The French Emperor and the Rottingdean lad

William Balcombe was born in Rottingdean in 1777.  On 18th October 1815, he received the fallen Emperor, Napoleon I into his home.  Not in Rottingdean but on the bleak island of St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic.  Not in a grand mansion but in his simple colonial villa, The Briars.  And not even in the villa itself.  Napoleon opted for an outbuilding.  The great man did not want to inconvenience his gout-ridden host’s wife and children.

The Briars 1853

The Briars was perched on a little hill. This 1853 image does not show Napoleon’s tent (pavillon) attached to the main house. University of California Libraries

In the early 1800s, Rottingdean was a small village of some 1500 inhabitants, set in a valley between rolling downland.  In the early 1800s, Jamestown, capital of St Helena, nestling in the deep cleft between very high hill, had a population of some 600 people – as it does today.  There any similarity ends, especially with regard to the composition of the population. 

Vue_de_Sainte-Hélène_et_de_[...]Fortier_Claude_btv1b8414092t cropped

Source / BnF

On the island, William would have come across some 1,500 slaves, about 500 free blacks, over 600 indentured Chinese labourers, and of course, a garrison of some 800 soldiers who were keeping watch over Napoleon.  William Balcombe was one of the only 821 white inhabitants of the island.  A very different population from that of Rottingdean.  Apart from the climate, one of the major differences between the two places must be that Rottingdean is and was only 47 miles from London and 125 miles from Paris.  Jamestown is and was over 4,000 miles from both London or Paris.

What was the man from Rottingdean doing on St Helena?  Little is known of his early days, but he clearly had influential supporters.  According to Noël Santini, a servant to Napoléon, M. Balcombe, [était un] riche propriétaire de l’île et fils naturel du prince régent d’Angleterre.

It is highly unlikely that William’s mother had been seduced by the 15-year old prince who had not even visited the Brighton area by early 1777.  But William was not a man to let truth hamper his progress in life.  He did little to dispel this myth.

William did indeed have a friend in a high place.  Throughout his life, he was épaulé [backed] by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, a friend and one-time private secretary to the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent).  How the connection between William and his sponsor arose has yet to be fully elucidated, but it certainly did William no harm.

Rumours abounded in the Balcombe family that William had been a naval captain.  Research by Shirley and Keith Murley in Melbourne has convincingly dispelled this myth.

“East India Company (EIC) records show William was not a Naval Captain, as family stories state, but only a young midshipman in the Royal Navy for 2½ years before transferring to the EIC Maritime Officer service. He rose to 2nd Mate in 1804 on the long voyages to India, with St Helena a stopping point. The records also show that on 1st Jan 1804, while anchored at Diamond Bay near Calcutta, William was stood down for mutinous conduct towards the Commander and neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. He was Courts Martialled and removed from service in March 1804.[i]

A mutineer with a dubious track record became the East India Company’s ‘man in St Helena’.  The expression “wheeler-dealer” comes to mind.

Independent research by Anne Whitehead (author of ‘The Emperor’s Shadow’) explains how, in the 1790s, William had formed an unlikely partnership with botanist W J Burchell, son of a well-respected owner of a Nursery and Botanic garden in Fulham.  The plan was to set up business in St Helena which was, at the time, the private property of the East India Company.

Burchell was four years younger than William and knew of him as William was related to Burchell’s sweetheart, Lucia.  It might well be that William was after respectability (as well as Burchell’s £1000 investment) and that Burchell was keen to visit the island in order to be one of the first to describe and catalogue its little- known flora. Even this project was subject to subterfuge. 

William the trader. It appears William, as was permitted to EIC Officers, had set up a small trading business in London. After dismissal from the EIC, he arranged with young William Burchell to go into a trading business on St Helena and they got there in December 1805. Burchell was a botanist, not a business man, and the partnership broke up after 6 months, with William then going into partnership with Fowler and Cole.”[ii]

Once on the island, William moved into The Briars with his wife and two young daughters (Jane aged 6 and Betsy aged 4).  Three more sons and a daughter were born over the next few years.  

Eventually, with the support of Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt and others in England, William was reinstated by the East India Company and granted leave by the Court of Directors of the EIC to set up as ‘Auctioneer and Appraiser’ on St Helena – in effect, to start a trading post.  In 1806, he became Superintendent of Public Sales on St Helena. And so, life moved on, probably tediously, for the next 8 or so years.

