Escape from the French in 1809

My transcription from a contemporary copy, originally in the possession of my distant cousin Mary Beachcroft, and now perhaps in the Beachcroft collection at the Clothworker’s Company.  It is an account of an escape from France in 1809 by a group of English prisoners and was brought back to England by Henry Lewis, brother to Charlotta Lewis, wife of Thomas Seward Beachcroft.  Henry was a junior officer in the British Navy and had been captured by the French in 1805.  I have made some small editorial changes it to make it more readable for modern readers.  The original authors were Thomas Blakiston and William MacLeod, copied out by Henry Lewis.

Particulars of our escape from the Depot at Givet effected on the Morning of the 26th October 1809

At day light it was unanimously determined that we should attempt our projected escape as soon as convenient after the morning appeal; the Gendarme then sentinel having been but a short time at the Depot could have but an imperfect recollection of our persons. This, thro’ the favour of our disguises we happily effected about 9 o clock but not without much anxiety, having been several times disappointed and delayed in our plan as the road was unusually frequented & at 8, the sentinel was relieved by a Gendarme who had been on that service more than a year & consequently had the most perfect knowledge of our Persons. Much indeed are we indebted to some of our countrymen for their friendly assistance & although we cannot express to them personally our gratitude, we hope they will never imagine that we can forget their essential services.

More difficulties presented themselves than what we had pictured to ourselves, but aided by the Almighty we surmounted them, & happily arrived outside the Town, where we were to have met a guide who was to have accompanied us to our destination, but not perceiving him at the appointed place, we continued our road.

Had our escape been less known amongst the Prisoners we might have waited some time to look more minutely for him but it being very improbable that our desertion could be long concealed from the Gendarmerie we thought it more prudent to press our March and endeavour to gain a thick wood at some distance, in order that by concealing ourselves in it, we might the better baffle the vigilant pursuit of those scoundrels.

Here we arrived about half past ten o clock & choosing to all appearances a safe spot we agreed to stop there, but shortly after heard some wood cutters close to us, we quitted this Place & retired deeper into the wood. We had now time to reflect on our situation, to point out our greatest dangers, & to concert measures to avoid them if possible foreseeing the probability of missing our guide, we had provided ourselves with Provisions, which tho’ in a very small quantity, we determined should last us until circumstances would admit of our procuring a fresh supply without danger.

At half past two we heard a Gun fired from Charlemont, a precaution used in similar cases, to alarm the environs & put the peasantry on the lookout. Convinced from this signal that our escape was known, we took every precaution to conceal ourselves, notwithstanding which we were discovered by a man, whom from his dress we conjectured to be a peasant. Immediately shifted our berth & lay there until 8 o clock but in great anxiety & fear of being discovered.

Tattnale finding his woman’s attire very inconvenient, it being much torn, with the assistance of Grant’s Hat and Lewis’s coat resumed his natural dress. After a frugal repast, we cut sticks & thus formed our Park of Artillery, we then advanced to the borders of the wood, but as the night was extremely light, we did not begin our march before nine o clock.

On arriving within a short distance from a village we heard some dogs bark, & immediately afterwards a number of voices, without delay we turned to the left in order to avoid them, but were soon obliged to quicken our pace as they pursued us; left the road & by taking to the open country, soon left them far behind us.  We then took the first road that led to the Westward, passed Homedia, Phillipeville, keeping a sufficient distance to avoid being seen from those places, continued walking until daylight when we sheltered ourselves in a wood, where we remained all day without being discovered, but suffered much from the want of water & brandy, the latter being entirely consumed & so little of the former that we were obliged to content ourselves with two tobacco pipes full for the days consumption.

On the night of the 27th set out on our march to Beaumont but were much perplexed on finding our road after having taken us a considerable way into a thick forest turn suddenly to the Eastwards. Two of the Party went to a farmhouse, leaving the others concealed under a hedge close by, so as to assist if needful, to gain information; but finding the proprietor little disposed to answer their questions, joined the party & continued the march.

