Who dug the New Cut?


This is a story about oral history and how oral history can conflict with official history. It is not yet, unfortunately, a story about how to tell which is correct.

It is also a story about Bristol, the grand old maritime dame I enjoy visiting, most recently for the Simple Things festival last year (maritime cities in Britain have a bracing aspect, and not just from the hovering presence of the open sea; metaphorically as well as physically, one sniffs the air and grows hopeful. Liverpool has exactly the same atmosphere). My favourite fact about Bristol is that its medieval name was “Bristowe” or variant thereof, as demonstrated on old mapping. The appended “l” comes from the traditional accent in that part of the world, which would also, and this takes quite some stretching of the mind to a Londoner now, have transformed other words ending in vowels likewise, so that the name “Sarah” would have become “Saral”.

Bristol was a great medieval port and a jumping-off point to the New World, but I guess by the late eighteenth century it was being outdone by the ports of the north, nearer England’s core manufacturing districts, and Something Had to be Done. The New Cut is what was done:

The New Cut was dug as part of the scheme to create the Floating Harbour in 1804-9. Its role was to create a tidal bypass for smaller vessels that could lock in at Bathurst lock (74) or Totterdown lock (85), allowing the main locks at Cumberland Basin to handle larger ships… A persistent local myth says that French Napoleonic War prisoners were used, but the labour force was largely composed of English and Irish navvies, well experienced in digging canals across Britain.

I am part of the myth. My mother was told by her Bristolian grandparents (b 1889 and 1894) that her ancestor was a Frenchman, a prisoner-of-war in Bristol captured at Waterloo,  who was put to work in digging out the New Cut. This information would have been proferred in the 1950s. Where it came from, how it was right and wrong, and why,  is a small esoteric family matter but also has significance for the whole concept of oral history in modern times.

When I first heard this story in the 1990s I set about digging up evidence (well, I was a strange child). It didn’t take me long to find that the dates didn’t fit. Waterloo (obviously) occurred in 1815, and the construction of the New Cut in Bristol diverting the River Avon in a way that still defines the city centre today demonstrably occurred, as indicated above, in 1804-9. So nobody taken prisoner at Waterloo could have been involved in its construction.

I kept digging. There was a prison in Bristol during the Napoleonic Wars, that much is clear – Stapleton Prison, built in the 1770s as a prison for seamen captured during the American Revolutionary Wars, repurposed in the Napoleonic Wars for the French and other nations, and then repurposed again as a Victorian workhouse and ultimately a psychiatric hospital. The site, with an uncertain future, now sits next to the campus of the University of Bristol, and while some of the original buildings have been levelled and replaced, the 1770s guardhouse survives.

I traced back the relevant family line in the normal pre-internet manner (this was the 1990s; we still used microfiche then – imagine!) and I arrived at my three times great-grandfather, Charles Martin, a plasterer, glazier and plumber of Bristol who lived a long and fertile life (13 children) in the parish of St Philip & Jacob Without, one of the poorer districts outside the city walls. I still have not found any record of his baptism, but census after census from 1851 until his death in 1893 has him claiming that he was born in Bristol in about 1818 (my great-grandfather remembered dimly a frightening funeral with a black coffin; he would have been four in 1893, so we wonder if that was Charles’ funeral). So far, so good. Someone captured at Waterloo and/or in the Napoleonic Wars who had settled in Bristol and started a family might well have been having children in Bristol in 1818.

We were troubled by the name, of course. Martin is an unremarkable English patronymic surname, but it also happens to be the commonest surname in France. It would have been so much more convenient at this point to have a surname to work with that could not possibly be English, but we persevered, and eventually I found him.

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This is the 1841 census. See that “F” out of alignment on the right? That’s the most important stroke of ink in the whole business. One can wind through pages and pages in the 1841 census without seeing anything in that column. It falls in a column whose heading reads as follows: “Whether born in Scotland, Ireland, or in Foreign Parts.” F for Foreign Parts.

