The Royal Arsenal and Napoleon's exile on St Helena
By Mike Neil
A comment made to the Council's 'Arsenal ' exhibition designer that 'the Arsenal built Napoleon's house on St Helena ' led the author to follow up with a brief piece of research. If true it would provide a fascinating link between the first Napoleon the son and heir of the third Napoleon and Woolwich. Perhaps disappointingly it proved to be only partly true but demonstrated again the skill and versatility of the Royal Arsenal’s workforce. Whose motto could well have been 'Whatever it is, we can make it'. The bare facts are these: Napoleon arrived at St Helena on board HMS Northumberland on 15th October 1815 after a voyage that had started in Torbay in early August,
A few days later he visited an old 2-storey stone built farmhouse. Then called simply 'Longwood House' but later called 'Longwood Old House'. This was at the time the residence of the East India Company's Lieutenant Governor. The Nortumberand’s carpenter, at the direction of Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, added a timber framed salon de reception and the famous latticed verandah. In December 1815 after a two-month stay as the guest of a neighbouring landholder Napoleon moved into this building, where he was to remain until his death in 1821.
In 1819 the British Government started building a large single storey timber framed building called Longwood New House, intended to house Napoleon in one wing and a key retainer (probably Montholon) in the other. This building was barely completed before Napoleon's death and he was never to live in it.
The evidence for the Arsenal’s involvement (now in the PRO) starts around the middle of August 1815, when Napoleon was already on his way to St Helena. Col. Chapman of the Office of Ordnance wrote informally to Lt. Gen. Sir H.E. Bunbury, KCB on 15th August:
I transmit herewith a plan which has been received from Lt General Mann of a house for Napoleon Bonaparte. Together with a letter from that officer containing his observations on the plan enclosed in your letter of the 8th instant and I request you will inform me as soon as Lord Bathurst shall decide on the subject. With respect to Barracks will you have the goodness to ascertain whether it will be necessary for this department to provide them for the detachment of artillery and also the Engineers and sappers and miners which have been ordered out to St Helena? Or whether they will be supplied in the same manner as the troops of the line?
The enclosed letter from General Mann was headed from Pall Mall 10th August 1815
I have to observe that the plan enclosed in Sir H Bunbury's letter, transmitted with your note of yesterday's date, does not correspond with the general idea that has been given, namely to have the building compact, with no more openings than are indispensably necessary, and to provide accommodation for Napoleon Bonaparte, three other officers, a surgeon and twelve attendants. But if this principle is not to be adhered to, then the plan enclosed in Sir H Bunbury's letter, considered merely as an accommodation for Bonaparte and one other officer with one of the wings for the attendants will answer that purpose, bating the Inconvenience of the servants being placed at so great a distance. In regard to security, it must be looked for in a surrounding wall which will probably be required whatever the form and dimensions of the building. As soon as a plan is decided upon a table of the scantlings of timber may be made together with a list of all the other materials required.
I am Sir. Your most obedt servant.
By mid-September 1815 a design had evidently been agreed on and Chapman had also evidently received a positive response to his query 'on whether the materials despatched by the Office of Ordnance should include those intended for their own men’.
Office of Ordinance
I have just learnt that there will be about 2000 tons of materials for Bonaparte's house and the barracks for the Ordinance Corps. Have not yet received this information officially, but I have no doubt on the accuracy of the information
The final piece of evidence is a letter from a Mr Slatters of the Ordnance Office to a W. Griffin Esq. on the 23rd September 1815
In reply to your letter of the 21" instance enquiring when the stores ordered for St Helena will be ready, I beg leave to acquaint you that two thirds of the Fir timber and one third of the deals and battins have been forwarded to Woolwich and the remainder will be delivered as fast as the articles can properly be landed at the Royal Arsenal. I have to report that 23,000 slates are now furnished and that the remaining 52.000 are expected in three weeks or thereabouts. The rest of the slates are ready except the glass, which I trust will be supplied in the course of a few days.