At one in the morning of the 28th after much difficulty found a road leading to the Westward & continued walking in that direction until five o’clock at times through fields as almost all the roads we had chosen led only to farm houses, the morning was so foggy as to prevent us from finding any good road, so we took up our abode in a wood where we had the good fortune to find a stream, but were frequently disturbed during the day by wood cutting.

At dusk pursued our journey & at 7 o clock two of the Party went to a farm house to enquire for the High Road to Beaumont, in this we succeeded beyond our expectations as the landlord not only put us on the Chaussee, but also gave us about a pound of Bread. At 8 o clock entered Beaumont bought Brandy but finding the streets full of Soldiers could not purchase any other Provisions: passed thro’ the Town & got upon the Road to Mons.

From eleven till half past twelve refreshed ourselves with sleep. Marched on all night & were obliged to continue our route a short time after daylight as we could not find a place to hide ourselves in previous to its appearance. Fearful of continuing on the high road longer than six o clock we left it to endeavour to find a Hiding place, which after much difficulty (being much exhausted from the nights march of more than 11 leagues & want of food not having had more than 3 ounces of Bread for the last 24 Hours) we found in the shape of a ditch which surrounded a Bean Stack. Here we stowed ourselves to the best advantage & happily passed the day without being discovered.  This day very very short allowance.

At six on the evening of the 20th left our den & marched on towards Mons. Our provisions being exhausted & having suffered much from the scanty allowance which the very small quantity of our provision forced us to Content ourselves with, we found it absolutely necessary to purchase some, provided a fit place offered.  About 3 quarters of a league from Mons found a House which seemed to answer in every respect & having reconnoitered it & taken proper measures to prevent a surprise, two of the party were dispatched to endeavour to purchase bread. These two finding the Proprietor good natured & apparently willing to serve his countrymen in distress, told him they were conscripts & deserters & wished to purchase some provisions in order to continue their nightly journey. The Man being really well disposed & no force at hand to arrest us if he had been otherwise, they resolved to get the rest in to refresh themselves. We supped as we thought sumptuously.

Our appetites appeased & well stocked with provisions we set out to pass Mons, which we learned from these good People could be effected by leaving it on the left. Found the Town illuminated to celebrate the Peace with Austria, Gained the Valenciennes Road which we quitted for that of Tournai; walked until daylight & then took up our lodging in the Bois de Codronville, a wood situated about 6 Leagues from Tournai, where we remained quiet till two o’clock when we were disturbed by a Man, whom we found afterwards to be a Wood merchant. He approached one of the Party who was at that moment a little separated from the rest & accosting him in an amicable manner a conversation soon took place; when finding him a silly honest sort of fellow we proposed his conducting us by bye roads across the Scheldt, which at that moment was the principal object of our anxiety. To this he willingly consented & having arranged everything with him we agreed to send him to a neighbouring village to purchase provisions which he was to bring to us about dusk.

Fearful that this man might betray us & bring a sufficient force to arrest us, we disposed our force in such a manner as to present all surprise & be of assistance to each other if necessary. The man however arrived punctually at the rendezvous & having supped we left the wood & pushed on, intending to cross the Scheldt that night. Our guide however proposed a plan which suited us much better that of conducting us to his house, where we might rest that night, the next day he was to inform himself respecting the road & the following night we were to recommence our journey. Arrived at his house in the village of Thulia we were much pleased with the very prepossessing appearance of his wife & really found her manners congenial with her appearance.

The next morning 31st October a proposition was started to which every one agreed, that if a cart could be procured to carry us as far as Messia the risk would not be one tenth part of that which we must naturally run when on foot; as our intention as to stow ourselves in the bottom of the cart Well covered over with Hay & Straw & the conductor to be furnished with the requisite papers as a person going to the above Town in order to purchase grain, a thing very common in that part of the country. The man was also to procure us a house to stow away in, one or two nights that we were to be on the road.

