How They Brought the Good News

Colin Kidd

  • In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 739 pp, £25.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 571 26952 5

Familiarity, oddly enough, is all too often an obstacle to historical understanding. The more we think we know about a period, the more preconceptions we have. In the case of the Napoleonic Wars, a patriotic mythology fixated on the achievements of Nelson, Wellington and Sir John Moore at Corunna tends to filter out fear and uncertainty in favour of a seemingly inevitable procession of victories. As Jenny Uglow stresses in her gripping account of Britain during the Napoleonic era, contemporaries had no such feeling of security. There were major invasion scares in 1798 and 1803, prompting defensive measures, coastal fortifications and even plans to flood Romney Marsh. French troops landed not only in Ireland during the Rebellion of 1798, but also in Great Britain itself, at Fishguard, in 1797. While it was true, for the most part, that Britain ruled the waves, Napoleon reckoned that he only needed control of the Channel for six hours to effect an invasion of England. After all, William of Orange had managed it in the autumn of 1688; and Bonnie Prince Charlie had got as far south as Derby with his ragamuffin army in December 1745. The notion of an impregnable island fortress was less convincing when 1688 and 1745 remained fresh in the national memory.

Besides, in an age of gas-filled balloons who needed command of the seas? Reconnaissance balloons had been used by the French army in the Low Countries in 1794, and Napoleon – alert to the potential of air war – set up a Compagnie d’Aérostiers. During the invasion panic of 1803, Uglow notes, a new play, Goody Two Shoes; or Harlequin Alabaster, was performed at Sadler’s Wells; in it a French invasion by balloon is foiled at a lighthouse, in the process confounding our own expectations about what is – or surprisingly is not – anachronism. A rumour circulated that Napoleon’s engineers would construct a pontoon across the Channel, superintended by officers in balloons.

Other accidents of commemoration distort our sense of the past. While the gore of the Crimean War has become part of our canon of remembrance – thanks to Florence Nightingale – the Napoleonic Wars attract a breezier strain of self-congratulation. An emphasis on jolly seafaring tends to block out carnage, disfigurement and mangled limbs. The deaths of Nelson and Moore are remembered, but as moments of high-minded stoicism hardly stained by the spatter of blood. Uglow’s balanced history reinserts the forgotten sufferings of ordinary people into the narrative. She summons back into the annals of the wars the ‘taciturn’ figures the composer Thomas Haswell remembered on the Tyneside of his youth: ‘the sea-dogs of Camperdown, of the Nile, of Trafalgar … in every state of picturesque dismemberment – one arm, one leg, one arm and one leg, or a mere trunk with neither arms nor legs’. Uglow recovers the stories of individuals such as Tom Plunket of the Rifle Brigade and his wife: Tom, invalided out of the army after Waterloo, was eventually reduced to selling matches on the street; the face of his wife, who had also been at the battle, was disfigured as a result of an exploding ammunition wagon. Starvation confronted Plunket’s comrade Ned Costello, unable to provide for Augustine, his common-law French wife, and their baby. In despair he used the £5 he received from the Patriotic Fund to get mother and baby back to France: ‘“Ne m’oubliez pas,” were her last words as she squeezed my hand.’

Although Uglow pricks the bubble of patriotic delusion surrounding British attitudes to the wars, there is nothing straightforward or programmatic about her revisionism. For the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras have also engendered a counter-mythology on the left, among those most immune to patriotic self-regard. This is the radical legend of a Britain run by a reactionary Tory oligarchy that launched a white terror – of hanging, imprisonment and transportation – to suppress native sympathies for the revolution across the Channel. Once again, received assumptions capture an element of truth, but, as Uglow demonstrates, by no means the whole truth. For a start, the British elite welcomed the early stages of the French Revolution. It looked at first as if the French had embarked on a moderate constitutional revolution not unlike England’s Whig Revolution of 1688. Edmund Burke, an early doomsayer in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), was out of step with the optimism of his contemporaries. As Uglow reminds us, the prime minister throughout the first phase of the wars, William Pitt the Younger, wasn’t the Tory monster painted by radicals. Although he belonged to a different branch of Whiggery from the more francophile Charles James Fox, Pitt too was a Whig. He never described himself as anything else, and had championed parliamentary reform during the 1780s. At Horne Tooke’s treason trial, the reformer claimed that he was only repeating what Pitt himself had said a decade before.

