French Prisoners

French Prisoners of War in Whitchurch by Joan Barton


The mention in the January Newsletter of the Whitchurch man who fought in the Peninsular War brings to mind these other soldiers who fought in the Napoleonic Wars ads also lie buried in St. Alkmund’s Churchyard. But these men “lie forever in a foreign field” for they were French prisoners-of-war.


In her book “Old Whitchurch” ( published about 1920) Mrs. Clay Finch writes: “ There were French prisoners in Whitchurch twice, before the Peace of Amiens (1802) and up to Waterloo. They seem to have been officers, on parole, quartered in different houses. One , if not more, was quartered in Bark Hill House, and a pair of jackboots and I think, a hat were found in a forgotten cupboard in awall sixty or seventy years later. Some died here and are buried in the Churchyard.  They were not allowed to walk further than a mile out of town. One limit was Mile Bank. My great-grandfather used often to take them longer walks. They were very ingenious at making various articles. We used to have a little workcase, shaped like an egg, delicately carved in wood by one of them; and the Joyce family possess a carving in ivory given to an ancestor of one of them. The “Little work-case shaped like an egg”, together with a tiny carved basket – both no more than seven cms.  high and four cms. in diameter –  now belong to W. H. A. G. member Richard Hughes of Ash Wood. They were given to his father by Mrs . Caly Finch about the turn of the century. The egg which can be unscrewed like a Russian doll is made of walnut or similar hardwood and has a very finely worked thread. it is covered with carving and pierced work. The basket is decorated with the same patterns and has a handle made of tiny carved beads threaded on wire.


Another Group member, Joyce Douglas, also had articles made by French prisoners.  One is a small wooden box 16x10x7 cms. possibly a cigar box, covered with an intricate veneer of coloured “straw-work”.  The inside of the lid has the initials M.M., for Mary Mason, the lady for whom it was made, etched into the design.  The top is decorated with intertwined olive branches and a pair of doves, most delicately worked, and bordered with a wreath of olive leaves.  Joyce Douglas, a descendant of Mary Mason, keeps letters mentioning her name in the box.  Joyce also has a needlecase made in rose red brocade, which has a pocket containing the maker’s name.  These souvenirs are vivid reminders of the amount of time these men had on their hands and also of the gratitude they felt towards the people who befriended them and welcomed them into their homes.


Some of the Frenchmen found more than friendship in the homes they visited for at least four of them married local girls.  The following items are transcribed from the Parish Register of Marriages (now in the Shropshire Record Office).


1812, 26th December, Peter Mareau of this Parish, Prisoner of War on Parole and Mary Ann adson of this Parish, widow.


16th June, Bernard Messer, French Prisoner now of this Parish, and Charlotte Brookfield of the Parish of Prees were married in this Church by Banns with consent of publications at Prees and Whitchurch this sixteenth day of June in the year one thousand eight hundred and thirteen by me John Collier, Curate


This marriage was solemnised between us : B Messer

X          the mark of Charlotte Brookfield

in the presence of us X the mark of May Egerton,l Francis Armable, C Varin

Charles Porah, Verger.


1813, 4th August, Pierre Jean Bazire French Prisoner of this Parish and Hannah Fox.

25th August, Joseph Lombard Prisoner of War now of this Parish and Jane Willett.

It is clear that although prisoners of war, the Frenchmen did enjoy quite a lot of freedom.  They  could walk about the town, make social calls and marry English girls. Although there were no French names on the gravestones when Douglas and Kathleen Barnard recorded those still existing in 1978, the Parish Register for Burials has the following entries:


Year Name Abode Date Buried Age By whom buried

1813 J. M. Raffraey High Street 15 September 50 J. Collier

French Prisoner-of-War

Poilat Claypit Street 13 November 46 J. Collier

French Prisoner-of-War

1814 M. Ch. Thirion Bargates 24 May 54 J. Collier

French Prisoner-of-War