Life in Europe was not so tedious.  Bonaparte’s forces had blockaded British ports and generally rampaged across the continent.  By the time William Balcombe reached St Helena it might have been assumed that Napoleon was definitively all-powerful.  Yet by 1814, the great man’s empire had crumbled and fallen.  Napoleon had escaped exile on the island of Elba, only to lead a doomed attempt to recapture his power.  He was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.

What were the victorious powers going to do with their slippery prisoner?  He would have to be sent somewhere particularly secure.  Why not St Helena, far out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?  And so, on 11 October 1815 General Bonaparte (the British would not give him the title ‘Emperor’) disembarked onto the island from the ship that brought him the 4,500 miles from brief on-board captivity in Plymouth.

 Napoleon spent his first night on the island at a lodging house in James Town.  He detested the town, its inhabitants and the house.  All those people gawping at him through the windows!  The following day he was taken to see his future home, Longwood House, up in the desolate hills on the east of the island.  Most accounts state that on the way back from Longwood – his designated but unfinished new home – he spotted a charming family house, The Briars.  On a whim, he that decided that he would stay there rather than return to James Town.  The Memoirs (c 1836), of Marchand Napoleon’s trusty and trusted valet seems to confirm this:

À son retour de Longwood, en descendant en ville, l’Empereur témoigna à l’amiral (Rear Admiral Sir George Coburn) le désir d’entrer aux Briars ; celui-ci s’empressa de l’y conduire.  Chemin faisant, l’Empereur lui dit que si le maître de la maison ne s’opposait pas à ce qu’il habitât le pavillon qui se trouvait à vingt-cinq pas de son habitation, il préférait s’y loger que de retourner en ville.  Arrivé au cottage, la demande fut faite au propriétaire que l’accorda de grand cœur ; retenu dans son lit par la goutte, il voulait même en sortir pour offrir toute sa maison.  L’Empereur l’en fit remercier mais il ne voulait pas accepter ; il lui fit répondre qu’il occuperait avec plaisir le pavillon détaché de l’habitation à condition que rien ne serait changé aux habitudes de la famille.[iii]

[On his way back from Longwood, as they were riding down into the town, the Emperor indicated to the admiral that he would like to go into The Briars.  The admiral lost no time in taking him there.  On the way, the Emperor told him that, if the owner had no objection to him taking up quarters in the pavilion which was just 25 paces from the house, he would rather take his lodgings there than return to the town.  Once the party had reached the cottage, the request was made to the owner who agreed wholeheartedly; despite being bedridden with gout, he even offered to move out of his home in order to offer him the whole house.  The Emperor conveyed his thanks to the owner but would not accept, saying that he would be delighted to take up residence in the pavilion on condition that nothing of the family’s habits be disturbed.]

This version of events might not be completely accurate.  On 3 August 1815, the following letter from the House of Lords was addressed to William Balcombe.  The upshot of the letter is to warn Balcombe that Napoleon is shortly to be billeted on him:

House of Lords

August 3


Dear Balcombe,

Napoleon is about to proceed for your Island so quickly that there seems some doubt whether this dispatch will reach Plymouth in time to catch the Northumberland

It appears that Ministers will not pledge themselves to purchase any particular spot, but that all is to be left to the choice by the two Commanders [of St Helena] as to what place is best adapted to confine Napoleon comfortably but securely.  Beatson [Governor or St Helena 1808-1813] thinks that after this inspection has taken place they will fix upon the Briers [sic].  In this case, act as I have suggested in my letter No. 1.” [iv]

The signature on the letter is indecipherable, but the handwriting seems to conform with that in other letters from Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt.

At the time, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt was Black Rod in the House of Lords and Balcombe’s patron.  Did this letter reach the Northumberland before it set sail to carry Napoleon to St Helena?  Given that Napoleon did not disembark from the Northumberland for over 36 hours and then spent one night in Jamestown, Balcombe would have received the letter a couple of days before Napoleon ‘happened’ to spot the Briars and ask to settle there.  Alas, Letter No. 1 mentioned above cannot be traced in any archive.