Indeed, the conservatism of the elite, though brutal and authoritarian, was also paternalist, and capacious enough to encompass some popular grievances. In particular, the landed classes were predisposed to hear the worst about loan-jobbers, forestallers and other wartime profiteers accused of ripping off ordinary people. Walter Scott, part of a cavalry troop raised to ensure stability on the home front, the Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons, found his conscience troubled when he was confronted in the line of duty with the looting of a bread shop: ‘Truth to say it was a dreadful feeling to use violence against a people in real and absolute want of food.’ The Reverend John Stonard, the ultra-conservative tutor to Pitt’s nephews, saw all too vividly the attractions of revolution: ‘Much as I hate all popular tumult and piously as I deprecate all popular government, I should not wonder and I declare I could hardly blame the lower class of people if they were to make, which God forbid, some desperate and dreadful effort to better their condition.’ However clear the vista, only a daring few ventured along the road to Tory radicalism. William Cobbett started his journalistic career on the right as an anti-Jacobin, but so staunchly bucolic was his outlook that an old-fashioned antipathy to financiers – mushroom men of an unwelcome strain which flourished during the wars – gradually brought about a conversion to the radical cause. Nevertheless, Cobbett’s idiosyncratic populism was tinged with rural prejudice, and his remarks on the flap in the City that followed the suicide of the banker Abraham Goldsmid in 1810 exhibited a dark range of dislikes: Jews, the wen and the destructive whims of the market.

A close attention to the mechanics of wartime finance – the introduction of income tax, the ‘sinking fund’, consolidated annuities (or ‘consols’), the specie shortage – is one of the liveliest, and least anticipated, features of Uglow’s book. But it emerges from her distinctive approach. Uglow conceived her project as a ‘crowd biography’, a collective history of the British people informed by the experiences – taken from diaries, letters and memoirs – of well-chosen samples of British life, including (significantly) bankers in London and Norwich; farmers in Derbyshire, Aberdeenshire, Suffolk and Essex; soldiers, sailors, gunsmiths and clergymen; Quakers, aristocrats and radicals. Jane Austen, for instance, enjoys no more prominence than her brothers Francis and Charles, both officers in the navy. While Uglow devotes considerable attention to campaigns on sea and land, her primary concern is the rhythm of life on the home front during twenty years of war. The wars became like the vicissitudes of British weather, an inescapable background niggle. People stopped referring directly to them, preferring the formulation ‘in these dismal times’, soon compressed into the shorthand that provides Uglow’s title, ‘in these times’. Bereavement, especially the loss of offspring – whether sickly babies or sons at the wars – was a frequent occurrence, as Uglow notes, but soon absorbed into the realm of routine: ‘Choking stops in the flow of days. Then a jolt, a change of key and back to daily life, however haunted, to writing, weaving, banking, farming.’

To describe the events of the 1790s as the Napoleonic Wars is, of course, somewhat misleading. The early stages of the Revolutionary War between Britain and France preceded the rise of Napoleon, and an uneasy period of peace in 1802-03 under the Treaty of Amiens separated the Revolutionary War from the Napoleonic War proper. The character of Britain’s enemy changed drastically, though by subtle gradations, in the course of the wars. Desperate conflict with a fervent revolutionary power, which threatened to loose a rabble of ‘levelling sans-culottes’ on every country in Europe, gave way within the first few years to war with a military junta. Eventually Britain found itself in a protracted struggle against an alien despot who had pretensions to empire, yet who cannily managed to co-opt as well as usurp traditional elites. The changing appearance of the enemy provoked different kinds of alarm on the home front. Nevertheless, it is unclear when anxieties about revolutionary upheaval gave way – if at all – to a fear of a more conventional kind of conquest.

Indeed, when was Britain most at risk of a French-style revolution of its own? In a controversial book, George III, Lord North and the People (1949), Herbert Butterfield argued that this moment came a decade before the French Revolution, in 1779-80. These years witnessed a movement for parliamentary reform and a popular clamour against Catholic relief, which culminated in the Gordon Riots, the largest popular disturbance in 18th-century Britain. An alternative view, associated with E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and – in a hyperbolic version – with Roger Wells’s Insurrection (1983), emphasises the period after 1795, when English radicalism was driven underground. Wells also drew attention to discontent within the military machine itself, above all to the scale and potential of the naval mutinies in 1797, and so does Uglow. The mutinies began at Spithead near Portsmouth and spread to other ports, to Plymouth in the South-West, to the Nore in the Thames estuary, and to Yarmouth in East Anglia. Some mutineers were bought off, some wooed roughly with threats, and a few of the ringleaders were executed. Uglow also notices the fierce reaction in Scotland to a new Scottish Militia Bill in 1797. Did 1797, or the years immediately following, mark the revolution that never was? Or had the shifting character of the post-revolutionary regime in France already punctured that possibility?

