HAHG Lecture: The Gentlemen Danes

On 6 February, the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group were given an entertaining and informative presentation entitled “Gentlemen Danes – the Story of Danish POWs in Reading 1807-1814” by John Nixon, who has a life-long connection with Denmark.

At the start of the Napoleonic wars, what was the single country of Denmark-Norway was neutral and trading profitably with both sides, benefiting from its strategic position at the entrance to the Baltic. British concerns about the country’s connection with France led Britain to attack Copenhagen and to destroy or capture its fleet.

Many prisoners of war, including merchant seamen, were taken as a result and transported to Britain. Most were accommodated in prison hulks, but a small number of ‘gentlemen’ – captains, first mates and ships’ boys from high-status families – were housed in ‘parole towns’ around the country, including Reading, which took 206 of them.

These people had to find and pay for, their own food and lodging, either through their own resources or by working. They had considerable freedom to move about the town, but were supposed to stay within the town limits and to observe a curfew – although they were able to break these conditions in practice. Seven of the prisoners died while in Reading, while one managed to escape shortly before the remainder were granted their freedom on 25 October 1809. The prisoners appeared to be happy and welcomed by the locals during their stay, with some marrying local girls and remaining near Reading – perhaps some of their descendants still do?

The HAHG’s next meeting will be their AGM at the Chantry House in Henley at 7.30pm, on Tuesday 5 March. This will be accompanied by a presentation by representatives of the River and Rowing Museum, and a talk by our committee member Chris Whitehead on ‘Early Hambleden and the Domesday Book’.

 

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