Having perfectly succeeded in this negotiation we started on Wednesday evening after dark & arrived at the Inn where we were to rest about 5 o’clock next morning. Our guide then informed us that the people of the House were fearful of receiving us & advised us to remain in an adjoining Wood until the evening when he would come for us in order that we might proceed on our journey. Tho’ much discontented with this proposal, as we knew that he could not have interested himself in procuring us a place of refuge for the day, we were obliged to comply with it, as the morning advancing fast could have betrayed us.

Our Wood we soon discovered to afford but little shelter, indeed we may venture to assert that not an hour passed but we were obliged to run from one place to another. Thus harassed we managed to pass eleven long hours when we were seen by a Garde Forestier. We immediately removed to a distant part of the wood & lay in a ditch until dark, when we went to the place appointed to meet our guide, who soon made his appearance. He now told us that it would be too hazardous to cross the Scheldt in a cart & that he had consequently procured us a guide, thoroughly acquainted with that part of the country, who would conduct us as far as Menin.

Two gardes champetre being close at hand we were obliged to follow our new conductor without being able to make the former one refund the money we had paid him. About half past seven arrived under the walls of Tournai & turned to the right: our guide now allowed us the privilege of addressing him, he having till then carefully avoided all conversation, saying that we had much to apprehend. Went to an Inn kept by his sister: perhaps a more filthy hole never was beheld; the People tho’ very civil had something so very disgusting in their appearance that we would hardly answer their civilities, or prevail on ourselves to eat what they set before us, altho’ Hungry as Wolves.

Having told our guide that we were Flemings & understanding that he did not speak Flemish, we conversed amongst ourselves in English, little imagining that we should be understood; in this we were deceived for to our great astonishment, our guide told us that we were speaking English & were Englishmen we attempted to persuade him to the contrary, but upon finding he continued in his former opinion, we told him the truth. He seemed much pleased to find his conjecture right, professing a high regard for the nation & protested that he would serve us to the utmost of his power; which in fact he did.

We now set out for his house, situated at a short distance; where we were to pass the remainder of the night & following day. We arrived at Kain about nine o clock & were very comfortably lodged in the loft. In all our excursions thro’ France we had never encountered a house that so much resembled the huts in Ireland; Not only the building had the same appearance, but the manner of the Inhabitants approached greatly to that hospitality which is the chief Virtue & noble characteristic of the lower class of people in that country. His family consisted of a Wife, a son & two charming daughters whose assiduous attempts to be useful to their guests made us imagine for a moment that we were really in England.

Our landlord was a native of the country in which he lived; a man who had served eleven years as a private in the Irish Brigade during the reign of Louis Seize & now exercising the trade of cobbler by which he earned his bread; without receiving the smallest emolument for his long services. Set out on the night of Friday 3d November to cross the Escant; called on his brother in Law, who agreable to the wish of our good cobbler, accompanied us to the ferry at Herrines, where we crossed the river & after a very fatiguing march arrived at Loinge, a small [word missing] about 2 leagues from the Lys; in which Place we were lodged at the House of a joint friend of our two conductors.

We could now say that we were out of France, not only from the locality of our situation, but also from the hospitality we everywhere met with. We passed this day, Saturday, very agreeably, & in the evening everything being arranged that the Landlord of this house should conduct us to Iseghem, we bade adieu to our friend the cobbler, & proceeded on our march. The rain having fallen in great abundance during the day, we would the roads, or rather paths extremely bad, & did not arrive till late at our destination; s at almost every step, we sank knee deep into the mud. 

Crossed the Lys at Bisegham at about 10 oclock & on Sunday morning at 2 arrived at Isghem. The house that afforded us an asylum this day was situated in the skirts of the Borough, & belonged to an excellent fellow, a linen merchant by trade. Nothing could be more pleasant than our reflections this day, bouyed up as we were by the hopes of ending our long peregrination the following morning. Set out in high spirits & about 1 o’clock in the morning met a Gendarme on horseback, but our very formidable appearance induced him to pass on quietly without attempting to stop us. At 2 arrived a la Petite Lisle the master of which Inn had been previously desired to receive us. Dispatched a messenger to our friends at Bruges & at 12 o clock the Landlady of a small Inn near Surenkerke, came to inform us that she had provided a place of us at her house & where we would be perfectly secure. Left the Petite Lisle on Monday evening for Surenkerke where we arrived about 9 o clock – 6th November cherished now with the hopes that Providence, who has conducted us thus far in safety, will crown his works by restoring us to our native country; we wait with Patience that happy happy moment.  

