Napoleonic Prisoner of War Jail, 1803-1814


During the Napoleonic Wars, Great Yarmouth was a major Royal Naval base. Therefore, a prison was required to house the prisoners of war landed here. In 1793, two fish houses with associated yards with a frontage on to Row 135 was acquired. For some time, it was referred to as Old Prison Row. Large prisons were needed, and one was established in 1797 at Norman Cross near Peterborough and the Great Yarmouth facility became a holding establishment before transfer there. Prisoners were also transferred to hulks at Chatham. With the signing of the Treaty of Amiens by Britain, France, Spain, and the Batavian Republic (the Netherlands) in 1802 the row prison was closed. During the Great Yarmouth Row 135 prison’s existence, 3,340 prisoners were held in it of whom 2,700 were transferred to Norman Cross. After the building of Norman Cross Prison, the world's first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp with a capacity of nearly 7,000, Great Yarmouth became, like Deal and Falmouth, a mere receiving port, but an exceedingly busy one, the prisoners being landed here direct from capture. In a series of articles in the Norwich Mercury in the latter part of 1905, Rev’d. G. N. Godwin wrote: Columns of prisoners, often 1,000 strong, were marched from Great Yarmouth to Norwich and were lodged there in the Castle. They frequently expressed their gratitude for the kindness shown to them by the Mayor and the citizens. One smart captured privateer captain coolly walked out of the Castle in the company of some visitors, and, needless to say, did not return. From Norwich they were marched to King's Lynn, halting at Costessey, Swanton Morley, East Dereham, where some were lodged in the detached church tower, and thence to Lynn. Here they were lodged in a large building, afterwards used as a warehouse, now pulled down. At Lynn they were given water and were conveyed in barges and lighters through the Forty Foot, the Hundred Foot, the Paupers' Cut, and the River Nene to Peterborough, whence they marched to Norman Cross. In 1797, twenty- eight prisoners escaped from the prison at Great Yarmouth by undermining the wall and the row adjoining. All but five of them were retaken. In the same year four prisoners broke out of the prison, made their way to Lowestoft, where they stole a boat from the beach and got on board a small vessel, the crew of which they put under the hatches, cut the cable and put out to sea. Seven hours later the crew managed to regain the deck, a rough and tumble fight ensued, one of the Frenchmen was knocked overboard, and the others were ultimately lodged in Yarmouth jail.

Britain ended the uneasy truce created by the Treaty of Amiens when it again declared war on France in May 1803. Having disposed of the prison in Row 135, another site was required to take 200 prisoners. In Row 110, later known as Prison Row or New Prison Row, two buildings close to each other, previously a malt house, were purchased at a cost of £400 in 1803. The prison staff consisted of four turnkeys, five clerks and ten labourers. Charles Palmer wrote: all the apertures were bricked up except for a door with an iron grating. Bones were thrown through the grating for the prisoners to carve to pass the time. A sentry was posted at each end of the row and after dusk a password was required to pass down it. Prisoners frequently escaped leading to lamps being placed in the row as a precautionary measure. Alterations were also made to prevent escape through the roof.

The first prisoners, five Frenchmen, arrived on 12th December 1803. A day later, 54 prisoners from the privateers Le Vigilant and Lyonois captured by the gun boat Vixen and the revenue cutter Badger were imprisoned. Prisoners continued to arrive. For instance, after the fall of Flushing on 16th August 1809, one hundred and eighty prisoners arrived on HMS Agincourt. Eleven days later, HMS Monmouth arrived with 200 prisoners. A further 200 were brought to Great Yarmouth by HMS Agincourt in early September.

Many prisoners of war, especially the Dutch seamen, were exchanged with the British prisoners of war housed on the continent. Some joined the Royal Navy.

The prison along with the Norman Cross Prison closed in 1814. Over 4,000 prisoners had been confined in the Row 110 Great Yarmouth prison. Half were Frenchmen with the remainder being either Dutchmen or Danes in roughly equal proportions.

During the Napoleonic period, more than 100,000 French prisoners of war were held in Britain, and French policy was to force Britain to bear the entire cost of the prisoners in the hope that this would weaken the economy.