French Napoleonic PoWs

Ashbourne was one of the towns in Britain which had French PoWs billeted on them. French officers and their servants were housed around Ashbourne. One, John Peterson, stayed and is buried in St Oswald's church.

Three French PoWs were released for acts of bravery whilst at Ashbourne. One for saving a boy who fell into the River and 2 others for putting out a fire, although it was never clear who started the fire in the first place.

Ordinary troops and sailors captured during the Napoleonic Wars were housed in prison hulks and, eventually, in purpose-built prisons such as Normans Cross near Peterborough and Dartmoor.  Conditions in the prison hulks were poor and were regarded as unsuitable for officers who were invited to give their word of honour that they would not try to escape and were then placed on parole.  Initially, they were housed in Town’s near the coast.  However, with a threat of a French invasion in the early 1800s, the Admiralty became concerned about the risk of French Officers living close to possible invasion sites, and moved the prisoners to towns away from the coast such as Ashbourne and neighbouring Leek.  

Between 1802 and 1814, a total of 172 French PoWs were housed in the town. They were required to stay within 1 mile of the Town and to observe a curfew.  Ten married local girls, including 4 Whitaker girls, daughters of the landlord of the Cock Inn, which stood on the site of the present Oxfam shop in Dig Street.  Senior French officers brought their own personal staff with them, and it may well have been a French cook who introduced gingerbread to Ashbourne.

John Peterson had a bad Napoleonic war!  He was Norwegian by birth but seems to have been taken Prisoner by the French. Later he and his captors were taken prisoner by the English.  He was brought to Ashbourne with the other French Prisoners of War.  After the war he stayed here and became the Key Keeper of St Oswald’s church and can be seen on an engraving of the church interior made in 1842. He is buried in St Oswald’s Churchyard.

Another prisoner was of Honore Lazarus Le Compte, who was the son of a slave trader from San Domingo (Haiti). He wrote his autobiography in which he described a rather traumatic life until he finally found God as a Prisoner of War in Ashbourne. He wrote; “I arrived at Ashbourn the 17th of December 1803, and was in such a deplorable state of mind, that I did not know what to do.  .... One morning being half drunk, I went out to take a walk; when passing through a dark foot path, I was persuaded by some evil spirit to put an end to my miserable life.” This suicide attempt failed, as did a second one.  He attended the Zion Chapel and the Methodists.  It was a sermon at the Zion chapel by the Reverend Samuel Franklin, a Minister in Lady Huntingdon's connection, which changed his life and started him on an evangelical life.

One of the grandest churches in Derbyshire, with a slender spire of 212 feet. Referred to in the Doomsday book, the present church building dates from the mid 1200's and contains fine stained glass and monuments.

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The Gingerbread shop is one of the premises in the town which date from the Tudor period. It was built in 1492. People have shopped in this building for five hundred years.

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