Saturday, 28 October 2017

Death in the garden: prisoner graffiti from a forgotten war.

In the 1980s a strange and unnerving painting came to light in Ontario, Canada. The painting was executed in a naive eighteenth century style and appeared to show a birds-eye view of a large red-brick Elizabethan style mansion. In itself the image of the building had a certain charm. However, a closer examination of the details shown in the painting soon raise a certain uneasiness in the viewer. The building, it soon becomes apparent, is actually being used as a prison, with red-coated guards stationed all around the perimeter. Inside the many courtyards and barren gardens can be seen the prisoners themselves - stick-thin figures in shabby dress. More unnerving still are the events shown as taking place in the top left hand corner of the painting. Here a redcoat has his musket levelled, in the act of firing. A figure inside the compound lies prone upon the ground, whilst another, clearly injured, is being helped up by his comrades. To the right a tiny figure flees, whilst another red-coated guard is shown attacking a prisoner with a bayonet.

The picture, it appears, is telling a story - a tragedy. However, when it was first discovered nobody was able to identify where the painting was meant to depict, or what were the events to which it referred. It wasn't until 2008 that the then owner of the painting began circulating copies of the image amongst academic and scholars - leading to the discovery by architectural historian Nicholas Cooper that the place shown in the painting was none other than Sissinghurst Castle in Kent.
Sissinghurst the prison (Bonhams)

The great Elizabethan house that appears in the painting is now long gone, which is probably why it took so many years to identify the subject matter. The house in the picture was built by the Baker family in the 1570s but, following their support for the Royalist cause in the English Civil War, the family's finances fell into almost terminal decline. The house and estate were heavily mortgaged, and passed through numerous hands, until eventually being almost completely demolished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The once palatial residence, which even played host to queen Elizabeth the first and her court during her progress in August 1573, became nothing more than a damp wreck. When Horace Walpole visited the site in 1741 he described it as a 'park in ruins and a house in ten times greater ruins'. A century later even the ruins had all but gone, only a few buildings remained, the rest dug out even to the level of their foundations.

What remained of the house was eventually bought by the author and member of the famed Bloomsbury set Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson in the 1930s. Little remained of the once great Elizabethan house shown in the painting, and the 'castle' consisted of nothing more than the original entrance range, the red brick tower, and a scattering of outbuildings and cottages, all overgrown with wild and tangled scrub and greenery. Vita and Harold set about restoring the property, a task that took almost a decade to compete, turning it into a family home where they would spend the rest of their lives. Vita made her study in the Elizabethan tower, where she eventually penned many of her acclaimed poems and novels, and from where she could oversee the laying out the now famous gardens. Today Sissinghurst Castle is owned by the National Trust and is known worldwide for the stunning gardens created by Vita and Harold. It has become a place of horticultural pilgrimage, where thousands now walk the yew lined paths each year to admire the plants and design. It has also become a shrine to the memory of Vita, with her study preserved in every detail as she left it.

It is as though the clock of history has stopped for Sissinghurst, where it is always, and will always be, a Summer's day in the late 1930s. Where the smell of National Trust coffee and rosemary drift across the lawns and roses that are forever tied to the memory of Vita. Where thousands flock to worship the gardens, and peer through a locked door at an old and battered typewriter. Each hushed footstep on the crushed gravel paths reinforcing a mellow red-bricked mirage. And yet, there in the long library that Vita and Harold built, now sits the painting. A fingerpost to a different Sissinghurst. An accusing testament to an overlooked and far darker past. A Sissinghurst of pain, humiliation, bloodshed and despair - with a barren garden grubbed up by the roots, and the blood of a murdered man soaking into the dark soil.

In 1756 the British once again found themselves at war with France. Known today as the 'Seven Years War', the conflict spread around the globe, taken to the furthest corners of the globe by massed fleets of the European powers. Unfortunately for the French the British navy was on the brink of becoming the single dominant superpower of the world's oceans. Despite being a generation before the great victories of Admiral Nelson, the early years of the conflict saw a string of decisive British victories against the French fleet. Following the French navy's disastrous actions at the Battle of Cartagena in 1758, and Battle of Lagos and Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759, the Royal Navy dominated European waters, confining most larger French vessels to their home ports by means of a constant blockade. The subsequent sea conflict became one largely of commerce raiding, with the French commissioning numerous privateers to disrupt English merchant shipping, whilst the Royal Navy blockade ships harassed and captured French coastal cargo vessels and fishing craft.

However, the victories weren't without their problems for the British Admiralty. Whilst the British may have welcomed the number of captured French ships that fell into their hands, they were less pleased with the number of prisoners they now found themselves having to deal with. At the Battle of Lagos alone the Royal Navy took over two thousand French sailors captive, and the subsequent years of commerce raiding soon added dozens of other enemy crews to swell their numbers even further. Prisoners of War were traditionally housed in ancient converted warships, known as 'prison hulks', but the numbers of enemy sailors that had been taken soon made this impractical, and a new solution was sought. The most obvious answer appeared to be the creation of specialist prison camps on land, and a number of ancient walled sites such as Porchester castle were soon converted for use. With an eye to improving their own fortunes, and making the most of the few assets they still had available to them, the descendents of the Baker family arranged to lease Sissinghurst to the Admiralty for use as a prison.

