Thursday, April 07, 2011

Prisoners of the Parole Towns

I am very pleased and excited to report that my book One Wicked Sin is a finalist not only for the Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Best Historical Romance but also for the Colorado Award of Excellence as well!

The research I did for this book was fascinating, drawing on the experience of Napoleonic prisoners of war in Britain. A little while ago Louise blogged about the prisoner of war camp built at Norman Cross in 1797 and excavated recently by Channel 4’s Time Team. Thousands of prisoners of war were also housed in prison hulks and in medieval castles turned gaols such as Portchester and Edinburgh. But the background to One Wicked Sin looked at a different side of the prisoner experience, that of the officers who were accommodated in parole towns across the country.

There were 50 parole towns across Britain, ranging from Kelso in the Scottish Borders to Abergavenny in Wales to Wincanton in Somerset. Each town could house between 200 – 300 officers. One thing that struck me immediately about the parole town experience was that these were small country or market towns as opposed to big cities. What must it have been like suddenly to have hundreds of prisoners of war living amid the small local populace? And not just French prisoners but other nationalities as well - Danish, Irish, Spanish, American and many more.

Before any officer was permitted to reside in a parole town he had to sign up to certain terms and conditions including that he could not go further than a mile out of the town and that he had to observe a curfew. Perhaps the terms should also have included that he should not attempt to elope with a local girl – several officers did! The British authorities gave each French officer a half a guinea a week for living expenses and the more resourceful supplemented their income by teaching French or dancing or setting up in business. However half a guinea evidently was not sufficient for some of the officers. In Wantage, where One Wicked Sin is set, one French colonel wrote to his bankers, Coutts in London, asking them to transfer funds to the local bank because he simply could not manage on such a pittance!

The history of the parole towns is a fascinating one and the French prisoners of war have left surprisingly little trace in the written records of the towns where they lived amongst the population for a number of years. Their legacy lives on however in the businesses they started and thefamilies they married into. In contrast to the officers the non-commissioned prisoners have left their mark on the landscape. They laboured on many engineering projects of the early nineteenth century from canal building to docks. Putting together their stories and learning about their experiences has been a very interesting process. One of the few memorials that I discovered to the parole prisoners is this one at Leek in Staffordshire.

One Wicked Sin was published in the US last year and will be coming out in the UK in July from MIRA.


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Great post, Nicola. I'm glad that your wrestling with the blogger was successful.

I've come across several books with a French POW background, the most well-known being D. K. Broster's 'Mr Rowl'.

It's a situation that's got everything: sexy French officers, the attraction of opposites, tensions inherent in fraternizing with the enemy, and so on.

Historical novelists can do a lot with that!

acornick said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I enjoyed "Mr Rowl" very much. Yes, there is a lot of potential in the situation. I'm surprised more authors haven't used that background, actually!

For me it is a nice additional twist that I now work as a volunteer at the Wantage Museum, which was where I saw the original letter from the French Colonel to Coutts Bank!

Jane Jackson said...

Really interesting, Nicola. We had Napoleonic prisoners billeted in Cornwall too. They were usually the crews of captured French ships brought into Falmouth and were put work on various building projects.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, Jane. Yes, it's amazing the huge variety of tasks they accomplished. A lot of the military and functional buildings of that period were built by prisoners of war!