In 1995, Britain celebrated the
fiftieth anniversary marking the end of the Second World War. The people of
Falmouth then recalled the massive build-up of American and British troops who
eventually embarked from the River Fal
and from Falmouth in 1944 for the beaches of Normandy. The research of early
nineteenth century newspapers the Royal Cornwall Gazette and the West Briton,
on which this article is based, reveals facts hitherto unpublished elsewhere
which show that this was history merely repeating itself.
In 1808, Britain and its allies were deeply engaged in the wars against France, the latter led by Napoleon. Both Europe and Britain were in danger of being conquered and war raged in Spain and Portugal.
Falmouth, with its great natural harbour, into which the largest of the massive timber built men-o-war could enter at the lowest spring tides became. at that time. the hub of naval and military activity as the ideal port for embarkation to Spain. Its harbour was constantly filled with sailing vessels of all sizes and descriptions – East and West Indiamen filled with silks. satins. rum and other goods. battleships of the line. two squadrons of frigates. each of five vessels with 32 or 34 cannon one under the command of Sir Edward Pellew in the Lowkey Indefatigable, who lived at Flushing, the other under the command of Sir John Borlase Warren. (Lord Horatio Nelson is recorded as having earlier landed at Falmouth and dined at “Woodland”, Mylor Bridge.)
There were also privateers captured from the French, their crews imprisoned at Roskrow and Tregilliack. The Falmouth packet boats, under contract with the General Post Office, constantly carried mail to and from the continent – and there were also the huge transport vessels for conveying troops and horses to Spain where they would engage the forces of Napoleon in combat. In February 1808 it was reported: “An expedition under General Spencer sailed on Sunday last with a fine breeze at East.” The 70 transport vessels, containing 9,000 troops sailed for Gibraltar, in convoy, protected by H.M.S. Antelope with 50 cannon, H.M.S. Primrose 18 cannon, and a schooner with 16 guns. Such protection was necessary to deter attacks by privateers and French naval vessels which lay off the Cornish coast in great numbers.
Convoys of trading vessels also left Falmouth that May, similarly protected, for Brazil, Newfoundland and Quebec – but the conversation at Falmouth that month probably revolved around the convict ship anchored there containing 120 females bound for Botany Bay, Australia, some of them Cornish and most for committing petty offences, such as stealing a handkerchief.
That October the military activity increased immensely with the arrival of 140 transport vessels which dropped anchor in the Carrick Roads with 11,000 troops on board. The latter were forced to remain within the cramped confines of the vessels as previous experience had shown that, on landing, they usually resorted to pillage, brawls and rapes. The officers, however, were rowed ashore to enjoy what little pleasures Falmouth had to offer at that time. They must have made a colourful scene; the boat crews dressed in blue jackets and trousers, with bright scarlet waistcoats overlaid with gilt buttons; the officers, like peacocks, “clothed in all variety of military costume – amongst them the colourful uniforms of the 1st Regiment of the Guards’ are conspicuous”.
At the same time as this great influx, Sir David Baird arrived from Cork with 6,000 troops and 500 cavalry, swelling the number of soldiers at Falmouth to, at the least, 17,500! There were four other generals, 12 battalions of the Horse Artillery, Royal Artillery and the Welsh Fusiliers – and the whole of the 95th Regiment, “all in health and high spirits, impatient to meet the boasted French on the mountains of Spain”.
Falmouth, with its narrow streets was, at that time, not the sprawling town which we recognise today. Its buildings were mainly concentrated along the waterfront. On explaining its growth historians have quoted from a Killigrew manuscript telling of a visit by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1552 on his homeward voyage from Guiana. At that time only Arwennack stood along the waterfront where he was entertained, whilst the whole of his crew was crowded into a solitary house. Raleigh, seeing the need for accommodation for the crews of such homeward bound vessels as his, referred the matter to government. In spite of opposition from Penryn, Truro and Helston, Sir John Killigrew built four houses and later developed the new town of “Smithick” which replaced the older Cornish name of Pen-u-cum (Head of the valley) which was later debased to “Penny Come Quick”. The opposition from the other towns stemmed from Falmouth’s more advantageous position for trade. With such immense military activity such an advantage now became apparent and not only Falmouth, but many other areas of Cornwall flourished with the need to provide food and provisions for 11,000 soldiers and 3,000 seamen for a fortnight, and stocks for the voyage.