By the time of the next census in 1851, the Anglophically named Joseph Martin, shoemaker, born around 1781 (but possibly some years either side because the 1841 census uniquely rounded ages up or down to the nearest five years or even more, depending on the fancy of the enumerator) has vanished. He has evidently died by then, and we have not identified his death certificate. Many possible “Joseph Martin” deaths exist in the Civil Registration indices for the Bristol district between 1841 and 1851 but they are a tenner a shot, both first name and surname were common, no ages are given in the indices at this date, and infant mortality was high; at some point we may have to bite the bullet on that one.*

Nonetheless we have here a man born at an appropriate time to fight in the Napoleonic Wars in “Foreign Parts”, with a name that could well be French. I looked at the records of French prisoners admitted to Stapleton prison which are indexed on the National Archives’ website, and the possibilities are so many as to be comical, so I wrote that avenue off until I had learned more about his later life in Bristol.

I still had a problem, however, the official history insofar as it is known states that prisoners were repatriated after the Napoleonic Wars. How then could my putatively French ancestor have come to stay in Bristol at all? The “how” cannot be known, but the fact that some of them did can be gleaned from historical newspapers. Here is one French resident of Bristol referred to in 1851:

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Bristol Times and Mirror, Saturday 6 December 1851

I think “called” in 1851 meant he called into the newspaper offices. Digging back further, one finds that the prisoners were clearly much at large in various ways.

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 22.28.25.png

Bristol Mirror, Saturday 15 December 1810

First rule of legal and civic history, if something is forbidden in writing, that means it is happening. An entry in the Gloucester Journal of 30 March 1812 is even more intriguing (the image doesn’t size up well):

A Clergyman of Dumfries has, in reply to an application to the Transport Board, on the subject of the disqualification of French prisoners to contract marriages with British subjects, been informed that, “by the laws of France, any marriage entered into here by a French prisoner is null and void; and that it is highly desirable that such connections should be prevented as much as possible.”

Ouch, I bet he was pleased he wasn’t named, and that his Dumfriesshire mother didn’t take the Gloucester Journal. Even if local clergy were warned off, less informed visitors were clearly worth a shot, and who is to say they all did the proper thing and applied to the Transport Board for permission?

What then, of the third part of the family myth, the digging of the New Cut? Let’s recapitulate the series of discoveries that had led me to this pass in the first place. My proveable ancestor Charles Martin didn’t have to be born in 1818, at a logical generational point to be the son of a Napoleonic War veteran. The name of the putative veteran could have been thoroughly English, which would make it that much harder to keep the structure of the tale. Bristol didn’t have to have a French war prison – there were twelve land prisons in use in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, so this was not a facility found in every city. And it was certainly never inevitable that I should find an ancestor in the census born at about the right time in “Foreign Parts”.

In the 1990s, we wrote (wrote!) to the Bristol Record Office, setting out the family legend and enquiring about the possibility of its being true. We had a reply. The archivist could find no evidence that French Prisoners of War had been employed on the building of the New Cut, but he could send us a reply to a similar enquiry made forty years previously. This is it:



Years later, with the internet and access to an academic library catalogue, I found out who “Mrs Vintner” was. Dorothy Vintner wrote the most substantial work in print on Stapleton Prison, that’s why she was asking. We had uncovered a historian at work. There seems to be some suggestion of a book that I’ll need to use my King’s staff library card to find (this is the entirety of the reason I work in higher education admin), but her article in the  Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society records the outcome of her research on the point:

No account of the prisoners can be complete without reference to the cherished Bristol tradition that they were employed to excavate the New Cut, a waterway constructed to divert the tidal water of the Avon. One record along seems to support the theory of prison labour. In 1810 the Transport Office demanded “on whose authority prisoners have been allowed to work outside in large numbers?” The remaining evidence seems to throw doubt on the accuracy of the story. External work was entirely prohibited in 1803, not even the repair of the road immediately outside the prison or the lighting of its lamps being allowed, and there is not one reference to the Cut in the Admiralty records from 1804 to 1809. Had prisoners been employed they must have attracted notice, but again there appears to be no mention of them in contemporary newspapers, guidebooks, journals or Dock records. J. P. Malcolm in 1807 describes the Dock work actually in progress, and in the same year Victory Purdy, a Methodist lay-preacher who lived in Stapleton Parish, writes with pride of the new harbour, but neither mentions the prisoners. The story awaits further proof before it can be accepted without hesitation.

