It has lately been discovered that the escape of French prisoners has been a system among smugglers, fishermen, and publicans on the coast opposite France. These traitors went to the different depots of French prisoners, and to those on their parole, from time to time, to offer to effect the escape of such as could raise certain sums of money to defray the expenses and rewards payable in this country, whereby many officers have been enabled to break their parole, and have got safe to France, where they have been received by public officers at the ports, who paid the sums agreed upon for their sea-passage.
The discovery was made by the apprehension of eight officers, who left Andover the 1st of October 1812, and were compelled by stormy weather to re-land near Christchurch, on the 12th of October, after having embarked from that neighbourhood in a Weymouth smuggling boat. They had reached the coast, between Christchurch and Lymington, by the skill of their guides, without interruption; but, unable to conceal themselves effectually on their re-landing, notice was given of the suspicious appearance of the parties, to Mr. G. Rose, at Mudeford, by Mr. How, a most meritorious officer in the superior class of the Customs, whose zeal and courage have often been conspicuous, but in no case more so than in this. An active investigation was immediately set on foot by the above-mentioned Magistrate, at whose instance Mr. How was permitted by his Board to assist. Vickery and Adkins were sent for from Bow street; and Mr. Jones, Assistant Solicitor to the Admiralty, was sent to Mr. Rose by the Transport Board. A pursuit after the offenders was then made in various directions, and Calliford (who had been convicted in 1811, of a similar offence before Mr. Baron Graham,) a remarkably desperate man, who was always armed, and who had the leading active share in the conspiracy, was taken in Somersetshire by Mr. How, who, finding him dressing his horse in a stable, broke in upon him, and seized him by the collar with one hand, holding a pistol at his head with the other, and then gave him to the care of Adkins, to be conveyed in irons to Mr. G. Rose, at Mudeford.
At the Assizes for the county of Sussex held at Lewes, the 4th day of August 1812, before the Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, John Hughes, Inn-keeper and post-master of Rye, James Robinson, a miller near Oswestry, William Hatter, and William Turner, fishermen of Rye aforesaid, were indicted for a conspiracy to aid the escape of Arnaud Phillipon and Philip Auguste Garnier, French prisoners of war, from Oswestry, in Shropshire.
Mr. Serjeant Best opened the case.
Mr. Toosley proved that General Phillipon was a prisoner at Oswestry, and that the last time he saw him was about twelve o'clock on the 30th day of June. Garnier had also been a prisoner about three years. Phillipon was a tall man, about six feet, thin, with a scar over his eye, and usually wore a grey coat, with a blue great coat. Garnier was about five feet six inches, thin and pale, and wore a blue coat, with a brown great coat. The defendant, Robinson, had lately taken a mill within three miles of Oswestry; but had not carried on much business as a miller. On the 30th of June he sent his servant to Shrewsbury, to get a weighing machine, and directed him to wait his coming. At length, in the evening, Robinson came, in a gig, and had a pony tied to the shafts; he told the man to go forward to Heygate, with him, and the man rode the pony until they overtook a gentleman on the road, a small man in a blue coat and brown greatcoat. They went to Heygate, which is on the Birmingham road, and there Mr. Robinson bespoke a chaise, and himself with two gentlemen got into it and went away for Birmingham. The post-boys then traced Robinson and the two gentlemen to the Shakespeare Tavern, at Birmingham, where they breakfasted the next morning. The next morning a travelling chariot, with a dicky-box, took them from the Shakespeare.
It appeared that Robinson had passed through Birmingham about ten days before, and had bespoke this carriage at a Mr. Wheeley's, a coach maker at Birmingham; and had agreed at the same time with a post chaise driver, of the name of Yoxall, to go with him as a servant, for which he was to give him a pound a day, and a new hat and coat, and told him to be ready to set off on the first day of July. Accordingly Yoxall came with the carriage to the Shakespeare. He then travelled with them as a servant, and hired the horses, &c. on the road. He did not know the two gentlemen who accompanied Robinson, and he never heard them speak. At length they arrived at Rye, and were put down at a public house, kept by the defendant Hughes.