By contrast with war against the relative facelessness of a frightening revolutionary cause, Napoleon Bonaparte provoked a rather different set of responses in the British public. An enemy dictator – however militarily successful – introduced human foibles into the propaganda war, and supplied faint touches of comic absurdity, which writers and caricaturists exploited. Bonaparte became Gillray’s ‘Little Boney’ – according to Uglow, ‘a tiny, spluttering figure of fun’. Amid a wealth of pertinent illustration in her book, one of the highlights is a Rowlandson cartoon called The Mother’s Hope; a child is having a tantrum: ‘I don’t like Canary Birds – I hate Battledore and Shuttlecock … I won’t go to school … I will have my own way in everything!’ His doting mother looks on: ‘Bless the baby – what an aspiring spirit – if he goes on this way – he will be a second Buonaparte!’

After more than two decades of war Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814 portended not only the end of an epoch, but, according to Stonard, the end of news itself: ‘Surely there will never be any more news as long as we live. The papers will be as dull as a ledger and politics insipid as the white of an egg.’ The wars seemed to have come to a fitting conclusion. Auspiciously, 1814 marked the centenary of the Hanoverian accession. The victorious allies flocked to London, and Bonaparte was dispatched – with chivalrous generosity – to Elba, his personal Lilliput. The old order had been restored, and complacency reigned. After two grim decades, it was all over.

Except, it wasn’t. Napoleon’s return to France from Elba provoked universal dismay. Not only did it usher in another cycle of death and destruction, but it ruined the lives of those still recuperating from earlier campaigns. Poor Benjamin Harris was recalled to his battalion, but found himself ‘in so miserable a plight with the remains of the fever and ague … that I did not answer the call, whereby I lost my pension’.

Uglow describes the farcical way that the news from Waterloo reached the government in London. Remarkably, the financier Nathan Rothschild was told of the victory only 24 hours after the battle. A courier brought him the news from Brussels, by way of Dunkirk and Deal; but when he informed the government the following day, he was not believed. Nor was the government any more inclined to believe Rothschild’s second courier a couple of days later. It took the arrival of Wellington’s aide, Henry Percy, to convince the administration that the rumoured news was reliable.

News, its transmission and reception, is a leitmotif in Uglow’s story. Although a system of semaphore telegraph – copied from the French inventor Claude Chappe – enabled Admiralty communications to whizz from London to Portsmouth in an incredible 15 minutes, knowledge of the wars generally travelled at a more sedate pace. Dangerously so. The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, a side-effect of the naval blockade of Napoleonic Europe, was settled by the Treaty of Ghent at the end of 1814; but the news did not cross the ocean with sufficient speed to prevent carnage at the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815, in which two thousand British soldiers were killed or wounded.

Compassion fatigue had already set in. When news arrived of the costly victory at the Battle of Albuera in the Iberian campaign, Jane Austen’s blithe lament anticipated our own thick-skinned, if appalled, responses to the horrors which unfold hourly on rolling news: ‘How horrible it is to have so many people killed! – And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!’ Bloodthirsty infotainment of a socially acceptable kind had already arrived, as Coleridge bemoaned, to titillate otherwise good-hearted people:

                    Boys and girls
And women that would groan to see a child
Pull off an insect’s leg, all read of war,
The best amusement for our morning meal

For many people, Uglow notes, the war existed as ‘a muddle of confused events in places with difficult foreign names, humming in the background, slipping off the side of the page’. And often news circulated by word of mouth ‘at third or fourth hand’, which is how Robert Chambers, the publisher and scientist, remembered his wartime boyhood in Peebles in the Scottish Borders. News experienced as rumour, Chambers recollected, was filtered through the vagaries of local life and the eclecticism of popular reading habits. An old eccentric called Tam Fleck tramped around the neighbourhood with a translation of Josephus’ history of the first-century Jewish war, which he read out ‘as the current news. “Weel Tam, what’s the news the nicht?” … “Bad news, bad news … Titus has begun to besiege Jerusalem, it’s gaun to be a terrible business.”’