Dorothy Vintner, ‘The Old French Prison, Stapleton’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society Volume 75, (Bristol 1956).

Note: quotes will unfortunately be unreferenced as I don’t have original page numbers here. What I seem to have, from the same archivist who sent us the letter,** is a photocopy of a  reprint of the article with different pagination from a different place. The Bristol Record Office reference simply says “Pamphlet 1020”.

If this is a myth, why has it “persisted”, evidently as a “cherished local tradition” in many families, not just mine? Was it a lie that only grew current in Bristol in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries and was picked up by my great-grandparents among others, and if so why then? Or is it, in fact, true, and just not verifiable in official sources? The more I read Vintner’s 1956 paper, the more I see the gap between what the official record would wish to show and what her own researches seem to have turned up. Regular fairs were held at the the prison, for instance, where inmates could sell handicrafts to local people, probably in exchange for food. There wasn’t much to do as an eighteenth century POW other than be hungry and whittle. This was not a POW camp in the sense that we would understand it from twentieth century contexts. The warnings about treacherous French husbands in the newspapers suggest that these some of these meetings, literally, bore fruit. It is extraordinary to claim on the one hand that prisoners could not possibly have worked outside the prison when on the other there is clearly contemporary suggestion that they were actually marrying local women, or trying to, or promising to. How one and not the other?

Vintner’s paper also presents the evidence for a number of escape attempts, successful and unsuccessful (Paul Chamberlain enlarges on this), and describes a black market in straw. The prisoners wove straw plait from the straw in their mattresses and sold it to be made into straw hats and bonnets, undercutting local cottage weavers. In response to complaints this trade was officially forbidden, but it continued and in fact standardised, presumably because there’s only so much in a mattress:

Samples of plait were found in prisoners’ letters and the militia guard even offered it openly for sale in the Bristol streets. ‘One of them put two bundles into my coach,’ the aggrieved Sam Dight again complained to the Commissioners, ‘and another offered me two dozen bundles at once. They tale the pipe-straw at night (i.e. the upper joints only) and throw it over the prison wall, taking plait in return. The Wiltshire regiment who left last week was nine hundred pounds in debt to the prisoners.’

This suggests the prisoners were deeply embedded in the community, were able to talk extensively and privately to local people, perhaps via prison guards, strike deals with them and arrange clandestine signals and handovers with them. The mention of the Wiltshire regiment is a slight non sequitur that I would like to know more about, but whatever it signifies, nine hundred pounds is a colossal amount of money. A lot of exchange went on to produce that debt (the prisoners must have been furious at being duped).

It seems to me that Stapleton Prison was a world more economically, socially and physically porous than any contemporary official record might have wished to show. If free prisoner labour was ever used outside the prison, in any connection, it would be entirely logical to keep it under the radar in a time of scarcity and unrest. The fact that “large numbers” were working outside the prison in 1810 suggests a degree of deliberation and organisation. What were they working on? Not the New Cut, that was finished by then. Vintner’s article also mentions unskilled prisoner labour used in the construction of some new prison buildings in 1800, and more buildings were added in 1804 (no mention of prisoners here but the original records may have more). It seems at least possible then that the prison developed a history of substantial prisoner labour being used on the site and, at least in 1810, outside it.

There is one final codicil to the story so far, which if I were writing on any sort of semi-academic basis I wouldn’t introduce, but this is my blog and an in-progress record of my thinking on this subject, so screw that.

Montpelier is a nineteenth century district to the north of Bristol city centre, formerly, according to family, seen as somewhat raffish, now gentrifying rapidly with the overspill from Clifton, Redlands and Cotham. This is what its Wikipedia entry says:

Previously, Montpelier was carved by French prisoners of war (P.O.W’s) from the Napoleonic conflicts. All the streets and avenues are named after famous generals or have military connotations, such as Wellington, York and Banner Roads. Stories are told of the P.O.W’s transporting spoil from the New Cut to lay the foundations for the terrace housing. Original cobble stones laid by the P.O.W’s can be seen in the gutters and some secluded alleys.

