Magazine article The Spectator

'In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815', by Jenny Uglow - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815', by Jenny Uglow - Review

Article excerpt

At the end of the 18th century, Britain shuddered in Boney's shadow, living in constant expectation of invasion and occupation, says Nigel Jones

In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815 Jenny Uglow

Faber, pp.714, £25, ISBN: 9780571269525

In our own troubled times it is useful and comforting to recollect that 'twas ever thus. Violent threats against prominent politicians? Jenny Uglow reminds us that in 1802 Colonel Edward Despard, a British officer turned radical agitator, was the last person in England to be sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, for a plot to kill King George III and the cabinet; while in 1812, the wildly unpopular hardline Tory Spencer Perceval became the only prime minister (so far) to be assassinated, the victim of John Bellingham, a deranged bankrupt.

Threats to civil liberties? The first Defence of the Realm Act was passed in 1798 by the younger William Pitt's administration, extending the Treason Act to cover any political meeting and giving magistrates the power to detain without trial those they suspected of sedition, up to and including the leader of the Whig opposition, Charles James Fox.

Financial crises? In 1810 the bank Brickwood, Rainer & Co. crashed with debts of more than half a million pounds, taking down with it as it fell provincial banks in Salisbury and Exeter and five City of London merchant houses.

The following year no fewer than 20 banks closed their doors. The crisis caused the gloomy economist David Ricardo to warn that exchanging gold for worthless paper banknotes meant rampant inflation. Meanwhile the Revd Thomas Malthus complained that the incorrigible tendency of the feckless poor to reproduce themselves without the means to support their progeny would result in inevitable mass starvation.

In the event (perhaps thanks to a court character reference from an old comrade-in-arms, Admiral Horatio Nelson), Despard and half a dozen of his co-conspirators were spared the painful indignity of having their genitals hacked off and their guts extracted and burned before their eyes, and were merely hanged and then beheaded, before a delirious 20,000-strong crowd on a gaol roof in Southwark.

And though family firms failed -- leaving a trail of ruined creditors, exiled remittance men, financiers who shot themselves in despair -- and many poor people did indeed go hungry, Armageddon was successfully staved off and, in a very British way, the apocalypse was postponed for another day.

The odd mix of medieval judicial savagery and the failures of sophisticated high finance typifies the neurotic state of a nation that -- virtually throughout the two decades that Uglow surveys -- was at war with a Europe under the heel of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and often in hourly expectation of foreign invasion and occupation.

Comparisons with 1940 are inevitable, but the state of siege which the country endured for years under Bonaparte's squat shadow lasted for far longer than the brief months of Churchillian defiance of Hitler.

Constant war is the condition under-lying all sectors of society that Uglow visits. Two of Jane Austen's brothers, Francis and Charles, became admirals in the navy (and another, Henry, joined the voluntary militia). Timber merchants grew fat and rich supplying the hearts of oak for the fleet. Any young man taking a stroll in any coastal town was in great danger of being kidnapped by the licensed thugs of the press gang and turned into a not-so-jolly Jack Tar. The original Dad's Army were the volunteers and yeomanry who manned the cliffs of England and the newly built martello towers ready to repel Boney. …

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