Napopleon’s faithful secretary, Las Cases implies the same:

Là était la demeure modeste d’un négociant de l’île (M. Balcombe).  À trente ou quarante pas, à droite de la maison principale, sur un tertre à pic, se voit une espèce de ginguette ou petit pavillon servant à la famille, dans les beaux jours, pour aller prendre le thé et respirer plus à l’aise ; c’était le réduit loué par l’amiral pour la demeure temporaire de l’Empereur. [v]

[And there was the modest home of a trader on the island (Mr Balcombe).  Thirty or forty paces away, to the right of the main house, on a steep mound, you saw a sort of chalet or small pavilion which the family used on fine days to take tea or to breathe more freely.  This was the hutch the admiral had rented as the Emperor’s temporary residence.]

Las Cases clearly did not approve of the modest surroundings in which his master found himself. He later describes the pavillon as : une méchante petit cahute de quelques pieds carrés, perchée sur un rocher stérile ; sans rideaux, ni volets, nu meubles. [A nasty little hut a few feet square, perched on a barren rock; without curtains, or shutters or furniture.]  It has to be said that Las Cases was probably not exaggerating excessively.

The Emperor lived at the Briars for two months (18 October to 10 December).  How did he spend his days during this time?  Typically, he would dictate his memoires to Las Cases for at least four hours each day.  Then he would go for a walk in the rocky surroundings of The Briars.  Occasionally he would be accosted by Balcombe’s two teenage daughters.  Much has been made of the relationship between Betsy, the younger daughter, and the Emperor.  She had been well educated in England and spoke French – or at least she spoke, according to Las Cases un peu le français. One of Nopleon’s ‘jailors’, that is, an English official would come to visit him and, even more infrequently, he would spend time with the Balcombes in the main house.  Mainly he was driven to go there out of sheer boredom.  Naturally, Mr and Mrs Balcombe would have invited plenty of local guests to meet their illustrious tenant. 


Balcombe and Napoleon

Balcombe and Napoleon Source / BnF

Le soir arrivé, l’Empereur a voulu entrer chez les voisins.  Le maître, pris par la goutte, était en robe de chambre, étendu sur son canapé ; sa femme et nos deux petites demoiselles du matin étaient autour de lui. [When it was evening, the Emperor wanted to visit his neighbours.  The master of the house was suffering from gout and was lying on his couch in his dressing gown; his wife and the two young ladies we had met in the morning, stood round him.]

This image  of a recumbent William seems to be the only one of him during his time on St Helena.  However, the image of the man in conversation with Napoleon is depticted as being remarkably like a later portrait of William when he lived in New South Wales.

Although physical conditions in the pavillon improved, Napoleon’s state of mind did not.  He was showing signs of depression.  He no longer dressed in the mornings.  He never left his room before 4pm, and then only so that his bed could be made.  He would go down to The Briars only à la dernière extrémité, et quand il savait surtout qu’il n’y avait pas d’étranger [as a last resort and especially when he knew there were no outsiders].  He would read – but rejected book after book as he had read them all already. 

All this under the watchful eye of two English guards who seem to have been billeted in the Balcombe home.

On 10 December 1815 Napoleon left The Briars to move into his now ready new home at Longwood.  During the following two years, Napoleon saw William Balcombe several times.  Were these just meetings between old friends?  Possibly, as the whole Balcombe family was received at Longwood on several occasions.  However, it is more likely that they were business meetings, for not only was William officially supplier to Napoleon’s household, he gradually began to help Napoleon in some possibly illicit (as far as the British were concerned) dealings:

14 octobre 1817 …Balcombe vient en secret chez l’Empereur pour une negotiation de traites sur l’Amérique [vi].

[Balcome visited the  Emperor in relation to negotiating bank drafts from America.]

So where did Balcombe stand in relation to the former Emperor? 

Although the Balcombe family was on relatively familiar terms with Napoleon and his entourage, the following anecdote from once of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp reminds us vividly that there was still a huge social divide: 

Je vais avec le fils de Las Cases, pour voir Sa Majesté aux Briars … Je plaisante au sujet du mariage, qu’au dire de Bertrand, je dois contacter avec Mlle Balcombe.  L’Empereur me recommande de ne plus faire de pareilles allusions à ce sujet ; ce n’est pas un parti digne de l’un de ses aides-de-camp.[vii]

[I went to see His Majesty at The Briars… I made a joke about the marriage which, according to Bertrand, a was to make with Miss Balcombe.  The Emperor urged that I no longer make any such allusions to the subject; she is not a suitable match for one of his aides-de-camp.

