Napoleon and Plymouth: an approaching anniversary


Napoleon on board the Bellerophon, 1815, from the painting by Charles Eastlake.

That the conqueror of nations should be the guest and the prisoner of a captain in the British navy appeared to many a kind of illusion, which fancy could not realize. Plymouth, and its environs, were crowded with company, eager to behold the person of one whom they had so long dreaded.

 E.P. Brenton, The naval history of Great Britain: from the year MDCCLXXXIII to MDCCCXXI (London: Rice, 1825), p.215

Here, in the memory of living men the Bellerophon, carrying Napoleon, the devastator of a hundred cities, dropped her anchor, and remained for days an object of deep interest to myriads of spectators, who thronged around her in open boats; while the mighty conqueror who walked her decks a prisoner, was despoiled of his titles, stripped of his power, and consigned to a lone isle in the far Atlantic, from which he was destined never to return.

Evangelical Magazine, July 1861, p.487.

IN A previous posting on PUNCS, the ship HMS Bellerophon – a third-rate ship of the line launched in Kent in 1786 – figured in the context of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin’s early career.

But the Bellerophon has another Plymouth connection which deserves to be highlighted as we approach its two hundred year anniversary in July 2015: the famous encounter in Plymouth Sound between Britons local and distant, and the defeated Napoleon, on board the Bellerophon under Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland.

This ‘sublime spectacle … the object of boundless curiosity’ (Hewson Clarke, An Impartial History), was an event that inspired artists such as Joseph Turner (whose vignette, The Bellerophon, Plymouth Sound, was engraved by Edward Goodall and published in 1835 in Sir Walter Scott’s Miscellaneous Prose Works), and Charles Lock Eastlake (later Sir Charles, and President of the Royal Academy), born in Plymouth, whose name was made by the large-scale painting (ten feet high, it was reported) exhibited in London in 1815 and reproduced in an engraving by Charles Turner. A version was displayed at the Devonshire seat of Lord Clinton. The Annals of the Fine Arts described the work, when it was publicly exhibited in a room near the White Bear in Piccadilly, thus:

The principal figure, Bonaparte is painted the size of life, as he frequently appeared at the gangway of the Bellerophon, when lying off Plymouth last July. He is painted in his usual attitude, dress, and decorations, holding in his right hand an opera-glass, with which he occasionally surveyed the surrounding multitude. Behind him on his right, is the Polish General Count Piontkowski, who rendered himself noticed by his attachment to his master, and who afterwards, at his own request, was allowed to join his fallen fortunes. – During his stay, he sat to Mr Eastlake for his portrait. On the other side is Count Bertrand, in profile. Near him is a marine on guard; and in front of Bonaparte, a few steps down the side of the vessel, is a sailor removing the side-ropes, to prevent the people in the boats from pulling themselves up. The unconquered British Ensign forms a part of the back ground.

Annals of the Fine Arts 1: 1 (London, 1817), p.91.

One copy is in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery has a version copied by John Harris the Younger (1791 – 1873), another scene was painted by the Swiss-born artist John James Chalon (1778 – 1854) in 1816 and is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Portraits of the ‘hero of Europe’ were ‘published almost immediately after his arrival’, from a drawing by Nicholas Louis Planat de la Faye, his private secretary. His departure from Bellerophon to HMS Northumberland off Plymouth, on 7 August, was also depicted by artists (e.g., Thomas Butterworth, and Thomas Luny).

The Plymouth episode even formed an argument in one Anglican theologian’s ingenious argument for the existence of God against sceptics: when Richard Whately’s anonymous pamphlet Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (1819) considered the …

testimony of those many respectable persons who went to Plymouth on purpose and saw Buonaparte with their own eyes? must they not trust their senses? I would not disparage either the eye-sight or the veracity of these gentlemen. I am ready to allow that they went to Plymouth for the purpose of seeing Buonaparte; nay more, that they actually rowed out into the harbour in a boat, and came along side of a man-of-war, on whose deck they saw a man in a cocked hat, who, they were told, was Buonaparte; this is the utmost point to which their testimony goes; how they ascertained that this man in the cocked hat had gone through all the marvellous and romantic adventures with which we have so long been amused, we are not told: did they perceive in his physiognomy his true name and authentic history?

 Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (1819), p.22

Local and national accounts indicate the tremendous interest in catching a glimpse of the great enemy – sailing towards Torbay on 24 July, Maitland had been instructed to permit no communication with the shore and had therefore kept a distance of three leagues from the shore, and prevented any boats from attempting to go alongside (see ‘Buonopartiana’, Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1815, p.517). Nevertheless, local gentlemen had made contact with the ship, it seems – Octavian Blewitt’s The Panorama of Torbay later recalled ‘presents of fruit were sent on board from the Tor Abbey Gardens [owned by the Cary family]; and these generous attentions of an English gentleman, whose estates were often menaced by his invading fleet were fully appreciated by the fallen Emperor’. But in Plymouth Sound after the ship’s arrival on Wednesday 26 July, this attempt at quarantine, despite the telegraphed orders from the mainland, became impossible.

On the ship’s arrival, we are told, ‘the garrison, the Hoe, and other elevated positions, soon became crowded with curious spectators’ (Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.172). The ship anchored in the sound at 3 pm.

The noisy sightseers arrived in a ‘prodigious number’ according to the New Monthly Magazine, but ‘as all access to the ship was strictly prohibited he occasionally gratified the spectators in thousands of surrounding boats by exhibiting himself from the stern gallery’. One estimate of the ship-borne crowds was ten thousand (Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.172).

Edward Seymour’s History of the Wars noted the people came, ‘regardless of expence or even of personal safety’. Hewson Clarke’s Impartial History claimed that at one time some thousand vessels were in the Sound, the scene beggaring all description. Guard boats and frigates were in operation to intimidate and discourage the boats from coming too close.

George Home, a midshipman aboard the Bellerophon, recounted the spectacle:

The Sound was literally covered with boats; the weather was delightful; the ladies looked as gay as butterflies; bands of music in several of the boats played favourite French airs, to attract, if possible the Emperor’s attention, that they might get a sight of him, which, when effected they went off, blessing themselves that they had been so fortunate.

       All this did not escape the eagle eye of Napoleon, and he shewed no disinclination to gratify the eager spectators, by frequently appearing at the gangway, examining the crowd with his pocket-glass, and frequently, as a pretty face gazed at him, with bewitching curiosity, he shewed his fine white teeth, lifted the little three cocked hat nearly off his broad and commanding forehead, for he never wholly uncovered, bowed and smiled with evident satisfaction.

 Memoirs of an Aristocrat, and Reminiscences of the Emperor Napoleon (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1837), p.243.

Home also recalled the violent incident of heavy boats from the dockyards colliding with spectators’ boats and yachts as these rushed towards the sight of the Corsican on the starboard gangway or through the quarter ports – the tell tale sign of the Emperor’s appearance being the uncovering of officers’ heads as he arrived on deck. Edward Pelham Brenton described ships which were so closely packed together around the Bellerophon that it appeared like a stage ‘of some acres’ (The Naval History of Great Britain, p.215). Others attempted to spy on the ship’s inhabitants from the Breakwater.

The episode has been recounted before: the defeated Emperor’s demeanour, his entourage, and the behaviour and memories of the British officers. It was hardly surprising given his great fame and notoriety, that he should become ‘the great object of public curiosity’, whose movements aboard the ship should be the subject of public knowledge – appearing around five o’clock in view of the boats of sightseers, which included local inhabitants and men and women from across England. Napoleon seemed willing to gratify their curiosity, and some privileged spectators got close enough (according to Hewson Clarke) to hear his speech and see his features clearly.