I am, Sir, Your very obedient Humble Servant
However, this letter does not mention whither these stores are intended for Napoleon's new home, the Ordnance Corps barracks, or both. The figures for the slates, though, may give us a clue.
British slates have traditionally come in a range of sizes from the largest (though undoubtedly politically incorrect) "wide duchesses" to the petite "narrow ladies’. Most common however are the 20" x 10" "countesses" at around 18 to The square metre and the 18" x 9" viscountesses" at around 23 to the square metre. 75.000 slates using a very rough median of 20 slates per square metre would therefore cover a roof surface of something like 3.750 m2. Logwood New House was described in 1857 as having a floor area of about 23.000 square metres, or about 2.250 m2. Given that roof pitches for this building, from contemporary engravings are not hugely steep 75.000 slates does not seem an unreasonable requirement for this building alone - but certainly not sufficient for both this building and a barracks of any size.
However it seems certain that the materials being collected at the Arsenal in the late autumn of 1815 cannot have reached St Helena until the early months of 1816 at the earliest. While we may be certain that Napoleon never lived his last exile except in a borrowed East India Company house there remain some interesting questions about the Office of Ordnance materials
If these were received during 1816 why was Longwood New House not started until 1819? Were the original materials used to build barracks for the Artillery and Engineers rather than for Bonaparte's new house? Were the materials shipped in their rough state, to be formed into buildings on the island under the supervision of Engineer Officers and local St Helena or ships' carpenters or did the Arsenal create a pre-fabricated structure?
One unhelpful evidential confusion needs to be dismissed. In the summer of 1812 Mr James Wathen Esq. of Hereford spent 'not quite 3 days' on the island of St Helena: making thirteen rather ' good drawings of views around the capital, St James, and just inland to the Governor's house. Two of these drawings were published in his "Journal of a Voyage to Madras and China" in 1821. However, in September 1821, some three or four months alter Napoleon's burial and immediately after the news had reached England of his death. Perhaps in a commendable spirit of recycling eight of the original drawings were published in a volume entitled "A Series of Views Illustrative of the Island of St Helena". Two rather crude and speculative engravings were added to provide topicality; the first of ' Bonaparte's grave’ and the second of Longwood House. Sadly it was the ignorance of Mr. Wathen and his publisher on the latter that has no doubt created some subsequent confusion.
Wathen provided the account below to accompany the engraving of Longwood House. Unfortunately, this garbled mix appeared with an inaccurate engraving of Longwood Old House with its lattice work porch by the Northumberland ‘s carpenter - leading some subsequent researchers to believe that this much older farm building was 'made ' by the Royal Arsenal.
Longwood House, which stands 162.feet above the ocean has since the end of 1815 been appropriated to the residence of Napoleon Bonaparte. For his reception, in the September of that year, His Royal Highness the Prince Regent commanded Earl Bathurst to issue Orders for the preparation of his dwelling and furniture. These were carried into execution upon the most splendid plan and a complete suite of household furniture was made up sufficient for Bonaparte and his establishment for nearly three years. Everything was constructed of British materials and the most delicate attention was paid that no ornament should be used in the decoration which might remind the exile of his former state. 'The appearance of Longwood House will be found in Plate 7 And a more particular account of its magnificent fitting up in the description. [Page 6]
