Close

The Norman Cross Gallery Large Print Guide

The Norman Cross Gallery

This guide covers the second floor Norman Cross Gallery.
To adjust the settings of these guides please use your browsers accessibility settings.

Panel 1
Napoleonic Prison Camp

The story of the Norman Cross Depot

In 1796, the first known, purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp in the world was established a few miles outside of Peterborough.

This gallery is about Norman Cross, its inhabitants, and the unexpectedly beautiful objects of art and crafts that were created there.

France declared war on Britain in 1793, and the resulting conflict engulfed Europe for the following 22 years.

Thousands of sailors and soldiers captured in battle by the British were imprisoned at Norman Cross. Although the prisoners suffered from cold, overcrowding and disease, conditions were often better for these men than they would be for prisoners of war in later conflicts. We know what happened here from a wealth of historical and archaeological evidence, including documents, maps, illustrations and artefacts.

Although Norman Cross is unique as the first prisoner-of-war camp of its kind, it is also famous as a place where Napoleonic prisoners of war manufactured works of art and crafts. Many of the artefacts they made have survived, to give us fascinating glimpses into their lives.

Panel 2
The Napoleonic Wars

Britain was at war with France from 1793 to 1815.

A Revolution started in France in 1789. Many European countries were frightened that the revolution would spread to them, and declared war on France.

Napoleon, one of France’s most successful generals, seized power in 1799. Under his leadership, most of Europe was conquered by France and its allies.

The countries of Europe took sides, with Britain the main power on one side and France on the other.

The fighting spread half way round the world, and is thought to have killed up to 3.5 million people.

Much of the fighting in the Napoleonic Wars was at sea. Cape Trafalgar is part of the south-west coast of Spain. One third of the sailors captured at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 were imprisoned at Norman Cross.

Throughout the War, the British people lived in fear of French invasion. As a result, 1 in 3 British men enlisted in the army, navy or militia.

Napoleon

It was Napoleon Bonaparte who led the French through most of the War.

He was from Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean. He became the military and political leader of France in1799 and made himself Emperor in 1804.

Nelson

Horatio Nelson was from Norfolk. He became an officer in the Navy, and, as Vice Admiral, commanded the fleet in a number of victorious sea battles during the Napoleonic Wars.

Wellington

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, led the British Army to victory against the French in Spain. He later defeated Napoleon himself at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Panel 3
Why build a camp?

The British were so successful in battle that thousands of prisoners were captured. At first old forts and hulks (decommissioned ships) were used as prisons, but they were soon full. Much more space was needed.

In 1796 it was decided to construct purpose-built prisons. Norman Cross was chosen as the site for the first of these ‘Depots’.

Old ships, or prison hulks, were moored or beached around the coast of England to be used as prisons. Up to 500 men would be crammed aboard in insanitary conditions. Can you imagine the filth, disease and stench inside?

The Royal Navy was responsible for transporting prisoners from the scene of battle to Norman Cross. They came by sea, river and road; many hundreds were marched from east coast ports like King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth.

At any one time, as many as 7,000 prisoners were guarded by up to 1,000 soldiers and militiamen in two battalions.

The prisoners included men and boys from France, Holland and Italy; some were as young as 10 years old.

Many captive officers and civilians were given parole, living outside the Depot in the homes of local people in Peterborough and the surrounding towns and villages. Appointed Agents supervised the prisoners, who were paid an allowance of 1s 6d a day and had to report to the Agent twice a week.

Panel 4
Escape!

Many prisoners tried, and quite a number managed, to break out of Norman Cross.

Sixteen escaped in 1804, while 500 charged and broke down the inner fence in 1805. Other attempts were more (or less) ingenious, including dressing up in a fake British uniform with a fake gun, or hiding in the cart which took away the Depot’s sewage.

Recapture often followed, though. Soldiers and volunteers were soon on the trail, as a reward was usually offered for pursuing and bringing back the strays.

Anyone who escaped but was caught was punished by being locked in a ‘black hole’, a cell with no windows. Their food allowance was also cut, until they had paid off the cost of finding and bringing them back to Norman Cross, as seen in the Depot regulations:

“…have his ration reduced, until the amount saved by such reduction shall have made good any expense incurred in his recapture”

STAMFORD, Nov. 16.

"The French prisoners … continue in the incessant employ of their ingenuity to effect their escape ... – A great part of the night was spent in searching the suburbs of the town and the neighbouring fields … five of them have been taken, and now occupy their old quarters at Norman Cross"

Stamford Mercury, 22nd November 1804.

