ENGLISH newspapers containing vital information to him may well have come into Napoleon Bonaparte’s hands courtesy of Bexhill smugglers.
As Britain’s ambassador to France, the husband of the lady of the manor of Bexhill was subjected to a tirade of abusive from the self-imposed Emperor.
A cannon ball from a French privateer which bombarded Bexhill on October 5, 1809 struck the hospital at barracks off Belle Hill occupied by troops of the King’s German Legion.
Those troops, loyal to King George III who was also Elector of Hanover, dominated the then village of Bexhill during the decade before Waterloo – during which they played a pivotal role in defending the key position, La Haye Sainte farm.
To mark the bicentenary of the epic battle which ended the Napoleonic Wars, Bexhill Museum is staging an exhibition which sets out graphically the impact on a community of scarcely 1,000 of up to 6,000 German-speaking troops.
Though temporary and described by Colonel Christian Ompteda as “of all the uncomfortable ones I have known, the worst,” the extensive barracks led to the development of the village down into Belle Hill. It led to paternity orders, to many local marriages – as the parish registers reveal – it filled St Peter’s churchyard and led to the creation of a new cemetery and left a place-name legacy which includes Barrack Road and Barrack Hall.
Ostensibly, the Hanoverian troops were stationed in Bexhill as an anti-invasion force.
In reality, says museum curator Julian Porter there was a secondary purpose. Britain was close to revolution and the local smugglers were a law unto themselves.
“It would have been easier for the Government to have used German troops to shoot local people than to have used British troops.
“There are lovely stories about the German school which was established in the barracks. All the local children went to the German school. William Dorling, a printer in Bexhill, said his prayers in German to the end of his life.”
Sir Charles Whitworth was the second husband of Arabella, Duchess of Dorset, lady of the manor of Bexhill from 1799 to 1825. He was Ambassador to France after the 1802 Treaty of Amiens until war broke out again in 1803 and endured Napoleon’s abuse as the international situation worsened.
Julian Porter says: “It is fascinating to think that the lady of the Manor of Bexhill would have known Napoleon personally.”
He says: “There is a lovely anecdote which we have never been able to prove that Napoleon got his English newspapers via the Bexhill smugglers. It is probably true!
The exhibition includes a map of the Bexhill barracks, a design of a typical barrack hut, British and French musket balls recovered from the Waterloo battlefield and a model of HMS Victory made during the construction of Nelson’s Trafalgar flagship.
The curator pays tribute to volunteers Mary Hart and Stella Child who did the bulk of the research for the exhibition.