometime in 1819 William Fitton had a new baby son. On September 26th, just over a month after the Manchester Massacre, the boy was baptised with the name "Napoleon". The young Napoleon died in January 1820, but so determined were his parents, or at least his father, that a second son born in 1820 was duly given the same name.(2)

As a postscript:- Two years after Peterloo, the immortal memory of Napoleon Bonaparte was toasted by 300 people at a dinner in Manchester held to commemorate the massacre.
1. Hampden Clubs were formed to bring together radical and working class reformers. The movement was led by John Cartwrigth a London based radical leader. The clubs were named after John Hampden, a seventeenth century parliamentarian who played a leading role in the struggle against Charles I in the years leading up to the Civil War.
2.See this brief account of William Fitton.