The Gentlemen Danes:
The untold story of Danish and Norwegian Prisoners of war on parole in Reading
John A. Nixon
Soaring Kite Publications (self-published), 2021
Hardback, 231 pages
Between 1793 and 1815 over 200,000 prisoners of war of many nationalities, not just French, were brought to Britain to reside in the Land Prisons, Prison Ships and Parole Depots. Many Frenchmen who experienced life as captives later published their stories. However, these accounts were written many years after the war and are naturally very Anglophobic, being written for a French audience at a time when Britain and France were still perceived as natural enemies. The Gentlemen Danes is a refreshingly new account of the war prison system, told through the eyes of one of the other nationalities held captive in this country.
This study came about in early 2008 when John Nixon approached the Reading Civic Society about the deterioration of the memorial to Laurenthes Braag, on the outside of Reading Minster. Braag was one of the Danes on parole in the town during the Napoleonic Wars, and who remains there. He asked the Society if they would be willing to work with him to restore the text which was in danger of being lost forever. The restored memorial was unveiled and rededicated on 29 October 2009. John, being fluent in Danish, took his interest further and has written this study of the nearly 600 Danes and Norwegians held on parole in Reading from 1807 until 1814. Nearly 1000 such prisoners were held on parole in various depots such as Ashburton and Moreton Hampstead in Devon, Northampton, and Peebles on the Scottish border but by far the majority came to Reading. Most were captains and first mates of merchant ships.
This account of the Danes on parole is told mainly through the eyes of Admiral Hans Birch Dahlerup, who as a young lieutenant came to Reading three times during the Gunboat War 1807-1814. He later wrote his memoirs from which this story is taken.
The book begins with a very concise chapter on how Britain and Denmark came to be enemies during the Napoleonic Wars, resulting in the bombardment of Copenhagen and the capture of a large proportion of the Danish fleet. However, the British did not capture all Danish warships, one such vessel being the 68-gun Prinds Christian Frederik. The ship was captured at the Battle of Zealand Point on 22 March 1808 and an 18-year-old lieutenant of gunnery, Hans Birch Dahlerup, went into captivity. Dahlerup arrived in Great Yarmouth and after spending some time on the prison ship Bahama in the Medway was given his parole and allowed to travel to Reading.
Dahlerup’s account of his journey to the town, his reception there, the help given to him to find lodgings, and his relationships with both his fellow officers and the local people are related in detail. He settled into life in Reading and obviously enjoyed his stay there, describing life in the town, the social events he took part, and the sights he witnessed. His account is a fascinating look at an English town during the early 19th century, and aside from the prisoner of war story this book tells of life in Reading during the period, with accounts of local events such as the Reading Hiring Fair where human curiosities were on display. One individual he witnessed was the mouth painter Sarah Biffen, who was born without hands and legs but who became one of the most celebrated artists of her time. The author includes short biographies of such people. He attended the races at Epsom, dances, and the social amusements that were available to him and his fellow parole officers, and relationships with the fair sex. He also describes his fellow prisoners, thus providing a vivid picture of life in a parole depot, and indeed the social life of the time. After six and a half months he was exchanged and found himself back in naval service, commanding a gunboat in the Baltic. He was captured again in 1810, arriving back in Reading where he renewed old acquaintances and made new friends amongst his fellow Danes, French officers on parole in the town, and with the local people.
Towards the end of July 1811 Dahlerup was to be exchanged and so he was instructed to proceed to London from where he would sail home. Dahlerup was captivated by the city, and we are provided with a picture of the people and places in the metropolis that he witnessed. After further service in the Danish navy, in 1813 he was captured a third time, arriving back on board the Bahama prior to travelling again to Reading.
Using the General Entry Book for Danish prisoners held at Reading and the Danish archives, the author relates the stories of other Danish seamen, mainly merchant sailors, examining their captivity, including handicrafts, escapes, deaths, and the setting up of a Masonic Lodge in Reading. There were other Danes held in this country who had an interesting story to tell, and the author has included their tales within this book. Jørgen Jørgensen had many adventures, and his story has been told in detail elsewhere (The English Dane by Sarah Bakewell, Chatto & Windus, 2005), but the author includes the story here as Dahlerup met him whilst he was on parole for a second time.
Dahlerup returned home on the cessation of war in 1814. Reading hosted a huge street party to celebrate the abdication of Napoleon, and the author brings his story to an end by a brief examination of post-war Britain and Denmark, and an analysis of how Reading compared with other parole towns during the Napoleonic Wars. The title of the book The Gentlemen Danes comes from the attitude the people of Reading had towards these captives, who in turn found the community much to their liking.
The book is generously illustrated with images of the conflict between the two nations, the prison ships, Reading and its locality (including drawings made by Danes held there), and many of the characters included in the story. Many of these are from Danish sources and have not been published in the UK before.
Until Dahlerup’s memoirs were translated, very little had been written about the Danes held in Britain. Our views of the parole depots have relied upon later accounts written by French officers, who had an axe to grind in the form of a lack of an effective exchange process between Britain and France after 1803. This account demonstrates that Britain and Denmark were not natural enemies and when Danes arrived in the country there was no animosity towards them, and they were accepted into the community.
The Gentlemen Danes is a book to be commended for many reasons: an untold story of prisoners of war held on parole in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars; details of the Gunboat War in the Baltic; life in Reading during the early 19th century; images to accompany the story that have not been published before; all make this a valuable and fascinating study. I have many books in my library on Napoleonic prisoners of war, and this one is a valuable addition. Highly recommended.