The "Time Team" at Norman Cross

Photo:A painting of Norman Cross camp, c1797

A painting of Norman Cross camp, c1797


Prisoner of War camp in the Napoleonic Wars, February 2011

By Paul Chamberlain

Paul Chamberlain provided the following summary of his talk on the excavations by Channel 4’s “Time Team” at Norman Cross in Cambridgeshire given at the Society's February 2011 meeting.

During the Napoleonic Wars prisoners taken by the Royal Navy from French ships were incarcerated in “hulks”, derelict ships at Portchester and other ports. By 1796 the hulks were becoming full and so the Board of Admiralty sought an inland site for the construction of a prison camp. Norman Cross lay at a focus of overland routes from a number of ports and is situated where the road to Peterborough branches off the Great North Road north of Stilton. An area of about 40 acres in the form of an elongated octagon was enclosed first by a tall wooden wall, later replaced in 1805 by a solid brick wall.

The camp opened in 1797 for the first of some 7,000 prisoners. Much information has been gleaned from extensive research over the years in various archives. The Time Team excavations over three days (which were broadcast in October 2010) were a small part of the total investigation and were mainly to confirm the location and structure of the walls, ditches and buildings and locate the site where casualties had been buried. The speaker had been researching the effect on the prisoners of the crowded and insanitary conditions in the hulks and also at the camp.

Photo:Plan executed by Lieutenant Macgregor

Plan executed by Lieutenant Macgregor


The camp was divided into four compounds, each with four two-storied barrack blocks, which could each sleep 500 prisoners in three tiers of hammocks. Such crowded sleeping quarters were perhaps no worse than the prisoners, mainly seamen and marines, would have known on board ship but at sea they would have been on duty much of the time and sleeping in different watches. In the camp, weather permitting, they would be out in the compounds much of the day; cooking their food at their camp kitchens and baking bread in the ovens they had made or exercising and practising sword-play with sticks. The food rations provided by the Admiralty were the same as those of the Royal Navy and were better than French seamen were used to.

Many practised crafts, making models, especially of ships, from bones saved from their meat and wood saved from the fuel. Some used straw marquetry to decorate articles they made. They were allowed to hold a market to sell goods to the villagers around the camp.

The weather did not always favour such activity. When confined to the barrack blocks which were ill-ventilated, the conditions became humid and insanitary. Illnesses spread and deaths occurred; over the years the camp was open there were more than 1,700 deaths from consumption, asthma, phthisis, dysentery and general debility. There was a peak period of deaths when a particularly wet season caused the compounds to become waterlogged, the wells possibly contaminated by seepage and the men largely confined to the crowded barrack blocks.

During the excavations some graves were uncovered in a cemetery. Examination confirmed the nature of the diseases and causes of death of the men and some young boys and their ages.  There were few attempts to escape from the camp; prisoners did wear a distinctive yellow uniform jacket.

When the camp finally closed prisoners were repatriated. At least one returned to the area, married a local girl and set up in business as a baker.

This page was added by John Wassell on 09/11/2011.

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