The late residence of Napoleon Bonaparte, where he arrived in the latter part of 1815, and where he died on May 5th, 1821. The situation and other particulars concerning Longwood have already been given at Page 6 and a very brief description of the building is all that remains to be added. The present erection was formed in timber framework at Woolwich, by the Architect for the Ordnance Department, to be erected at St. Helena. It is designed in the cottage style and contains 24 rooms, the general size of which is 25 feet by 18. The length of the house in front is about 20.feet; and it contains 16 windows with an open corridor. The depth of the building is 100 feet and the back is also ornamented with a corridor. It is two storeys in height And the right and wing was appropriated to Bonaparte. In the centre stands the drawing room coloured of various shades of green and arabesque gold panels with curtains of light silk taboret of Pomona green and velvet borders edged with gold coloured silk twist. Above them is a matted gold cornice, to conceal the rings and curtain rod and the top of the room is finished by a cream coloured ceiling. The carpet is of Brussels texture of various shades of brown olive and amber. the furniture consists of an elegant oak central table, pier table inlaid with a slab of Verd antique Mona marble: splendid pier glass with a frame of Buhl and ebony, chairs of British oak: two Greek sofas and foot stools ornamented with Or Moulu; a pianoforte; and chandeliers and candelabra to light the apartment. The Dining room is next in the suite the fitting up for which are of a lavender tint and the curtains of' silk with a black border and gold coloured silk lace fringe. The carpet and walls are of the same lilac hue. As well as the coverings .for the chairs. The furniture consists of fine oaken Dining table. capable of accommodating from six to fourteen persons, a side board peculiarly made for holding the Imperial plate with the wine coolers constructed of Bronze and rich wood. Adjoining the Dining-room is the Library which is furnished in the Etruscan style. With several dwarf book cases: a Library table, with desks and drawers and curtains of a new cotton material, having the appearance of cloth. The Sitting-room is ornamented with an ethereal blue carpet shaded with black. And several ebony cabinets inlaid with brass. In the bed-room is a high canopy bedstead enclosing a silken mosquito net and hung with furniture of lilac Persian edged with gold coloured fringe. The Bath is lined with marble and made to admit hot or cold water. The other wing of Longwood House contains spacious apartments for Bonaparte’s suite with servant's offices and store-rooms in the rear. The Kitchen is a detached building, yet convenient to the dining room. The materials for this erection, together with the elegant furniture, table services, dresses, and plate presented to Bonaparte, by the noble munificence of the British government amounted to 500 tons in weight, and were contained in 400 packages. A number of artists were also sent with them too fit out the Establishment.
Sadly it seems that the rush of questionable accurate semi-biographical trivia that hits the book-stands following each notable death in our own time is nothing new to British publishing. Two reasonable good engravings exist of Longwood New House:
Mellis (1857) describes the house thus:
A view of Longwood New House (built for Napoleon, but never occupied by him). This building is at the foot of the lawn of the Old House, about one hundred yards distant from it. It is a one-storied building and covers an area of about 23,000 superficial feet. !t contains in all fifty -six rooms of various sizes. The centre contains a billiard- room, library, and dining-room. &c. The right wing, as seen in the view was intended for the Emperor and the left for Montholon and family. In the rear of these are extensive premises, provided for the accommodation of the rest of his suite. The house is pleasantly situated in the Eastern division of the island at an elevation above the sea of about 1760 feet, with a good carriage-road from James Town, near five miles in length.
The products, technology ' and craft skills of Woolwich were instrumental in securing Napoleon ' s final defeat; that he died within sight of a house that came from the same Arsenal is, perhaps, a fitting irony
Bibliography. `Views of St Helena; illustrative of its Scenery and Historical Associations. From Photographs by G.W. Melliss. Esq. Surveyor General of the Island. G.W. Melliss; London, 1857
Extracts from the St Helena Records. H. R. Janisch St Helena. 1 885
A Series of Views illustrative of the Island of St Helena. J Wathen; Clay, London. 1821
A few ' notes on St Helena. B. Grant; St. Helena, 1881
Public Record Office Files:
PRO W0 1/796 - Office of Ordnance letter book
PRO W0 78/2507 Roll of plans containing 2 different Longwood plans amongst others
PRO C0 247/15 St Helena Governor's Letter book (Hudson Lowe)
PRO WO - 60/40. 60/4], 60/42 Accounts relating to the Establishment at Longwood
PRO MPG 1/251 Plan of the House and Grounds at Longwood. 1821
This article appeared in the September 2003 GIHS Newsletter