The press, for example, published some of the fragments of Napoleon’s correspondence that had been collected by one eager sightseer from the city of Bath, the silk mercer Mr Mulligan, after the ex-Emperor had been observed tearing up papers and throwing them from a cabin window. The handling of the ex-imperial linen was even reported, thus the Plymouth Telegraph carried news of the ‘sheets of exquisite texture and bordered with lace more than a half a yard in breadth’ sent to Plymouth for washing. Newspapers were fascinated by his appearance, comparing what they reported as being seen in the flesh, with the likenesses otherwise available to the public: thus one unidentified London newspaper reprinted the account of a gentleman arrived in town, who had been an eyewitness:

He is the greater part of the day in the stern-gallery, either walking backwards and forwards, with his hands behind him, as he is represented in some of the pictures in the print-shops, or surveying the shipping and the shore through a glass.

 C. Kelly, A Full and Circumstantial Account of the Memorable Battle of Waterloo: The Second Restoration of Louis XVIII; and the Deportation of Napoleon Buonaparte to the Island of St. Helena, and Every Recent Particular Relative to His Conduct and Mode of Life in His Exile. Together with an Interesting Account of the Affairs of France and the Biographical Sketches of the Most Distinguished Waterloo Heroes. Embellished with Engravings (London: Rider and Weed, 1817) p.263


Kelly’s work included an engraving of Napoleon on the deck of the Bellerophon, surveying the row boats of spectators on a choppy Sound (a copy may be seen on the British Museum online collection site).

The public were told various reasons for the departure of the Bellerophon and its dangerous cargo: ‘The concourse of boats in Plymouth Sound and the loss of some lives which had already taken place induced the government to remove the Bellerophon to a greater distance’ according to one account; others emphasised the subpoena obtained by a man with a cause in the Court of King’s bench, who had wanted evidence from Napoleon and his brother Jerome (Gentleman’s Magazine), whilst some mistakenly believed the departure was to evade a writ of habeas corpus (see the correction offered in Cobbett’s Political Register).

The incident was troubling for many beyond the government, no doubt: the New Monthly Magazine saw the affair in the light of freak shows (of non-European physiognomies, and celebrated men of vast or restricted size), and other exhibits of natural wonders or remarkable physical feats:

Those who are tenacious of the national dignity may wish that so strong an interest had not been manifested towards the most inveterate foe that we ever had to contend with; but in England, which might be called the country of sights, curiosity is too powerful a motive to be repressed, be the object of it a hanging or a boxing match an odd fish or an odd man a Borulawski or a Lambert, a Hottentot Venus, or a Buonaparte.

New Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.464

This hardly seemed an exaggeration of the fascination and the determination – from ‘all ranks’ it was noted – to witness the ‘first general of the age’, the ‘most extraordinary man of modern times’  and ‘disturber of the world’. There was a desire, however unlikely of being gratified (given the efforts to ensure the boats were kept some distance away), to catch sight of the real man in home waters, as it were and then to hold on to this association by purchasing copies of the likeness of the man who had terrorised Europe and had been defeated by the might of the British Empire, as he had appeared on board the Bellerophon. There was, for example, a locally exhibited mezzotint portrait (from Robert Lefèvre’s painting, in fact this had been previously displayed on board the Bellerophon) which was accompanied with testimonials from Captain Maitland himself as to the authenticity (Exeter Flying Post, 21 September 1815).

What did the visitors think they were witnessing? What were their emotions, on seeing Napoleon in England (gazing through his glass at Mount Edgecumbe)?  According to one newspaper correspondent, despite the efforts of the press to create a sense of odium towards him, ‘by retailing all the vulgar trash of the ministerial prints’, the mood seemed to be more celebratory: ‘the cheerings and acclamations became so general, that the ships were afterwards removed to a greater distance’, we are told by one correspondent (Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.172). According to another,

Government may issue orders to treat Bonaparte as a mere general, but there is a spontaneous respect shewn to him by all ranks, which no orders can take away … there are no clappings, no cheers, but a thousand hats are silently waving in the air. It is courtesy – it is sympathy – it is the involuntary homage which men so naturally pay to him who has performed great and memorable actions.

