LEEK'S FRENCH CONNECTION

Clive Price examines a town's largely hidden links as a holding place for Napoleonic prisoners of war.

A few yards to the north of St. Edward the Confessor's Church, next to the market place in Leek, a simple stone memorial carries the following inscription: To the memory of the sons of France who, taken as prisoners of war, came to Leek on parole during the years 1803 to 1812, and lie at rest here and elsewhere in our community. This memorial was unveiled by The Baron Gourgaud, President of the Fondation Napoleon and the Souvenir Napoleonien, March 26th 1996. Below is a translation into French, and nearby are several graves with their head-stones lying flat on the ground, all indicating that French officers lie buried there. Amongst them are Charles Luneaud, a naval captain, and Jean Baptiste Nillot, a captain in the 72nd Regiment and Knight of the Empire. 

The French prisoners sent to Leek were all officers and therefore treated as gentlemen, whose word was considered to be their bond. For other ranks, the situation was grim. They were incarcerated in overcrowded prisons or on prison hulks moored in the Thames estuary, where a combination of poor rations and gaol fever meant that many never returned to their native land. Leek was one of about 50 places scattered throughout England, Scotland and Wales to be designated as a Parole Town for French officers. They enjoyed a reasonable amount of liberty, being free to move around until 8pm during the summer months and 5pm in the winter. They were required 'not to behave in an improper manner to the inhabitants of the town', were not permitted to roam a mile beyond the town boundary - and even then were instructed to remain on 'the great turnpike road'. If they did not do so, they would be immediately returned to prison. 

Leek received its first prisoners, a batch of 61 officers, in November 1803. The first entry on the register was Joseph Piedagnel, captured on board the gunboat 'Inabordable' in June that year. Each town had a Parole Agent. Leek's was Powys, son of the Vicar of Cheddleton. He was responsible for their welfare, paying out their allowances of ten shillings a week, ensuring that they did not break the terms of their parole and holding a muster twice weekly to check on their where-abouts. These were held in the Market Place, every Tuesday and Saturday.

Along with their 'freedom', the prisoners enjoyed an active social life. Freemasonry was strong in the French army, so it is not surprising that a lodge was formed in Leek. It was known as 'Reunion Desiree' and met in the Red Lion in the Market Place. Members made all their own furniture and regalia. Among the leading masons in the town were General Brunet and Captain Dupy. It appears that the Frenchmen mixed freely with the locals. One observer noted that 'the officers received all courtesy and hospitality at the hands of the principal inhabitants, with many of whom they were on the most intimate terms. They frequented the Assemblies, which were as gay and as well attended as any within a circuit of 20 miles. They dined out in full uniform, each with his body servant behind his chair'. 

Several officers were accompanied by their servants - including Michael Connor, who was employed by Captain Bastard of the frigate 'Caerle'. Alexander Gay, who remained in Leek after the conclusion of hostilities, was servant to Colonel Pinguet. A few even had their wives and children living with them. Francois Thuret, captured on Martinique, arrived in Leek in September 1809, accompanied by his wife and two children. They were returned to France two months later, and he broke his parole in 1811. 

Of the 346 prisoners sent to Leek, 41 managed to escape. Of these only six were recaptured, so it is possible that the rest managed to return to France. Most made their way independently, but on two occasions parties of three disappeared together, obviously having planned their escape beforehand. Those who were caught were returned to one of the more notorious prisons. One officer, captured in Manchester, claimed he regularly travelled by stagecoach from Leek to sell articles he had made so he could supplement his allowance. The Frenchmen lived in various houses around the town, either as lodgers or as sole occupants apart from their servants. During the latter period of his stay in Leek, General Brunet - the highest ranking of the prisoners - occupied a house in Clerk Bank, almost adjacent to the parish church. Others lived in Spout Street, Spooners Lane, Black Moor's


Head Yard, Mill Street and Derby Street. Relations between the locals and the prisoners were not always harmonious. On one occasion a French naval officer walked around wearing his 'cockade' and, as a result 'experienced the rage of the populace'. According to a report in The Times, a Frenchman by the name of Decoubes 'was out of lodgings after the evening bell had rung, and the boys of Leek pelted him with stones'.

Many were expert craftsmen who spent much of their leisure time carving small models in bone, ivory and wood. Joseph Piedagnel was a gifted artist, whose paintings of maritime subjects were much admired. Others created models of ships, and some made household objects - including combs, apple corers and boxes, often inlaid. They were allowed to sell these, and Francois Neau had a shop on Derby Street to ply his wares. There were no restrictions, apart from the curfew, to prevent the officers frequenting the local pubs, and many of them embarked on relationships with the women of Leek. One can only speculate on the attractions of these exotic Frenchmen for the young ladies of the relatively quiet market town. They were advised against marrying the men, but the registers of Leek parish church record several weddings. Such unions were not considered to be legal in France and so, when the time for repatriation came, several of the prisoners returned home alone, abandoning their!
'wives' and leaving their children destitute. One was the aforementioned Francois Neau, who had married Mary Lees, daughter of the landlord of the Duke of York pub. 

Others, however, were more honourable, preferring to remain in Leek after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Jean Baptiste Francois Mien, captured in San Domingo, was 18 when he arrived in Leek in 1804, and appears to have been a servant to one of the officers. He found employment as a bricklayer in 1810, working on Mount Pleasant Chapel. During this time he converted to Methodism. He married Frances Smith and had several children. Initially they lived in Derby Street, but subsequently moved to Leek Moor, now Ashbourne Road, before settling in Queen Street by 1841. He became a silk throwster and, later, an estate agent. His son Jeremiah became a highly respected cabinet maker, and his descendants still live in Leek. Pierre Magnier was captured at Flushing in 1809, and sent to Leek the same year. Within two years he had married Ann Thompson and had settled in Derby Street, where their daughter Jane was born. They, too, moved to Ashbourne Road, by which time Pierre was described !
as a weaver. He lived to the ripe old age of 93. 

Pierre's son Peter served his apprenticeship as a baker before opening his own business in Derby Street, a site now occupied by a bank. He expanded his interests by becoming a corn merchant and provision dealer, and participated in the public life of the town, becoming an overseer of the poor and a director of the Leek United Building Society. His descendants were quick to spot the potential of the internal combustion engine by launching a highly successful garage and car business in Derby Street. By 1911, Arthur Magnier owned a fleet of buses, which he used for excursions to Buxton and dances at Onecote and Meerbrook. 

These men and their descendants made a valuable contribution to their adopted town, but the majority of the prisoners were repatriated when hostilities ended in 1814. Thirteen burials were recorded in St. Edward's parish registers between 1805 and 1814, although one or two of these involved wives and children. It is in their honour that the memorial has been erected - a low-key reminder of Leek's largely hidden French legacy.


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