Panel 5
The Norman Cross Collection

Peterborough Museum’s collection of Napoleonic prisoner-of-war artefacts is probably the finest of its kind on public display anywhere.

The prisoners made these things partly to occupy their time, but also for sale to local people.

They specialised in particular kinds of objects, using skills they brought from the outside world, or worked in teams on big projects that used a mixture of materials and techniques. The range of artefacts includes decorative and personal items for people’s homes, working models (automata), and things that were familiar to the prisoners, like miniature ships and guillotines.

Peterborough Museum’s collection of Norman Cross work comprises over 800 items.

Panel 6
How did the Museum get such a large collection?

In 1897, the Natural History, Scientific and Archaeological Society commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Norman Cross Depot with a temporary exhibition in the Cathedral precincts.

Mr Dack, who was the curator, put out an appeal asking people to check their attics for forgotten family heirlooms – Norman Cross ware that might have been bought at the Depot by their ancestors.

Dozens of items came in. The resulting discoveries were displayed in the exhibition, and afterwards most lenders donated their treasures to the Society (which later became Peterborough Museum) rather than take them back.

Panel 7
Guards

The Norman Cross Depot was run by the Transport Office, which was responsible for the management of prisoners of war at home and abroad. The Governor, or ‘Agent’, of the Depot was usually an officer in the Royal Navy.

Two battalions of soldiers, up to 1000 men, were always stationed at Norman Cross. They were housed in two military barracks, on opposite sides of the Depot.

Guards on sentry duty patrolled back and forth between the perimeter fences. They were discouraged from making friends with the prisoners so they would not help them escape.

Panel 8
Layout and Location

As the first ever purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp, Norman Cross was very carefully planned and located.

We know the layout of the Depot from old plans and pictures.

The whole site, which covered 43 acres (the same as 15 football pitches), had four enclosed compounds, each with four barrack blocks for accommodation, all overlooked from a central blockhouse and all surrounded by a fortress-like high wall.

Two guards’ barrack blocks and the Governor’s house were located outside this prison area.

The Depots’ location was also carefully chosen.

It was built where the road from Peterborough joined the Great North Road on a site close to navigable waterways, so there was good access for transporting prisoners, soldiers and supplies.

These features meant that, if prisoners tried to rebel or escape, reinforcements could arrive quickly, as anyone on the run would find it difficult to hide in the flat fenland landscape.

Panel 9
Industry

The prisoners sold the craftworks they made at a market at the east gate of the Depot. They were bought by local people and traders.

The prisoners were allowed to keep the money they made. Sales were supervised and prices regulated in what became a small-scale industry and part of the Depot’s economy. The money was used for buying food and warm clothes, comforts like tobacco, and for gambling. Some saved their money, and went home rich men at the end of the war.

They worked with easily obtainable materials, like wood, bone and straw, to create high status and desirable goods. Items were tailored to what would appeal to the British market.

Some prisoners gave the finished work to staff and local people to thank them for acts of kindness or in return for donated raw materials and tools.

Panel 10
Digging up the past

Daily life in Norman Cross can be reconstructed from letters, documents and paintings.

More information about the prisoners has also been brought to light by the discovery of items by archaeologists relating to the production of craftwork at the camp. A glimpse into the lives of the craft workers at Norman Cross is provided by these finds, excavated on the site of the barracks and compounds by Wessex Archaeology for a 2009 Time Team television programme.

Panel 11
What happened next?

The Norman Cross Depot was the first of its kind and was used between 1797 and 1814.

Due to its success, more Depots were built to take the vast number of prisoners in the Napoleonic Wars. Dartmoor is probably the most famous.

In later wars, far worse POW camps would be created, and prisoners would be treated cruelly, with little or no humanity.

Norman Cross Depot was closed in 1814. Most of the buildings were dismantled and the site and some of the materials were sold off. Today, an earth bank and ditches show where the perimeter ran.

The Agent’s and the Barrack Master’s houses also survive.

A memorial was put up in 1914 to honour the prisoners of war from France and its allies, and to mark the site of the old Depot. The Norman Cross eagle became a well-known landmark beside the Great North Road. Unfortunately the column was knocked over and the eagle stolen in1990, but after a long campaign by the Friends of Norman Cross, the Museum, and local and international councils and societies, a replacement was installed and dedicated in 2005.

© 2022 - Museum & Art Gallery. All rights reserved.