Correspondent, The Packet, reprinted in Caledonian Mercury, 5 August 1815

It must have been a highly profitable time for owners of boats and barges in Plymouth! Colourful, noisy, even dangerous (for the press reported various injuries and fatalities caused by the attraction, see for instance the death of two ladies as the ex-emperor was transferred to the Northumberland, 7 August, reported in the Morning Post, 11 August 1815), this short period in late July and early August 1815, not surprisingly, became one of the notable modern events for nineteenth-century Plymouth and Torbay guide books to recall, and an incident to remember in the pages of the Victorian Western Antiquary.

On the north side of the Victorian Plymouth Guildhall, one of its fourteen four-light windows commemorated the event too, depicting in stained glass the emperor as prisoner on the Bellerophon (see Western Antiquary, December 1882, p.185; see also articles in the Antiquary in 1887).  Artists were drawn to the incident long after: the Scottish artist Sir William Quiller Orchardson exhibited a picture on the theme in 1880 (and subsequently engraved by J.C. Armytage), and the Frenchman Jules Girardet’s busy rendition of the incident was acquired by Plymouth City Council in 1909.


James Gregory, 4 October 2014



Annals of the Fine Arts

Caledonian Mercury

Cobbett’s Political register

Evangelical Magazine

Exeter Flying Post

Gentleman’s Magazine

Morning Post

New Monthly Magazine

Western Antiquary

O. Blewitt, Panorama of Torbay: a descriptive and historical sketch of the district comprised between the Dart and Teign (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1837)

Edward P. Brenton, The naval history of Great Britain: from the year MDCCLXXXIII to MDCCCXXI (London: Rice, 1825)

Hewson Clarke, An Impartial History of the naval, military and political events in Europe from the commencement of the French revolution to the … conclusion of a general peace (Bungay: Brightly and Childs, 1815)

George Home, Memoirs of an Aristocrat, and Reminiscences of the Emperor Napoleon (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1837)

C. Kelly, A Full and Circumstantial Account of the Memorable Battle of Waterloo: The Second Restoration of Louis XVIII; and the Deportation of Napoleon Buonaparte to the Island of St. Helena, and Every Recent Particular Relative to His Conduct and Mode of Life in His Exile. Together with an Interesting Account of the Affairs of France and the Biographical Sketches of the Most Distinguished Waterloo Heroes. Embellished with Engravings (London: Rider and Weed, 1817)

Edward Seymour, History of the Wars resulting from the French Revolution (London: 1815)

Richard Whately, Historic Doubts relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (London: Hatchard, 1819)


Links and further reading

Sir F.L. Maitland, Narrative of the surrender of Buonaparte and of his residence on board H.M.S. Bellerophon; with a detail of the principal events … between 24th May and 8th August 1815.

C.K. Shorter, Napoleon and his fellow travellers: being a reprint of certain narratives of the voyages of the dethroned emperor on the Bellerophon and the Northumberland to exile in St. Helena (1908)

D. Cordingly, Billy Ruffian: the Bellerophon and the downfall of Napoleon: the biography of a ship of the line, 1782-1836 (London: Bloomsbury, 2003).

J. Dechamps, ‘Napoléon à Plymouth et l’ordonnance d’habeus corpus du Lord Chief Justice d’Angleterre’, Bulletin de la classe des lettres et des sciences morales et politiques, Académe Royal Belgique 5th ser., 41:3-4 (1955) 145-54


Victoria Smith, ‘Eastlake and Napoleon’, 31 October 2102,

Charles Lock Eastlake, ‘Napoleon Bonaparte on Board the ‘Bellerophon’ in Plymouth Sound’, 1815

J.J. Chalon, ‘Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815: The ‘Bellerophon’ with Napoleon Aboard at Plymouth’

‘The Bellerophon, Plymouth Sound’ (Vignette), engraved by E. Goodall, published 1836

Jules Girardet, ‘Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, August 1815 (Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon at Plymouth)’


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