Santini, Napoleon’s devoted Corsican servant, did not have a good word to say about the English, so his negative statements about William’s propensity to cut corners when supplying the Imperial household are not to be taken as pure truth:  pour les legumes … fournis par M. Balcombe, il n’y en a jamais assez, et ils sont toujours de la plus mauvaise qualité.  [as for the vegetables supplied by Mr Balcombe, there are never enough, and they are always of the worst quality.]

Even more damning is Santini’s suggestion that William was party to the plundering of Napoleon’s small wealth: 

L’Empereur se vit forcé de vendre toute son argenterie pour subvenir aux premières nécessités de la vie … les fonds que la vente produisit furent déposés, par ordre du gouvernement, entre les main de M. Balcombe, sans que l’Empereur ait pu en toucher un sou [viii].

[The Emperor saw himself forced to sell all his silverware in order obtain even the basic necessities of life … the income from the sale was given over, by order of the government, to Mr Balcombe, without the Emperor being able to touch a penny of it.]

What Santini does not say, but which appears in English accounts, is that although Balcombe kept the money in his account, he had been instructed to pay an allowance to Napoleon’s household “to be drawn in small sums, as their necessities required”[ix].

In the end, whatever the truth, the British government was convinced that Balcombe was indeed on Napoleon’s ‘side’.  It was time for the Balcombe family to beat a hasty retreat from the island on 18 March 1818:

Soit que Hudson Lowe eût fait comprendre à Balcombe qu’il était compromise par ses relations trop intimes avec les habitants de Longwood … soit  que Balcombe sentit la nécessité de mettre sa fortune et sa personne à l’abri, vu qu’un jour à l’autre , pouvait éclater quelque histoire qui l’inculperait de haute trahison, il prit ses dispositions, dès le début de 1818, pour quitter Sainte-Hélène et regagner l’Angleterre[x].

[Whether Sir Hudson Lowe (governor of the island) had given Balcombe to understand that his over-intimate relationship with the inhabitants of Longwood had compromised him, or whether Balcombe felt the necessity of putting his fortune and his person out of harm’s way, given that from one day to the next some scandal could erupt which would prove him guilty of treason, he made his arrangements, early in 1818, to leave St Helena and to return to England.] 

The ‘treason’ seems to have been that he was, or was though to be, passing messages from Napoleon and his entourage back to Europe.  William remained a persona non grata for some considerable time. In 1819, the Governor of the Island, Sir Hudson Lowe, received the following message from Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies: “With respect to Mr. Balcombe, you will let it be known that, in the event of his arriving at St Helena, you have orders to send him away.  His partners must not be allowed to continue their contract if his name is in it.”[xi]

Despite the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, England still feared a second return my the dreaded ‘Boney’ and could not countenance a friendship between the Corsican Fiend and the lad from Rottingdean.

Post script:  Napoleon Bonaparte died on the island of St Helena on 5 May 1821.

After five years in England, William Balcombe was appointed Colonial Secretary in the newly created New South Wales Treasury in 1827.  He died on 19 March 1829 in Sydney, leaving “a large family in very distressed circumstances.  His widow and daughter will suffer severely, as they are without any means of support; for although Mr Balcombe possessed some land, he has died, I fear much in debt, and his land and stock are not in a state at present to make any return.” (letter from the Governor of New South Wales to Sir George Murray quoted both in The Emperor’s Shadow).

[i]   Shirley and Keith Murley, The Balcombe Family 2013

[ii]  Shirley and Keith Murley, The Balcombe Family Volume 1 Revised November 2015

[iii]  Joseph-Louis Marchand, Mémoires de Marchand : Premier valet de chambre et    exécuteur testamentaire de Napoléon c 1836

[iv]  Archive of the National Army Museum, London

[v]   Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène 1823

[vi]   Marquis Charles Montholon, Récits de la captivité de l’Empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène Vol 2 1847

[vii]   Baron Gaspard Gourgaud, Sainte-Hélène, Journal inédit de 1815 à 1818  Vol 1

[viii]  Noël Santini, Sainte-Hélène, tombeau de l’Empereur 1855

[ix]   Barry O’Meara, A Voice from St. Helena, 1822 Vol 1

[x]   From a very much later account of 1919 by Frédéric Masson, Napoléon et sa famille Vol 13

[xi] Bathurst to Lowe, Despatch No 162, 12 July 1819, quoted in Whitehead, The Emperor’s Shadow, 249-50

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