The Prisoners of War at Sissinghurst

19 September 2019, by Peter Mellor

Attired, somewhat appropriately, in black tricorn hat, his replica Brown Bess musket close at hand, Peter Mellor presented a vivid account of the wretched life of French naval prisoners at Sissinghurst during the period of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), together with some interesting detail of their English militia guards’ uniform and weaponry.

Sissinghurst had not been a castle in any accepted sense, but prisoners, writing home, cited their address as Chateau Sissinghurst, so that name has remained, rendered in English as Sissinghurst Castle, to the present day.

Initially, 1700 prisoners were housed there, a figure rising to around 3000 at its height. Little positive evidence obtains of the layout at the time, but there was, apparently, a large, three-sided Tudor mansion. George Walpole, in 1752, wrote of “a fine garden, 120 feet by 18 feet on one side [possibly the North]. Captain Francis Grose, of the Surrey Militia, had made a drawing in 1760, and, similarly, Richard Godfrey offered an illustrated interpretation from the ruins in 1767, while, in 1830, James Willis of Tenterden gave his rendition in ink and dye. At least ten ‘wards’ held the prisoners, each ward bearing a name, one being the ‘Over the Black Hole Ward’.

Conditions were, as may be inferred from the above-named ward, extremely primitive. Men slept in hammocks, ventilation poor, the stench unimaginable. Rations included 1½ pounds of [mouldy] bread, ¾ pound of meat [misappropriation by the guards generally reduced even this amount], and 1 quart of [seriously watered-down] ale. Drinking water required boiling, and latrines were completely unhygienic. In fact, Peter informed us that body odour, halitosis, and soiled undergarments was the norm in 18th Century Britain!

Militia recruits were balloted by parishes under the Militia Act (1757), Lords Lieutenant of counties being responsible for raising numbers, each man being required to serve for three years. Not only were West Kent Militia posted to Sissinghurst, but also Surrey, Hampshire, and Leicestershire detachments. Perhaps surprisingly, given the period, men averaged 5’6” in height; they wore red uniform with facings of another hue (Cranbrook grey, for example), a black tricorn hat with Hanoverian cockade, white-powdered wig, and a queue [pigtail]. Weaponry included a musket of Brown Bess type, quality controlled by the Tower of London, and a short sword, known as a ‘hanger’. The ordinary ranks lived under canvas, while officers were billeted at the George Hôtel, Cranbrook.

Unlike the more disciplined Royal Navy, and, to a certain extent the Army, the militia was not populated by pleasant characters, the order of the day including the incarceration, bullying, beatings, and general degradation of prisoners. Despite such hardships, those poor Frenchmen made beautiful models, including boxes and ships, using their knives (each prisoner had a knife) out of the readily available material of fruitwood and bone, and some drew finely detailed graffiti images, particularly of their ships, on the walls.

Disease was, understandably, rife, with cholera, typhus, diphtheria, and pneumonia adding to the omnipresent lice. Around 1000 men died, buried on The Plain. Sadly, there was incidence of murdering prisoners, not least by militiaman John Bramson in 1761, who discharged his musket, loaded (dangerously even to himself) with three balls, into two prisoners in the garden. One died within four days, the other in eleven days, from dreadful wounds. Prisoners were often held at bay by long bayonets, without becoming seriously injured, so could be patched up quickly.

At the end of this sorry period, there was repatriation, unfortunately no joyous matter,  their writings home having been censored by the Admiralty in London, many letters never reaching France. Thus, a man would return home, only to discover that, presumed dead, he had been replaced by a new husband and subsequent children, so was not welcome back into the family fold.

The Elizabethan mansion fell into disrepair, was vandalised, burnt, and had fragments removed: it was finally demolished around 1800 for materials needed in other construction work. Presently, a book issue is anticipated in October 2019, its author Frenchman Renaud Morieux, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge, and its title “The Society of Prisoners“. This should make for an interesting read.

One may wonder how Britain had arrived at this 18th Century position of power and influence over its old adversary. The main reasons for such success could be advanced as:

  • the genius of her Prime Minister (William Pitt the Elder)
  • the success of Robert Clive in Bengal (Plassey)
  • the success of James Wolfe at Québec, Canada
  • the success of Edward Hawke over the French fleet at Quiberon Bay
  • the success of the military over the French at the Battle of Minden
  • the Royal Navy’s capture/sinking of 1100 vessels, and taking of 37000 prisoners
  • the huge colonial empire which Britain had accumulated

Thankfully, the Sissinghurst Castle experience for those unfortunate French prisoners (truly Les Misérables) is now consigned to history, maybe little-known. Acknowledging Peter Mellor’s illustrative talk, we can thankfully leave the brutal militia, inhospitable prison conditions, and unsavoury nature of personal hygiene to the 18th Century, and, without forgetting what happened there, enjoy Sissinghurst Castle as it is today, a delightful National Trust property and grounds awaiting our regular visits.

Stefan Gatward