“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The World's First POW Camp?

South of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire near the junction of the A1(M) and A15 roads is the settlement of Norman Cross. As you drive through Norman Cross you cannot help but notice its monument, which consists of a stone plinth topped off by a bronze eagle.

The Norman Cross monument is a memorial to the 1,770 prisoners who died at Norman Cross in what is said to be the world's first purpose built prisoner of war camp. This prison camp was built during the French Revolutionary / Napoleonic Wars by the Navy, to house an influx of French prisoners. Typically prisoners of war would be housed in old forts and prison hulks near the coast. But in 1796 there was a need to transfer 4,000 prisoners from the West Indies to the UK, so it was decided to create a dedicated prisoner of war camp to house them all.

Norman Cross was chosen as the ideal location for the prison camp as it was conveniently situated on the Great North road, whilst also being sufficiently inland to prevent prisoners from easily escaping back to France. Work commenced on the camp in December 1796 and lasted four months, with the first prisoners arriving at the camp in April 1797.

The design of the camp was based on an artillery fort. The camp having a block house sited at the centre, with six cannons overlooking the prisoner's accommodations. To prevent escapes, the camp was surrounded by a 27 foot deep ditch (to prevent tunneling). Outside of this ditch resided the tall stockade walls.

Whilst in operation the prison mostly housed low-ranking soldiers and sailors, with officers often given parole to live as “free men” in the UK, honor-bound not to attempt escape.  At its peak occupancy the prison was home to some 6,272 inmates.

The prison was only in operation until early 1814, when Napoleon was finally defeated and peace with France was achieved. By June 1814 the final prisoners had been repatriated back to France.  The final wooden buildings of the prison were dismantled and sold in June 1816. Some of these old prison buildings were however given a new lease of life, by being re-used in nearby towns.

The Norman Cross Monument.
The eagle that crowns the monument.

A nearby information board explaining the history of the prison camp.

Pictures, Cambridgeshire (February 2014).

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