Napoleonic Prisoner of War Crafts

Before you reject the prospect out of hand, Dear Regency Authors, you might find that one of these unique objects could make an interesting prop for an upcoming tale of romance. Many prisoners of war held in England from the late eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries made craft items which they sold or traded in order to acquire a few small necessities which would ease the spartan harshness of their lives. In this season of gift-giving, it seems an opportune moment to discuss the wide array of useful, charming, even beautiful, objects which these men were able to produce while they were incarcerated far away from their homes. It is quite possible that a significant number of these hand-made items were purchased and given as gifts during our favorite decade.

The craft production of Napoleonic prisoners of war in Britain . . .

A number of factors had to come together at roughly the same time in order to result in the substantial proliferation of this curious art production. And so they did, near the end of the eighteenth century. The British had been taking and incarcerating prisoners of war in many of their battles over the centuries. But in the last decade of the eighteenth century, as the vastly superior naval power in their ongoing battle with France, the British took many more prisoners than they ever had before, quite a number of them French sailors. Initially, most of these prisoners were housed in prison hulks anchored off various British port cities. But as the war progressed, many in government became concerned that these prisoners might be able to escape the hulks and make their way home, to take up arms against Britain once again. Even worse, there was always the chance these men could be released by an invasion force, which they would then join and thereby swell the ranks of the invaders.

In an effort to better protect Britain as the fear of an invasion by Napoleon’s army increased, prisons were built inland to house many of these prisoners of war. These purpose-built prisoner-of-war depots included Norman Cross, opened in 1797, in Huntingdonshire, and Dartmoor, opened in 1809, in Devonshire. There were also prisoner-of-war depots opened in Scotland, in 1812, near Perth and Penicuik. Each of these institutions housed well over 10,000 prisoners of war by the time the Regency began. However, the prisoners-of-war held in those POW depots were typically only soldiers and sailors of the rank and file. The most senior officers were usually exchanged for officers of similar rank from the opposing military services. Those officers who were not exchanged, but who were classed as "gentlemen," were typically paroled within Britain. That is, in return for an agreement to remain neutral non-combatants while in custody, they were allowed to live in designated towns and villages, usually those situated near the prisons. These "parolees" were generally provided with a small weekly allowance by which to support themselves, so long as they did not break their parole. Any officer who did break their parole was usually then incarcerated in one of the POW prisons. It is estimated that by 1815, Britain was holding well over 100,000 prisoners of war, either in one of their prisons or on parole.

Though many of the prisoners-of-war were put to work doing various jobs in the British prisons, most of them still had some free time. The Board of the British Transport Office, which had the responsibility for housing and caring for the prisoners of war, decreed that the prisoners were " . . . at full liberty to exercise their industry within the prisons . . . " and could make and sell any articles they liked. However, there were some restrictions. The prisoners could not make any objects which might be in direct economic competition with artisans and craftsmen in the immediate area of the prison. Nor were they allowed to make anything which could be considered obscene. And, perhaps most importantly to the Transport Office, the prisoners were forbidden from making anything from their own clothing or from supplies held in the prison warehouses. This last requirement was to ensure that the prisoners were not acquiring their craft supplies at the expense of the British government. There had been several instances were prisoners of war sold or traded their clothing for other goods, then had to be provided with new clothes at the government’s expense.

One of the most widely used prisoner-of-war craft materials was bone. The men saved the bones from the meals they were provided in the barracks, or acquired them from the cook staff in the prison kitchens. The advantage of bones acquired from the kitchens was that they were typically larger, longer bones from which the meat was removed, usually by boiling, before meals were served to the prisoners. These larger, longer, sturdier bones could be made into more complex and intricate objects. In most cases, the prison cook staff were content to let the prisoners have the bones since it saved them the effort of having to dispose of them. Regardless of how the men acquired them, they then cleaned, dried and whitened the pieces of bone before carving them into a number of useful and/or decorative items.

In order to carve their bones, the prisoners naturally needed tools, particularly knives. At that time, these men were not considered criminals, nor debtors, like those who were imprisoned in Newgate, Fleet Street and Britain’s many other prisons. Therefore, unlike the rules of most prisons today, prisoners of war taken during the Napoleonic era were usually allowed to keep their meager personal possessions, including pen or pocket knives, which were not considered to be serious weapons. And those who did not have a knife by which to do their bone carving would have been able to acquire one through a friendly guard or a merchant who sold items to prisoners during market days. Another useful tool in making some bone items was a basic lathe on which bone objects could be turned. Some prisoners had the knowledge and skill to make rudimentary versions of those tools as well, and often would allow their fellow prisoners the use of their lathe, perhaps in return for some consideration, such as a share of the profits from the finished products.

