During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, prisoner exchanges between Britain and France only occurred rarely, meaning large numbers of captives were held for long periods in each country. French prisoners in Britain were often invited or compelled to practice crafts, and manufactured many intricate models made from bones and other recycled goods.
The Napoleonic wars lasted between 1803-1815. During that time, over 100,000 French prisoners were held captive in Britain in gaols, barracks, and on prison ships (“hulks”) moored off the coast in locations including Plymouth, Portsmouth, Chatham and Liverpool. French prisoners of war held in Britain experienced very different circumstances depending on their status. Some of the higher-ranking prisoners were given surprising freedoms and allowed to live within the local communities. Common sailors and soldiers fared much worse – the prisoners at the mercy of disease, overcrowding, malnutrition, and malpractice.
With time on their hands, these prisoners created intricate and beautiful figures, games (such as dominoes), trinkets and models of buildings, ships and even the guillotine! They were carved from bleached bone, sometimes saved from their meat rations, acquired by scavenging, or provided by overseers. The final pieces were often examples of exceptional craftsmanship and sold to the public for as much as £40 each (enough money to live on for a year). Captivity was a business, and in some instances whole workshops were supported to exploit entrepreneurial opportunities and make the most of consumer demand.
This bone ship model was made by a French prisoner of war in Launceston, Cornwall.
Did you know..?
Prisoners who were allowed to roam away from the prison walls were said to be ‘on parole’, meaning they had given their word (‘parole’) not to escape. The communities linked to these prisons became known as ‘parole’ towns’.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.
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This object is in the collection of Lawrence House – National Trust