I WISH to take you back to the Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815.

There were more than 100,00 French Prisoners of War in this country at that time: enlisted soldiers and sailors had the worst of it, as they were housed in prison hulks at the ports of Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. The luckier ones were housed in in the specially-built prisons at Norman Cross near Peterbrough and at Dartmoor.

Officers were, however, given the opportunity to give their parole – their word of honour, in writing, not to escape, and to live relatively normal lives in lodging in one of 49 towns around the UK from Abergavenny to Wantage. The Government department responsible was HM Transport Office, who had a series of parole officers in each town responsible for billeting the French POWs in and around the town, looking after their welfare, paying them an allowance (which was ½ a guinea a week) and crucially making sure that they obeyed the rules of their parole. These were:

• Prisoners were only permitted to walk up to one mile from their billet and only on main turnpike roads.

• They were not permitted to leave the highway or to cross fields.

• They had to abide by a curfew of 5pm in the winter and 8pm in summer.

The parole agent in Wantage was John Crapper, a chemist and druggist in the Market Place, who at one point had 340 French POWs in his charge.

The prisoners were either lodged with individuals in and around Wantage or in a barn (which now no longer exists) in the grounds of Priorshold in Church Street.

As you can see from the photo here, some of the prisoners left graffiti on one of the walls.

The allowance was never sufficient for some of the officers. The Vale and Downland Museum holds a letter, from Ensign LeDuc who was billeted in The Priory, in Church Street, requesting his bankers – Coutts of London – to transfer £123 to Mattingley's Bank in Wantage.

Therefore to supplement their income it was common for French Officer POWs to give lessons in French, dancing, drawing, fencing and singing as well as probably producing the items they carved from bone etc that appear on the Antiques Roadshow, to sell.

Here are a few stories of the Wantage POWs:

Two French Generals Lefebvre and Maurin were lodging with James Lutwyche, the Inspector of Taxes for East Challow. Both men were important POWs and very socially well-connected. General Lefebvre, for instance, was one of Napoleon's aide-de camps.

They were invited to dine with Sir John Throckmorton some 10 mile away from Wantage and were taken there by Thomas Goodlake JP of Letcombe Regis. On their return they were arrested by Mr Crapper and sent to prison at Wincanton for breaking their parole. The local gentry were immediately up in arms. A series of letters complaining about Mr Crapper found their way to the Transport Office, who replied that he was only doing his duty.

One correspondent asserted that although Mr Crapper complained of the Generals' breach of parole he had also allowed 30 of the prisoners to give a dance and supper to the local tradesmen of the town which had kept going till 3am. Mr Capper denied this and said he had refused the application of the prisoners for a dance until 10pm, given at an inn to the ladies of the town. Another writer accused Mr Capper of being a drunkard, fighting with the prisoners and allowing them to be often drunk in the streets. John Capper replied that 'that the prisoners called upon him as a gentleman and he was entitled to show them hospitality'.

Some French POWs married local girls: Lt Pierre Empereur married Ann Templer of the family who lived at Old Church House and, post-war, lived in Bordeaux.

Chevalier Victor Marion de Gaja was one of the bravest officers in the French army. He had an adventurous career during the Napoleonic Wars and was taken prisoner at the Battle of Corunna in 1808. He was then a parole prisoner at Wantage until 1810 when he was exchanged and rejoined Napoleon taking part in the Retreat from Moscow. De Gaja married Matilda, eldest daughter of Lord Robert Stephen Fitzgerald in 1817. Their daughter married the Rev Peter Atkinson, Rector of East Hendred in 1868. General de Gaja (as he was then known) lived in retirement at East Hendred, with his daughter and son-in-law where he died in 1875 and was buried in Abingdon.

There is one ghost story I have not been able to verify. A Napoleonic prisoner was billeted at the Priory just along from the museum. He and the housemaid fell in love but when the Napoleonic War ended in 1815, the POW was repatriated so it was many years before he could return to Wantage by which time the lady concerned had been persuaded to marry someone else. In despair, the now ex-POW drowned himself in the Letcombe Brook. His ghost is supposed to haunt the kitchen in the Priory.

According to the Wantage Parish Register only two French POWs died in Wantage in 1810. They were Captain Joseph Revert and Lt Casimir Dupaty, so it may have been either – one will never know.