End of the Journal by Blakiston

Continuation by McLeod

Our first judgement of the Landlady, whose manners at our first interview were certainly extremely prepossessing, we soon found to be premature. Presuming, as was the case, that we were not overstocked with money, she fared us very indifferently, giving us nothing but the same kind of Bread with which they feed the horses in that country & a very small portion of meat; but what galled us still more, she was continually grumbling at our want of cash.  However, in a few days, having procured money all went well. No more Horse Bread. On the contrary she now made us live too well, not forgetting to charge us a most extravagant price, in a word, we had not received our money many days before we found that we must either reduce her to a regular allowance or be again reduced to eat Hose bread.

Remained in the same state until the 27th on the morning of which day we received a note from the two friends to whom we had written immediately on our arrival at this Place, & who now informed us that they were safely arrived at the Petite Lisle.  Sent off to them some instructions by the woman’s son & waited with anxious expectation for night, the time appointed for them to join us. At 10 had the pleasure of seeing our friends, who in this happy meeting soon forgot the various difficulties & fatigues they had encountered on their journey to join us. Our number was now increased to eight besides a poor English smuggler with a wooden leg who had been at the house during two months before we arrived, waiting for a passage to England.

Here we remained secreted without any sensible alteration, except that of keeping watch outside the house, every night between the Hours of 10 and 3 to prevent surprise as we had learned that the house was suspected & had even been searched. For greater security we never quitted our clothes but when the watch was out, went to sleep completely equipped for a run or battle in case of necessity. On the night of the 10th December our watch having been unavoidably seen by a Frenchman, who was passing & who was greatly alarmed at the appearance of two strangers walking before the House armed with large sticks; we called a Council of War, where it was unanimously judged most prudent to retreat to our old Friend at the Petite Lisle, in order to prevent any bad consequences that might ensue from this surprise.

Sallied out about midnight, & with full confidence in the strength of our Party (consisting as I have mentioned above) of 8 Persons: the sailor remaining at the house & the goodness of our sticks, we proceeded unmolested to our friend’s Inn, where we were kindly & after refreshing ourselves, went to sleep in our old appartment, the Hayloft, about 4 oclock in the morning. In the afternoon we were visited by our young friend Edwards but were obliged to remain in the loft till night, then being unfortunately in the neighbourhood a sale of wood, & all transactions were settled at this house.

Edwards advised to return as soon as possible to our old Haunt, as it was very probable that Boatmen would come for us the next day & entirely reassured on the business of our watch being seen. Accordingly at midnight of the 11th again quitted this good old man & returned to Surenkerke fully resolved however not to sleep again while in the house; therefore the following evening the 12th we retreated about 8 o’clock to a neighbouring Wood where sat in the rain until 4 next morning when we returned to dry ourselves. The next night however we found it totally impracticable to step out of the House, owing to the excessive brightness of the moon: Kept a strict watch & sat up all night.

Happily about 8 on the evening of the 14th the boatmen whom we had so eagerly & so ardently expected, arrived & after some preliminary arrangement such as settling with the woman, to whom we gave Bills of Exchange for a hundred Pounds, we quitted most joyfully the house; the wooden legged Seaman having preceeded us accompanied by the man of the house. Marched on thro’ very bad bye roads, soon overtook the sailor, bade an affectionate adieu to the Old Man & his son, & continued our journey: we were however obliged, before long to help the poor wooden Leg’d fellow, who found it impossible to keep up with us, by taking him under our arms.

