Norman Cross: the first British POW camp
When out pedalling the miles, I frequently get distracted. Some distractions lead to unscheduled stops…….and this stop, some 20 miles (30kms) from my home, served to remind me of the importance of Norman Cross during the Napoleonic Wars, more than 200 years ago.
Norman Cross, some two centuries ago, was nowhere near any of the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars…….but that is precisely why it was chosen as the most suitable spot for creating the very first prisoner of war camp on these islands. Some 80 miles north of London, with ample water supplies and ready sources of food, it was remote enough to discourage French prisoners from trying to escape, but not too far away to make it impossible for the transfer of prisoners, as and when prisoner exchanges took place.
In the 15 years of its existence, some 30,000 prisoners passed through its gates, but the resident population seldom rose above 5000 at any one time. Over 1800 died of natural causes (usually some form of infectious disease), a few swapped sides and joined the British army, and still others chose to stay in this country after their liberation.
Prisoners at Norman Cross relieved the boredom by making ornaments from wood, bone and straw marquetry. These were often sold – there was a regular market beside the prison gates. Many of the objects made are on show at the Peterborough City Museum and Art Gallery where there is a gallery dedicated to the Norman Cross Depot.
The camp was closed in 1816, but it had established a tradition that would feature prominently in future wars, especially the two world wars of the last century.
The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France came in 1904 and in 1914 the Entente Cordiale Society put up a memorial column to the memory of the 1,800 prisoners who died at Norman Cross. The column – a Napoleonic Eagle – was an imposing sight for people travelling along the A1. However, in 1990 it was vandalised – the column was knocked over and the bronze eagle was stolen, never to be seen again.
The Norman Cross Eagle Appeal committee raised money to restore the memorial. When the A1 was rebuilt in 1998, the memorial column was re-erected on its original base on a new site, close to the site of the Depot. A bronze eagle, created by sculptor John Doubleday, was finally unveiled in April 2005.