It must be remembered that a large number of the prisoners of war held in British prisons, both French, and later, Americans, were sailors. And many among them had taken up a craft, often bone and ivory carving, as a way to while away long days at sea and make gifts for sweethearts, family and friends. When these sailors were imprisoned in England, quite a few of them were more than happy to teach their skills to their fellow prisoners, perhaps in return for lessons in some other craft they wished to learn. Many soldiers had been apprentices to some craftsman before they joined the army, or had taken up some type of craft once they were in uniform, so a number of them also had craft skills they could share with their fellow prisoners, or employ in making objects by which to earn some extra money. Nor should it come as any surprise that the Transport Office was willing to allow these men the right to employ their craft skills, for, as the old adage goes, idle hands can indeed be the devil’s workshop. If the men could fill their time making items they could sell, they would be less likely to be become agressive or spend their time planning an escape. In addition, the small income they earned might thus make them a bit more content with their confinement. In fact, some prisoners of war later noted in their memoirs that their craft work helped them to endure the bleakness of their situation and stave off the depression it could induce.

Gambling was widespread among prisoners of war, so, initially, those who could work bone turned their skills to the making of dominos, dice, gaming counters, and even bone playing cards, which they sold or traded to their fellow prisoners. But when they realized they could sell their products to prison visitors or local merchants, the prisoners began to make a wide array of items. They continued to make sets of dominos, often with boxes, but added cribbage boards, chess and other game boards, as well as the chessmen and/or the draught pieces to accompany them. Another popular game item was carved bone boxes filled with bone spillikins or jackstraws. Trinket and snuff boxes were also made, as were small sewing notions, such bodkins, needle and thimble cases as well as thread winders and pincushions. However, the largest number of items made by these bone craftsmen were models. They made models of household furnishings, such as bird cages, chairs, settees, beds and even pianos. They also made models of commercial items, like the spinning jenny. There is even a large and ornate bone model of the French guillotine which has survived from that period. Another elaborate model is a large bone-veneered doll house which is now in the collection of the Peterborough Museum, near the site of the Norman Cross prison, where it was made. But, since so many of these craftsmen were sailors, it can be no surprise that the largest portion of their model output was model ships. Some of the smaller model ships were carved from bone, while the larger ones were often carved of wood, then veneered in bone. The more detailed models have ropes and rigging, typically plaited from threads unraveled from the prisoner’s linens or other textiles, though they also used horsehair, or even their own hair, in some cases. A few of the models are even carrying sail, again, usually made from sheets, or sometimes, old garments. There are literally hundreds of these finely detailed ships models which have survived into this century, in both museums and private collections.

Another item most often made from bone by prisoners of war was the lace-making bobbin. This particular item seems to have been central to an ecomonic system which included many prisoners of war. Lace bobbins were usually made by turning on a lathe. Therefore, it is likely more than one prisoner was involved in the process, the one who made the lathe and the one, or more, who used it to turn bone into bobbins. However, this particular production was not always sold to prison visitors or local merchants. A number of the French prisoners came from lace-making regions and had grown up around lace makers. These prisoners acquired the lace bobbins for themselves, along with a lace-making pillow, and set about making the same kinds of fine bobbin lace they had known since their youth. Each party to this craft seems to have shared in the profits, from those who made the lathes on which the bobbins were turned, to those who made the lace bobbins, and finally, to those who used the bobbins to make the lace. This bobbin lace sold very well to local merchants and those who came to visit the prison on market days. In fact, in Huntingdonshire, the prisoner’s lace sold so well that it was negatively impacting the local lace-making trade. At first, prison authorities required the prisoners to charge a higher price for their lace, in order to protect the local lace-makers, but eventually, they had to forbid any lace-making by prisoners of war.

