Another Verdun

Birmingham Archives and Collections has other references to a wartime Verdun, as one of the towns used for the accommodation of prisoners during the Napoleonic war in the early 19th century. By the beginning of 1808 there were six of these towns, forming a string close to the north-eastern border of France: Valenciennes, Arras, Givet, Verdun, Sarrelibre, and Bitche. In 1809 three more were added, Mount Dauphin, Briançon, and Cambrai.

Two volumes have survived in the Papers of Matthew Boulton and Family, a letter book and an account book, which belonged to the Committee for the Relief of British Prisoners in France, established in 1803. (MS 3782/19/1-2)

The purpose of the Committee was to oversee the distribution of charitable aid to prisoners, from money collected from prisoners’ families or by public subscription. There were several organisations collecting funds for the relief of prisoners. One, the Patriotic Society, restricted payments ‘to the aged and wounded, to the instruction of the young men, and to the relief of such prisoners of weak health, whose disorders were not sufficiently dangerous to necessitate their being transferred to the hospital’.

MS 3782.19.1 f761

1809 regulations for the distribution of charitable relief. [MS 3782/19/1/letter 761]

Some time after the formation of the Committee at Verdun, its members ‘wrote home to solicit a general subscription’, as they felt that there were a number of prisoners whose needs were not being met by the above fund. As a result, another Society was formed at Lloyd’s Coffee House to receive donations. Lloyd’s Coffee House was the centre of the marine insurance business and it is possible that this Society was particularly concerned to relieve prisoners from the crews of merchant ships, though its funds were applied to wider objects. The letter advising the committee at Verdun of the formation of this ‘very humane and charitable institution’ bore the date 12 November 1807 (MS 3782/19/1/letter 406).

The money collected under the auspices of this Society was transmitted at intervals to the committee at Verdun by the banking house of Messrs. Perregaux & Co. of Paris who received the first instalment (£5000) by 29 December 1807.(MS 3782/19/1/letters 42, 761).

MS 3782.19.1 Lloyds

In 1809 the regulations for the distribution of this relief were formally recorded. [MS 3782/19/1/letter 761]

Another charity, the Louis Charity, or Louis Fund, was so named from the sum of £5000, ‘to be distributed at the rate of one louis d’or per man to every prisoner in distress’ which was received from ‘an unknown quarter’ in 1807 or 1808 by the committee at Verdun (MS 3782/19/1/ letters 166 and 405) through the bankers Thomas Coutts & Co.,and separate books were kept to record the charitable relief given from this source.

Besides the three principal funds mentioned above, a number of local subscriptions are referred to in the letter book. For example, in 1809, Messrs. Le Mesurier, bankers, remitted £450 from the states of Jersey for the relief of natives of that island (MS 3782/19/1/823, 826, 827);  and similar subscriptions were made in the names of Guernsey (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 5), Merioneth (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 298), Dartmouth (MS 3782/19/1/ letters 67,91), and Cornwall (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 196).

Infirmaries and dispensaries were established at the depots for the care of the sick and wounded, but it is not clear how these were paid for. By October 1808 there was a hospital at each of the depots, with the exception of Sarrelibre (MS 3782/19/1/letter 371). The hospital at Arras contained separate fever wards (MS 3782/19/1/letter 149), and in the following month Lieutenant Norton reported that ‘an infirmary is talked of in the citadel, which the commandant wishes to have attended by English physicians’. (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 180).

Prisoners of war received allowances from the French Government. In July 1809 there were three classes, (see image MS 3782/19/1/ letter 761 above). These allowances, however, were often – perhaps usually – inadequate.  As William Gorden observed, ‘However desirous the two Governments may be to alleviate the sufferings of their respective prisoners, yet there must always exist in a captivity of such long duration many wants for which the ordinary allowances may not be sufficient.’ (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 761).

Napoleon had prohibited prisoners from receiving pay from their own Governments, but they were permitted by the French Minister of War to receive financial assistance from their friends and families. Consequently, sums of money were dispatched by individuals in England for the use of specific prisoners, and subscription funds were established to aid those classes of prisoners perceived to be in the most distress or most deserving of assistance.

The two volumes probably came into the possession of Matthew Robinson Boulton from the Reverend William Gorden, one of the Committee’s principal correspondents. Gorden was born in 1770 or 1771 and educated at Oxford, and from 1794 till his death in 1837 was vicar of the parish of Duns Tew in Oxfordshire. In 1803 he was detained in France and sent as a prisoner of war to Verdun, where he remained for eleven years, though the reason for his initial presence in France is not known. After his release he returned to his parish, taking with him, it would seem, the records of the Committee of which he had been a member. He probably first met M. R. Boulton in 1815, the year in which Boulton purchased an estate in the adjacent parish of Great Tew. Certainly the two men were well acquainted by 1823, the date of the only surviving letter between them.(MS 3782/13/22/46  ) The letter, however, contains no reference to the documents from Verdun, nor has any mention been found elsewhere in the Boulton papers of these records.

In July 1809 William Gorden stated that the Committee had been ‘established at Verdun upwards of 5 years.’ (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 761) On 25 Apr. 1808, the Committee comprised the following ten members (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 168).


The ten members of the Committee for the Relief of British Prisoners in France. April 1809. [MS 3782/19/1]

Sir Thomas Lavie seems to have been the most senior member. Thomas Phillips, the Committee’s secretary, was not a member of the Committee itself. The name Ives Harry does not occur after the date quoted, but on 20 May there were still ten members. (MS 3782/19/1/letter 201) In July, James Rogerson returned to England and the accounts he took with him were signed by only six members (his own signature does not appear) (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 285). In 1809 the Rev. L. C. Lee was granted permission to reside some time at Paris. (MS 3782/19/1/ letter 683) The Committee was formed about the time William Gorden was first detained, and he may therefore have been a founder member.

The Letter Book (MS 3782/19/1) contains transcripts of letters to and from members of the Committee at Verdun, minutes of the Committee’s meetings, and other documents. It covers the period 26 January – 31 August 1809. Written on the edges of the leaves, so as to be read when the book is shut, are the words, ‘From Jany. 1808 to Aug. 1809,’ followed by the number 3, which probably indicates that this volume was the third of a series. Most of the book is written in an unidentified hand, but at least four entries were made by William Gorden [letters 643, 683, 805, 838].

The Account Book (MS 3782/19/2) is titled ‘Account with Sir Thomas Lavie for the Young Gentlemen of His Majesty’s late ship Blanche (Y. G. B. account).’It covers the period 28 August 1809 – 1 April 1813, and was therefore begun about the time the letter book was closed, but this may just be a coincidence.  The ‘young gentlemen’ mentioned were Messrs. Lyall, Gregg, Secretar, Gordon, Street, Hoy, and Williams, who were presumably captured at the time the H.M.S. Blanche was sunk, and were taken as prisoners to Verdun. The book contains various accounts connected with expenditure on their behalf for board, lodgings, clothes, provisions, tuition, and so on. The account at the back of this book with Messrs. Perregaux & Co. suggests that the money was derived from the funds of the Society established at Lloyds.

These volumes are not perhaps what you’d expect to find in the Papers of Matthew Boulton & Family, but give an unexpected insight into the care of prisoners of war in France and the generosity of people at home contributing to the charitable funds.

Fiona Tait





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