Norman Cross

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Norman Cross near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire was the site of a prisoner of war camp or "depot" during the Napoleonic Wars. The site is marked by a memorial; a towering brass eagle upon a concrete column and plinth, with brass nameplate.

History

The undistinguished field behind the monument was the burial site between 1797 and 1814 for 1770 bodies of sailors and marines of mostly French and Dutch origin[citation needed].

The prisoners were captured mainly in naval engagements and detained in the, what is thought to be, worlds first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp.[1] The site, a forty acre (160,000 m²) field, was purchased by the government in 1796. Five hundred carpenters and labourers erected what was considered at the time to be permanent buildings. Approximately 30 wells were sunk to draw drinking water for the prisoners.

The prison barracks were planned to hold adequately between five to six thousand prisoners. The prisoners' quarters were two-storey high, red-tiled buildings with four separate buildings inside a rectangle. Four of these rectangles were centred in the field, each surrounded by its own wall. A further wall then surrounded the four rectangles with their sixteen buildings. Outside this, the garrison troops had their buildings along with storage sheds, kitchens and officers' buildings, etc. A further wall, complete with main gatehouse, then encased these. The prisoners were mostly marched to the prison four abreast, although occasionally they would be loaded into barges at King's Lynn and taken up the River Nene to Peterborough Quay.

Problems emerged during the summer months of 1797, arising from the countless numbers of local people, and some not so local, who visited the prisoners. The guards found it difficult to control these crowds and to observe the prisoners. Eventually many visitors were prevented from entering the compounds unless accompanied by military personnel. During this time, two of the French prisoners took advantage of the confusion and made their escape, but only as far as Wisbech, in the Cambridgeshire fens, before they were caught and returned. A French officer who escaped during December was never recaptured and was assumed to have been successful.

The conditions in which the prisoners lived had deteriorated rapidly by 1800, and many leading people in the capital, as well as locals, expressed concern. In 1801, the British government issued statements blaming the French Consul for not supplying sufficient clothing (the British government had paid the French for all English prisoners held in France and French colonies to be clothed).

The French prisoners, whose sole interest appeared to be gambling, were accused by the British government of selling their clothes and few personal possessions to raise money for further gambling.

The prominent Doctor Johnson and a Mr Serle, who visited the barracks, complied a report on behalf of the British government, stating that the proportion of food allowance was fully sufficient to maintain both life and health, but added: "provided it is not shamefully lost by gambling."

The Lords of the admiralty, along with Doctor Johnson, instructed that naked prisoners should be clothed at once, without waiting for the French supply or payment for clothing.

During April of the same year, six prisoners escaped; three of them were caught at Boston, Lincolnshire, the remaining three were caught in a fishing boat off the Norfolk coast.

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