Wood was another popular craft material for prisoners of war. Some was acquired surreptitiously, either from prison fire wood stores or from the wooden elements of buildings, vehicles or furnishings to which prisoners might gain access. However, the prisoners in some prisons had other sources of supply, particularly if they wished to work with fine woods. If a prisoner had established a connection with a local merchant, that merchant might provide the prisoner with the woods they needed to make fine objects, in return for a share in the profits. Some prisoners also had yet another source for their supplies. In many cases, those officers who had been paroled in Britain tended to live in towns or villages near the prison where their former comrades were incarcerated. It is known that membership in Freemasonry was widespread in both the French and American naval and military services. There was a strong bond of loyalty between members of the Freemasons, even among those who did not share the same lodge. A number of those paroled officers were happy to provide craft materials for their comrades or fellow masons, either from altruistic motives, or for a share in the profits. In some cases, these paroled officers even took on the responsibility of selling the craft wares made by the prisoners. By so doing, these officers could ensure the prisoners got fair prices for their work, and this effort might also help to supplement the officers’ small allowance from the British government, if they were allowed a share in the profits.

The majority of men in the prisoner-of-war depots who worked with wood were carvers. Many of them were able to work solely with less costly woods, which could be found in the prisons, such as the fire wood stores. A number of these wood carvers collaborated with a bone worker, with the wood carver making the base of an object, such as a box, doll house, or the hull for a ship model, while the bone worker fashioned the thin pieces of bone which would be layered over the wooden base to create the finished product. Some craftsmen were able to work in both bone and wood and created their products from start to finish. Wood workers may also have collaborated with straw workers, the wood worker creating the box or case while the straw worker then covered the wood object with decorative straw patterns. The more advanced wood workers among the prisoners sought fine woods, such as mahogany, satinwood, ebony, walnut, and cherry, among others, which they used in veneer and marquetry work. Among these objects made with fine woods might be found game boxes, sewing and work boxes, trinket and jewelry boxes, as well as a wide array of toys.

Many prisoners of war either knew, or learned while in prison, how to work with straw. This craft was particularly popular in the Norman Cross prison. Initially, the prisoners worked with long lengths of straw, which they plaited into straw bonnets and hats. At least one of the prisoners had constructed a straw-splitting implement by which the prisoners could quickly split the full straw tube into strips which were easy to work. And, once split, these strips of straw had both dark and light sides, the dark side being the golden outer portion of the straw and the lighter being the virtually white inner portion. The prisoners could then plait nearly white straw hats and bonnets, those that were more golden in color, or they could combine the light and dark sides of the straw strips to create very attractive patterns. Unfortunately for these prisoners, like those who had made bobbin lace, their products were so good that there were complaints from local tradesmen and craftspeople. The Transport Office was eventually forced to forbid the prisoners the use of long straw. However, the prisoners were still allowed to use short pieces of straw and they turned their skill to the making of cases and boxes covered with intricate straw patterns created using the contrasts between the light and dark sides of the straw strips. Those who understood dyes were also able to add color to their work and produced some very sophisticated objects. Fewer of these straw items have survived to the present day, but there are still some lovely straw-covered boxes and cases which have come down to us intact.

In addition to bone, wood and straw, prisoners of war used any other materials they could get for their projects, depending upon their knowledge and skill. Dolls and other toys were also made in large numbers, while even cutlery and some musical instruments were also produced. Some men had fine calligraphy skills, others could draw and/or paint, some also knew how to make engravings or lithographs. Most of the objects made by prisoners of war were sold to people who visited the prisons on market days, which were held once or twice a week, depending upon the prison. However, the merchants who lived near the prisons also bought many of the items which the prisoners made, often developing a kind of partnership with the prisoner as they got to know them. There were even a few men who had such great expertise that they were actually commissioned to make special items by local ladies and gentlemen who admired their work and were willing to pay handsomely for what they wanted. The Transport Office estimated that a few prisoners of war made as much as one hundred guineas over the time they were held in prison. Though less skilled prisoners made less money, most of them were able to earn enough by their craft products to buy more supplies, as well as extra food, wine or ale, tobacco, toiletries and other small items which made their life in prison a little easier to bear.

There were a few prisoners of war who became involved in completely illegal productions while they were in prison. In particular, there were at least two instances in which French prisoners of war were involved in counterfeiting English pound notes. Somehow, they were able to get the supplies they needed to make the plates and print mostly £1 notes, which were probably easiest for them to pass. They were eventually caught, tried and convicted in the civilian courts. Counterfeiting was a capital offense at that time, and the men were originally sentenced to hang. However, that sentence was commuted and they were held in British jails until they were repatriated to France after the war. There is also some evidence that a few prisoners of war were also able to counterfeit British coins, though there is less information available about those activities.

