Thomas Thornton’s Trip to France – 1802

Thomas Thornton - Copy

Frontispiece to ‘A Sporting Tour through Various Parts of France, in the Year 1802’ by Colonel Thomas Thornton

Colonel Thomas Thornton was a keen hunter.  To France he would go, to hunt and kill wolves, foxes, wild boar and virtually anything with wings.  To reach France for his hunting holiday, Colonel Thornton travelled from his home in Yorkshire to take ship at Brighton.  He was not impressed by the town:

‘A gentle ascent of the road brought us to the pass of the Devil’s Ditch, and we, shortly after, gained a distant view of Brighton, the circumjacent country appearing remarkably naked, and bounded by a shipless sea. The entrance to the town did not by any means correspond with my expectations.  A total want of woody scenery fatigued the eye …’

However, the town itself did not displease the Colonel, especially as it was not long before he boarded the packet boat for France.  It was at 8pm on 10 June 1802.  There was no Chain Pier.  There was no jetty.  There was no quayside.

The Colonel, his lady wife, his stag hounds, his guns, his carriage, his four driving horses, as well no doubt as some trifling quantity of trunks – everything had to be manhandled from the beach onto small craft and from there onto the sailing ship.  None of this was the concern of the gentleman traveller, of course.  He complained only about the crowded conditions:

Steward 1802

Col. and Mrs Thornton’s cabin and steward.

‘I proceeded to take possession of the state-chamber, which although bad enough, appeared more convenient than the others.  I then persuaded Mrs. T__ to follow my example in feigning a sudden indisposition, and we retired to our cot. Tranquillity, however, is by no means the inhabitant of a packet-boat; for in a little time, the arrival of a second boat-full of passengers put a complete termination to our repose.’

There followed a not very polite tussle over whether Col. and Mrs T would retain possession of the state cabin which had been promised to another gentleman.  However, the Colonel felt well within his rights to retain the space for although ‘the gentleman strenuously insisted on what he, perhaps, considered as his right; but our possession, being eleven points of the law, was an insuperable bar to all his remonstrances.’

The ‘state-cabin’ of 1802 would probably make a 2019 cabin aboard the 26 000 hp MS Côte d’Albâtre, Newhaven to Dieppe ferry look like the king’s bedroom in the Royal Pavilion.  The state-cabin was ‘a cabin five feet six inches high, and utterly destitute of life, except what was admitted through a small glass door.’

The Colonel was able to while away his time standing on deck shooting seagulls with a new gun he had just bought.  The subsequent crossing was smooth.  In not much more than 12 hours, Dieppe was in sight.

His short stay started badly:

‘We at first put up at an inn where some of our fellow-passengers had engaged to dine, but the accommodations were so execrable that we soon quitted it in disgust, and removed to the hotel of the packet-boats.

‘Here I must beg leave to observe, that any Englishman, desirous of rendering himself comfortable at an inn in Dieppe, must endeavour to obliterate from his mind all idea of comparison between French and English accommodations.  In the hotel, however, where we had now fixed ourselves, we enjoyed the luxury of wooden floors – a circumstance not usually met with in French houses.’

The Colonel did, however feel a little more comfortable once he had partaken of ‘an exceeding good repast, and some excellent Champaign at three livres per bottle.’

Pheasant shooting

After his slaughter-fest in France, it was time for the Colonel to return to England.  In October.  In the late afternoon. What did he expect?  The party left Dieppe toward midday.  Confident that the “stiff but favourable gale” would soon get them home, Col. T. even eschewed the normal tussle over a cabin.  He should have persisted.  By 7pm,

‘Mr. P__ became sick and greatly alarmed, having never previously been on the ocean.  Mrs. T__ was soon in the same situation, when the sea became greatly agitated, and the howling of the wind, the roaring of the waves, the rattling of the cordage, and the increased agitation of the vessel, were circumstances more than sufficient to excite alarm in those who had never before witnessed such a scene.

‘At eleven o’clock we had got about half way, when a squall took us, and we shipped a heavy sea, which broke into the cabin …’

Cabin Wellcome Trust

© Wellcome Trust

And by the next morning, things were not much better:

‘At ten we was within sight of Brighton, and at three, within four hundred yards of the shore; but both wind and tide were against us, and the sky threatened a tremendous storm, which there was little probability of our being able to weather.  At length, however, the captain determined to run into Newhaven.’

So, the crossing had taken over 24 hour.  The hotels of Brighton had lost yet another customer to the vagaries of the Channel weather.

Today, the Côte d’Albatre on the Newhaven-Dieppe crossing runs at an average speed of 14 knots and has two powerful diesel engines and modern stabilisation.  Col. Thornton did not benefit from these 20th century improvements.

These passengers, however, were not unique in their sufferings.  Even French royalty had to suffer similar travails.  Some 25 years later, the artist Ambroise Louis Garneray depicted a terrifying scene just off Dieppe.  He gave the painting the snappy title of:

Le Furet, cotre de l’État, destiné au service particulier de Madame, duchesse de Berry, sortant du port de Dieppe. [The Ferret, the state-owned cutter in the private service of Her Grace the Duchess of Berry, leaving the port of Dieppe].

Le Furet

© Château-musée de Dieppe

Enjoy your trip to Dieppe aboard the fully stabilised Côte d’Albâtre!

[All monochrome images in this article from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Contributed by University of Pittsburgh Library System]

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