While they were at Birmingham, Robinson received a letter in the hand-writing of Hughes, but signed by Jones, stating, that all was well and ready. Robinson, and the two persons with him, continued at Rye some days. In the meantime the escape of General Phillipon was made public, and a sharp look-out was kept along the coast for any boat going out or coming in from sea; at length, on the 12th July, an open boat was seen rowing into Rye early in the morning, which had Robinson, Hatter, and Turner aboard. Robinson got ashore before the officers could overtake him, and upon their questioning the two other defendants as to who he was, they said he resided in that neighbourhood.
He was traced to the house of Hughes; and, when the officers entered the house, his boots were wet with sea water. He said, upon being questioned, it was so, and that he had been out all night at sea mackerel fishing. Upon this statement, himself, Hughes, and the two other men, were taken into immediate custody; but there was no distinct evidence as to the identity of the persons of Phillipon and his companion; but all the witnesses gave a description of their persons answering to the description given of them by Mr. Toolsey, the Agent at Oswestry.
Upon this evidence the jury found them Guilty.—Sentenced to imprisonment, and the pillory. [Note: In the year 1809, William Hubbersfield, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment in the King's Bench Prison, for aiding the escape of the French General Austin, a prisoner in England, on his parole of honour.]
On Saturday the 29th of August following, Hughes and Robinson were brought out of prison, where they had been confined since their conviction, and placed in and upon the pillory on the sea shore of the town of Rye, opposite the French coast, where they remained one hour, amid the scoffs and execration of every true English spectator. Hughes, on ascending the platform, exclaimed, "Now, Robinson, we shall have a peep at Boney's Tower;" (meaning Bologne where they landed the General) and, indeed, the whole of his conduct, while undergoing the humiliating but just punishment of the law, was such as to prove him a man hardened in vice. They were afterwards remanded to prison, where they are to be confined for the space of two years; a lenient punishment for an offence which the judges have frequently pronounced to be little short of high treason, and which, by a recent act of Parliament, is made felony.
It is thereby enacted, "That any person who shall, from and after passing the act, knowingly aid or assist any foreign enemy of His Majesty's dominions, whether such prisoners shall be confined as prisoners of war in any place of confinement, or shall be suffered to be at large on his or their paroles, to escape from such place of confinement, or from His Majesty's dominions, if at large upon parole, shall, upon being convicted thereof, be adjudged guilty of felony, and liable to be transported for life."
From the passing of this act, we hoped that our degenerate countrymen, would have been deterred from such treasonable and sordid practices; but, in the very face of it, and as soon after its becoming the law of the land, as the 9th of December following, we find, at the town of Shrewsbury, the apprehension of the French General Le Brun, and his aide-de-camp, who had been ordered to Welsh Pool on their parole of honour, and were making their escape, assisted by the son of a well-known Kentish smuggler, and others. All the parties were secured, and lodged in Shrewsbury gaol. Between the scoundrels who conduct, and the scoundrels who are conducted out of this kingdom, we have not much more to say; they are well suited to each other. The flight of the Frenchmen is attended with more danger than they are aware of, and it is fortunate for them to be taken before they quit the kingdom; for, as the wretches who guide them are guilty of a felonious offence, there is no question, that in case they should be pursued at sea by an English cruiser, they would, to avoid detection, throw their unhappy passengers overboard; and many, we have no doubt, have perished this way.