Dear Regency Authors, might an object made by a prisoner of war feature in one of your next romances? Or, might one of the prisoners play a part in that tale? Could the heroine, the daughter of a French émigré, wish to help her former countrymen by easing the harshness of their living conditions in the local POW prison, by facilitating the sale of their crafts? Perhaps with the help of the hero, a French officer on parole, living in her village? Then again, might the heroine purchase a lovely game board or a set of bone jackstraws from the POW prison near her village, as a gift for a child, only to have the child’s mother/parents be highly insulted that the gift for the child was made by a prisoner of war? Mayhap the heroine encounters a paroled American officer living in her village who is working to help his fellow Americans held in the local POW depot. Will she find herself ostracized by the leading citizens when she tries to help him? How will she react to that? How else might POW crafts or the prisoners themselves play a part in an upcoming Regency romance?

[Author’s Note:   For those of you who would like to see a sampling of photos of prisoner-of-war craft objects, you can peruse this page of results for a search on the key phrase "crafts of napoleonic prisoners of war history" on Google Images.

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For those of you who would like to learn more details about prisoner of war crafts in Britain, the most comprehensive source is by Clive Lloyd. He was a prolific scholar and collector of prisoner of war craft objects from this period. His two volume work on the subject is A History of Napoleonic and American Prisoners of War 1756-1816. Volume One of this work is Hulk, Depot and Parole and Volume Two is The Arts and Crafts of Napoleonic and American Prisoners of War 1756-1816. Though this book is no longer in print, a number of used copies can be found online.]

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Napoleonic Prisoner of War Crafts

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I covet that dollshouse ….
    I have seen some most beautiful examples of straw work covered boxes at Greenwich, mostly made by British sailors but I am sure very similar. I know sailors also used pasteboard or paper when they could get it to make quilled items, was this a prisoner of war art too?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The dollhouse is rather spectacular. I do hope the prisoner who made it was paid well for all that work. I am also in awe of a number of the ship models. Some of them are remarkably detailed.

      With regard to paper, so far as I can tell, the prisoners did have access to paper, since there were those who did drawings and sketches, not to mention those fellows who were forging pound notes. But I have not seen any paper or pasteboard objects which are known to be POW work. However, from what I learned, most of the bone and wood items were initialed and dated by their makers. Some even included the name of the prison where they were held, so those objects are easy to identify as POW work. I do not know if those who worked with paper marked their work. And, even if they did, paper and pasteboard items would have a hard time surviving through two centuries. They were probably considered ephemera when they were purchased and therefore, little care may have been taken of them and they were tossed away when they were no longer wanted.

      BTW – I like your new avatar!



      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I was vaguely thinking along the lines of minute writing on a coiled bit of paper which was not glued hard, with information a prisoner had, to get it out via a sympathiser to a spy …. because my mind works that way.
        The ships are indeed awesome, and the dolls house deserved a good price.
        One wonders if introducing modern prisoners to what these men achieved and encouraging them towards crafts would be therapeutic and help towards rehabilitation
        And thank you, I LOVE Poser and what you can do with it

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          To be honest, I was also thinking about how some of these craft items might have been used to transmit secret messages to the outside by the prisoners. I did not think about writing on quilling strips, but that could work. Or, what about messages written on strips of paper which were tightly rolled and slipped inside one of the miniature cannons on a ship model or maybe inside a hand-made flute or whistle? If the prisoner who was sending the message made it a point to only “sell” those message-carrying items to a trusted paroled officer who lived outside the prison, that would be a relatively secure communications channel.

          However, those messages could have been transmitted on other media than paper or pasteboard. For example, a message could be written on the wood base of an object veneered with bone, wood or straw, and the officer on parole on the outside who acquired the item could lift the veneer to read the message, obliterate it, then re-attach the veneer and keep the item or sell it on.



  2. gordon759 says:

    I have a tiny bone anchor which I believe is POW art. As would be expected it is a very accurate little model of a ships anchor of the period. I have often wondered if it was originally a fitment for one of the classic bone model ships or perhaps, as the anchor sometimes as a symbol of love, it might have been a love token.
    If this was the case then there could be many tales woven about such an object.

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