I’ve gone a bit off my usual tangent with this post in the spirit of waste not, want not. I recently contacted a regional newspaper in the hope that they would want a regular history columnist. It’s surprising the number of papers that do have a history slot including my favourite regional paper The Cumberland News which wins prizes on a regular basis. What follows is my sample article which didn’t even merit a response from the editor several weeks ago – obviously I’m not doing something right. So back to the drawing board and try again.
The two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo has sailed by. But who would have thought that Derbyshire had so many links with the Napoleonic Wars?
In Chesterfield a plaque bearing the legend 1816 above a scruffy looking red brick building marks the remnants of Griffin Foundry. It produced shot that was fired during the Napoleonic Wars, the way some local Chesterfield books tell it they produced the cannon shells that tore into the French forces on Sunday 18 June 1815.
In Ashbourne, French prisoners-of-war married local girls and provided the town with a recipe for very tasty gingerbread that’s still being made today in the same bakery where it was first produced. The black and white Tudor building on St John’s Street has been a bakery for more than two hundred and fifty years. By now the smell of newly baked bread must have seeped into the joists.
Both Chesterfield and Ashbourne parish churches contain the graves of French prisoners-of-war who didn’t make it home as well as a few British officers who did. Elsewhere in Derbyshire there are tales of men who refused to be conscripted into Wellington’s army.
Along the A517 at Holbrook, William Leeke was once the vicar. There’s a window to him inside the church. His headstone, in the graveyard, reveals not only that he died aged eighty-one but also that in 1815 he carried his company colours into the battle. At the time he was seventeen-years-old. He served with the 52nd Regiment. As luck would have it he recorded his experiences but they are not always in accord with the official version of events. He was firmly of the opinion that it was the 52nd Regiment who beat off Napoleon’s Imperial Guards rather than the 1st British Guards. His account has caused a fair amount of controversy amongst historians over the years.
E.M. Wrench was another ex-soldier. In 1866, Doctor Wrench, raised the ten-foot high cross that stands on Baslow Edge, it’s outline stark against the sky and a magnet for walkers. Other monuments to the battle and its hero are rather leafier. There’s a Wellington Oak at Renishaw Hall.
Wellington died at Walmer Castle in Kent in1852. William Lobb introduced the following year a tree, native of Sierra Nevada, California into Britain. It’s become rather an unusual monument to the man who avoided the unnecessary bloodshed of his troops where possible and said of his men, “I don’t know what they effect they have on the enemy but by God they terrify me.” John Lindley of the Horticultural Society was given the job of naming the tree. The Americans wanted to call it after Washington but Lindley called it after the Iron Duke, the hero of Waterloo. The tree became the Wellingtonia. We also call them giant sequoia or giant redwood. Sequoia are the largest trees in the world. Wellingtonia can be found in stately homes from Chatsworth to Kedleston. These towering conifers with their furrowed rusty red trunks are babies. They’ll still be growing on the 2,000th anniversary of Waterloo.
There’s even a Wellingtonia Society called Redwood World. Why not visit the site to find out if there’s one near you, or you may know of one that’s not on their list http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk/locations.htm.