Exactly how many prisoners were held at Sissinghurst at any one time is a matter of some debate, with figures varying between 1700 and 3000 men. Whatever the true figure the conditions inside the prison were extremely overcrowded even by eighteenth century standards. All the main rooms were turned in to barracks, with as many as sixty men crammed into tiny attic spaces. A room that still exists to this day, the size only of a modern double bedroom, was allocated to be occupied by no less than eighteen men. In a bid to keep warm he prisoners despoiled what remained of the Tudor furnishings, stripping panelling from the walls, and even grubbing up the roots of the plants in the garden. Sissinghurst was never to be the same again.

The prisoners were almost all of the lower ranks, with the naval officers who agreed to offer their parole, allowed to live in more comfortable accommodation in places nearby such as Cranbroke or Sevenoaks. The only officers present at Sissinghurst were those who had been sent there for punishment for crimes, real or imagined, or breaking the terms of their parole. One unfortunate who had been living a life of comfortable exile in Sevenoaks was committed to Sissinghurst at the insistence of the local commander, having been found to have been 'intimate' with no less than two local ladies. The French came to call Sissinghurst the 'chateau', giving rise to it still being referred to today as Sissinghurst Castle, and its reputation was fearsome. Conditions were so dreadful, and the treatment of prisoners so harsh, that it became seen as a punishment camp, and the threat of 'being sent to the castle' was not one to be taken lightly.

The poor rations, overcrowding, and insanitary conditions were quick to take their toll on the prison population. Outbreaks of contagious diseases led to the conversion of the great barn into a rudimentary prison hospital, but such measures did little to limit the death toll. Although many records survive that detail the dreadful plight of the men held at Sissinghurst, just how many died in captivity is unknown. The number was most certainly in the hundreds, and it has been suggested that the actual figure was far, far higher.

As if the prison conditions were not enough to contend with the poor sailors also had to put up with the appalling treatment meted out by the British guards. At any one time Sissinghurst was garrisoned by over two hundred soldiers tasked with keeping the prisoners under control. The garrison wasn't drawn from regular army units, but from the far poorer quality county militia units. Men who were often drawn from the very lowest ranks of society. At the very best of times they were considered corrupt and trigger-happy, but some units were notoriously worse than others. The Kent militia were renowned for their cruelty, whilst the Leicestershire militia were generally agreed to be barely under the control of their officers. Accidents, and fatal and tragic events that were certainly less than accidental, were inevitable.

The painting discovered in Ontario and now housed in the library at Sissinghurst records just one such event. On the 9th of July 1761 three escapees were being returned to the prison after failing in their bid for freedom. Hearing of their recapture a crowd of inmates rushed towards the wooden pallisade that surrounded the former garden where they were exercising, something they were officially forbidden to do. A soldier of the Kent militia, John Bramston, was stationed on the other side of the moat and warned the prisoners away from the fence, threatening to fire upon them. Whether the prisoners simply didn't hear him, or whether they were deliberately ignoring his threat, isn't known. The result was the same. Bramston levelled his musket, took aim, and fired at the crowd of raggedly dressed men behind the pallisade. It was later discovered that Bramston had previously loaded his musket with no less than three balls. The first harmlessly flattened itself against a wall. However, the other two found their targets. Sebastien Billet was struck down and died where he lay, his blood soaking into the ground around him as his comrades looked on. Nearby Baslier Baillie was also badly hit, and later agonisingly died of his wound in the prison hospital. In the panic that followed a further prisoner, Claude Hallet, was wounded by being stabbed with a bayonet by another one of the guards.

The subsequent enquiry later discovered that Bramston had a reputation for unstable behaviour with regards to the prisoners, and certainly showed no remorse for his actions. He was reported as having boasted later that same day that 'if he had killed more it would not have given him any uneasiness'. However, as was the case with so many 'accidents' that led to the sudden and untimely deaths of many a French prisoner, no serious action was taken against Bramston. Indeed, the whole event might well have been totally forgotten - a single record of a nondescript military enquiry buried deep within the National Archives - had someone not made a permanent visual record of the events. Someone who undoubtedly saw what went on that day, and wanted to record the horror that was Sissinghurst for all to see. Forever. For everyone.

So where now is the story of the poor half-starved sailors of Sissinghurst? Where amongst the tales of Vita Sackville-West and her astonishing garden is the memorial to the men that shed their blood into that very same soil? Well, if you look closely it can still just be seen - small fragments of a forgotten history - etched deep into the very walls of the place. Although the men have gone, they left behind them their own marks; graffiti of ships and sailors names etched deep into the bricks, stone and plaster of the tower. Dreams of the open sea carved into the walls of the prison that confined them. And spare a thought too for those that never left this place. Those like Sebastien Billet and Baslier Baillie. Those men who never returned to their homeland and the arms of their loved ones. Spare a thought for them as you picnic in the meadow, gazing around at the splendours of Vita's creation, your picnic rug spread only a few feet above where their sad mortal remains lie lost and forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. Great research Matt. In this case, picture really did paint a thousand words of the human cost of war. Mark Orridge.