That October the narrow roads and lanes leading to the port were filled with sheep and black cattle urged on by eager farmers. Others drove wagons laden with potatoes and other vegetables to the Falmouth Market where the food was purchased by the military. Beef, mutton and geese were sold, and at the quays live pigs and goats were herded aboard the waiting vessels.
No sooner had one large convoy of troops left Falmouth than another fleet of transports arrived. In November 1808, 50 empty transports returned from France to await the arrival of the 14th and 16th Regiments of Dragoons from London. They came on horse-back along rough and pitted roads, covering fifteen miles a day, which was considered to be better than spending six or seven weeks confined on board transports at Portsmouth, along with their horses, who often became injured when confined in such limited space.
At that time the 13th Light Dragoons were split up over Cornwall to prevent smuggling; it was thought better if they were sent to Spain, thus vacating their barracks so that the 14th and 16th Dragoons could rest there after their long tiring journey. In early December, the Light Dragoons passed through Truro over a period of three days.
Their embarkation from the quays of Flushing and Falmouth was highly organised. Five transports lay at each quay each taking from 30 to 40 horses, a total of 400. Each horse was shipped aboard in a sling at the rate of one per minute -one transport took 34 horses in 32 minutes, and the whole operation, men and horses, were on board within 2 hours! As they sailed so others returned from the campaigns. The smoke-filled, dimly lit taverns and brothels of Falmouth were crowded with troops recounting stories of valour and death, of plunder and cruelty. Smiling landlords forced their way to tables with pewter mugs brimmir4 with ale, and silently prayed that the war might continue; prostitutes swarmed into the town to acquire a share of the booty which the soldiers had brought with them “not a soldier but had a belt round his body containing Portuguese gold coins”. The booty of one vessel was reported to have included fifty tons of indigo, gold, silver plate, diamonds, and magnificent furniture. Privateers constantly harassed the great concentration of vessels coming and going from Falmouth. The packet vessels were constantly under attack, and in October 1809, a large French privateer, bristling with cannon, entered the mouth of the harbour at dusk one Sunday. Fortunately H.M.S. Plover happened to be in the Carrick Roads, immediately weighed anchor and pursued her. They engaged for a considerable period close to the shore before the privateer was eventually taken. During the engagement, the ship Charlotte, returning from Plymouth with a cargo of limestone, got in the line of fire and received a direct hit. In late November 1813, Falmouth celebrated a series of victories by Britain and its allies. Bonaparte was defeated at Leipzig, whilst Wellington routed a French army at Victoria and crossed the Pyrenees. A firework display, let off from a stage erected in front of “Mr. Fisher’s Theatre”, was cheered by huge crowds assembled in “Berkeley Place, Killigrew Street, the Market Square, Wodehouse Terrace etc.”. This was preceded by a salute from the battalion guns of the Pendennis Royal Cornwall Local Militia, and the lighting of a large bonfire. The principle novelty was “a large and handsome illuminated Triumphal Column erected near the centre of the new market”. It was square, twenty feet high, with a dome surmounted by a globe. Each side featured a transparent inscription recording the numerous victories of the British and its allies, to William Pitt the Prime Minister, and to Spain and Portugal.
It must have given the people of Falmouth even more pleasure, when following his final defeat and capture in 1815, Napoleon appeared briefly at Falmouth aboard H.M.S. Northumberland. This ended a colourful chapter in the history of that great port.