No, I’m not convinced by the tone of that either. There are no citations. I’ll need to get someone more versed in Wikipedia than me to help me get in touch with who wrote it. But if it’s true, IF there’s any truth in it, it could explain why, for example, nobody remarked on the French prisoners’ presence at the New Cut – they would have been peripheral labour to the task, transporting spoil away from the site, not part of the main English/Irish labour force. “Stories are told…” – another story without official records to support it which other circumstances suggest might be true? That’s where we came in.

So to pursue this entire chain of historical inference and attempt to join up the oral history with the official record, there’s only one thing to do next. Walk the streets of Montpelier, and look at the stones.

*EDIT 14/11/16: I have just checked the BMD registration indices again and realised I have got this wrong. The mystery is that there are no Joseph Martin deaths in Bristol district between 1841 and 1851. What I was remembering here was enlarging the search to the whole country. And yet I have not found him on the 1851 census. So this one is a different kind of mystery. May update further.

** EDIT 14/11/16: I have just realised it makes no sense if both the letter and the article came from the same person. I would surely have picked up on the names, so perhaps we acquired the article photocopy over twenty years ago from somewhere else, or maybe we found it ourselves on the same trip. I shall Consult My Mother.



  1. The wikipedia entry you refer to was inserted by a user called “Maiden, Mother & Crone” on 12 November 2015. This is the only edit that this user has ever made to Wikipedia.

    They do not have a user page or a user talk page, so there is no indication of who they are. Someone with oversight permissions could track the IP address they posted from, which might point you at an organisational affiliation, or tell you which ISP they used if they were editing from home or on a mobile. ISPs do have user/IP logs, but normally they are only accessible with a warrant when pursuing a criminal, and are conventionally only retained for a year anyway.

    I think that trace is cold.

    You could monitor https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Maiden,mother%26Crone and see if they ever log back in again.

    1. Ah, thanks very much for this! And bother.

      Odd that it was only a year ago. If it is indeed an old story, one would expect more mentions. There are mentions of the New Cut story in several places (if only to say it isn’t true.) I may have to do some more googling.

  2. Isn’t it likely that at least some of the prisoners were given parole and allowed out with restrictions? It has always been my understanding that granting parole was common for prisoners of war during this period, and it would make a lot more sense of the stories of prisoners being able to marry local women, etc.

  3. Good point. This is what Paul Chamberlain has to say in Hell Upon Water: Prisoners-of-War in Britain, 1793-1815 (p 115): “While the majority of the prisoners remained incarcerated in hulks or Land Prisons, those captives of a certain rank and above were offered their parole. They were required to give their word of honour in writing not to attempt to escape, and to abide by certain regulations, if allowed to reside in one of the towns or villages designated as parole depots. The ‘word of a gentleman’ was a solemn bond, not to be given lightly, and overall the system worked well, with both British and French officers keeping their word. As the wars dragged on and many officers on both sides of the Channel could see no end to their confinement, breaches of parole became more frequent, although involving a relatively small proportion of the total number of officers residing in parole depots.”

    So that seems fairly clear on the officers/other ranks split (although again, this is the official line). I have to say I hadn’t ever contemplated my ancestor being an officer, partly because he was a shoemaker in later life and partly due to in-built assumptions of peasantishness. But who knows?

    The point, I suppose, is does the existence of officer parole mean the warnings in the newspapers were aimed purely at officers? I would lean towards not, because I don’t think there can have been enough officers at large in parole depots in regular touch with Bristol to have caused the warning to be put out in a Bristol newspaper. Chamberlain has a list of parole depots and there were 39 in England. The nearest ones to Bristol look to be Chippenham in Wiltshire and Wincanton in Somerset – there are lots in Devon and Hampshire, and some more widely scattered.

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