The dishonourable flights of French officers from the English towns where Government, upon the pledge of their honours to remain therein until exchanged, had permitted them to reside; and the daring outrageous conduct of their inferiors under confinement at the different depots, amounting to between twenty and thirty thousand, calls for stricter measures being enforced towards them. In that at Dartmoor near Plymouth, on the 16th September 1812, the prisoners had worked themselves up to the highest pitch of rage at being allowed no more than one pound of biscuit per day. The use of biscuit, it is to be observed, was to be discontinued as soon as the bakehouses had been rebuilt; but the Frenchmen were absolutely deaf to remonstrances. A detachment of the Cheshire Militia, and the South Gloucester Regiment, were drawn up on the walls surrounding the prison; and, although they had loaded their pieces with ball, the prisoners appeared undaunted, and insulted them in the grossest terms: indeed our brave men withstood the contumelious language of the prisoners with a patience beyond all praise. A sentinel on duty, called Jones, had his bayonet wrenched off his piece, yet nobly reserved his fire: an officer, however, followed the Frenchman, struck him over the shoulder with his sword, and brought off the bayonet. The French men even bared their breasts to the troops, and seemed regardless of danger. The number of prisoners is about 7500; and so menacing was their conduct, that an express was sent off to Plymouth Dock, at eleven o'clock on Sunday night, soliciting immediate assistance. Three pieces of artillery (six pounders) were in consequence sent off, early on Monday morning; and on their arrival at the principal gate (iron), the bars of which, of immense size, had been previously broken by stones hurled against them by the insurgents, they were placed in such directions as completely to command the whole of the circle which the prison describes. This had the desired effect, and order was restored.
At the Depot at Perth, an attempt by the prisoners in the Depot to effect their escape was discovered and prevented. A mine, on which they had been employed three days, was excavated from within the privy of the prison, allotted to the Petty Officers, and had been pushed as far as the outer wall, on the inside of which the earth gave way, and occasioned a detection of the stratagem. The digging had been carried on through the day; and at night, when the privies are inspected, the stones which had been removed, were so neatly and regularly replaced as to prevent suspicion. The petty officers are confined in the upper story of the prison, through the floor of which they had cut a hole, by which they might pass to the lower. They had cut out the lock of the door which opens to the yard, and consequently to the entrance of their mine.
The French prisoners on board the Sampson at Chatham, about the same time, became very troublesome, on account of their being put to two-thirds allowance, to make up for the expense of repairing the damages done by their cutting the ship, to endeavour to effect their escape; boats manned and armed were sent from every ship; one of the marines of the Buckingham, seeing one of the prisoners in the act of stabbing the officer of marines, he immediately levelled his musket and shot him; several other shots were fired, and before they could be quieted and got below, three were killed and eight others wounded, two of whom are since dead, one of whom was the principal ringleader. The other ships remained perfectly quiet.
There is such an irresistible spirit of gambling among the French prisoners, lately arrived at that port, from Norman Cross, that many of them have been almost stripped naked, having lost their clothes, not excepting even their shirts and small-clothes, to some of their fellow-prisoners; many of them are also reduced to the chance of starving by the same means, having lost seven or eight days’ provision to their more fortunate comrades, and who never fail to exact their winnings. The effervescence of mind that this diabolical pursuit gives rise to is often exemplified in the conduct of these infatuated captives, rendering them remarkably turbulent and unruly. A quarrel arose between two of them in the course of play, when one of them, who had lost his clothes and food, received a severe stab in the back with a large knife from his companion, whose anger had been kindled in consequence of the invectives which a run of ill-luck had excited in his adversary.
Two French officers, prisoners of war on parole at Bishops Waltham, having had a dispute, they agreed to decide the affair in an honourable way. A meeting was appointed in a field near the town; but a difficulty occurred in procuring weapons. It appears that the combatants were only in possession of one sword, and a case knife. French ingenuity made a pike of the knife, by confining it to the end of a stick; but the sword being considered the best weapon, they resolved to cast lots who should have it. After the sword and knife had been fairly placed in their hands, the duel commenced, and the swordsman gave his antagonist three wounds. The pikeman gave several dangerous thrusts, and both fell on the ground; they remained bleeding and disabled, until they were discovered by several passengers, who conveyed them to a public-house in the vicinity. The officer who received the cuts from the sabre was not expected to recover. His antagonist is fortunately out of danger.