About 4 next morning reached the house of one of our conductors & retired to the Loft, where we slept comfortably in a sail. In the afternoon our young Friend Edwards joined us & before midnight we were ready to quit the House, tho’ we were not able to do so until 2 o’clock next morning, in consequence of the moons not setting before that time. We had not proceeded far on our road to meet the Cyclopean boatman (one of them having lost an eye, we dignified him with that name for the sake of distinction) when we were disagreeably alarmed with a qui Vive proceeding from a man, who by his dress appeared to be a National Guard; he however seeing our formidable corps did not judge it prudent to interrupt us further.

Cyclops joined us immediately after & being much frightened at our unlucky rencontre [?] started an infinite number of objections & difficulties which ‘till then had not been dreamt of. He led us over a number of fields & ditches & in spite of all our arguments could not be prevailed on to take us to the place where the boat was concealed. We made him offers of augmenting the reward & gave him £20 in hand: even now we had much difficulty to persuade him to conduct us to the boat, & afraid of day breaking before we should be able to embark, we were on the Point of adopting violent measures & going to extremities with the fellow. To these we should have had recourse had we been able to find the boat without his assistance, but that being impossible & afraid of making a noise, we tried the whole force of our persuasive powers, & at length fortunately succeeded in prevailing on him to lead us to the object of our hopes, which we found secreted in a kind of Haystack.

Eight of us shouldered her & proceeded towards the sea (the boatmen, our young friend Edwards & the wooden legged sailor being ahead on the look out) which after carrying her for nearly a mile over sand Hills, through Marshes & with a difficulty scarcely to be imagined (the boat being so much too heavy for us as to cause some of the Party to spit blood) we had the inexpressible pleasure of seeing at ¼ past 4 on the morning of the 16th carried the boat thro’ the surf, jumped into her, & in the best spirits any of us had experienced during the last 3 or 4 years; pulled at the oars alternately.

Fortunately the Sea (except on the numerous banks) was very smooth with wind & tide in our favour; had it been otherwise we should have incurred no little danger, the boat not being at all calculated for bad weather, having no sail or rudder & but two oars, & all our provisions, Half a small loaf & a bottle of Water. At day light discovered the Island of Walcheren a head & a Ship at anchor, shortly afterwards the whole of the British fleet presented itself to our view. At ¼ Past 8 got on board H M Ship Leyden having been only 4 hours on our passage. Received much attention and congratulations from the officers & at 10 were landed on the Island; as we passed thro’ the Town, we afforded infinite amusement to every person who saw us, most of whom from our curious disguises, were greatly at a loss to conceive what we were. Went on board H M Ship Ciesar [?] Adml Otway second in Command, who was very much pleased to see us & laughed heartily at our appearance.

We here finally settled with the boatmen paying them in all £62. In the course of the afternoon Tattnall & Hall went on board their Ship the Imperiense & Blakiston on board the Revenge the remainder of the Party including Edwards & the wooden Leg’d Sailor were sent on board the Isis for a Passage for England.

It is impossible for us to describe our sensation at being once again on board on English ship; they were such as the nature of the fortunate change in our situation may be supposed to inspire. On the 17th Blakiston again joined us from the Revenge. Remained lying in Walcheren roads until the 23rd on the morning of which day we sailed in company with the fleet & convoy. On the evening of the 24th came to an anchor off the North Foreland. On the morning of the 25th weighed & continued bearing up the Queen’s Channel until 2 o’clock. At which time the Pilot boat coming off, we obtained Permission to go on shore in her. At Half Past 2 landed at Margate and had the – but here let us close the present narrative, for none but those who have suffered a captivity similar to ours, can imagine what our sensations were at that happy Moment.

copied by Henry Lewis 4 years a prisoner in France.

Names of those who escaped

1st party

Thos. Blakiston

J B Tattnall

Wm Brander

L Grant

R Hall

Hy Lewis

2nd party

Jas. Meek

Wm McLeod

Wooden leg’d seaman

Woodland Horton

Edwards Gentleman of Bruge

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