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This article, by journalist, author and academic Brian Cathcart, was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from April 2015.


June 18th this year is the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and it will be marked in many events and ceremonies. Of course, on that Sunday in 1815 no one in London had any idea what was happening in Belgium. They didn’t even know that hostilities had broken out. News of the battle did not reach the capital in reliable form until late on Wednesday, but it did so in the most dramatic manner.

The battle was won by the Sunday evening, but the Duke of Wellington did not hurry to inform his government and so his famous Waterloo Dispatch did not leave Brussels until early the following afternoon. Travelling over drenched and battered roads, and no doubt stopping frequently on his way to share his news, the messenger, Major Henry Percy, made slow progress to the coast. Then, embarked upon the sloop HMS Peruvian, he was becalmed at sea. By the time the Kent coast finally came into sight it was late on Wednesday morning and so desperate was Percy to complete his mission that he abandoned ship, stepping into a rowing boat with four sailors who rowed him the last twenty miles to Broadstairs.

In the meantime, London went a little mad. Monday’s evening papers brought word that fighting had begun in Belgium and then early on Tuesday came a report of a great victory for Wellington. A scoop for the Morning Post newspaper, this briefly electrified the population – but it was all a mistake, a distorted and exaggerated account of an indecisive encounter two days before Waterloo.

A ferment of confusion and debate followed, captured vividly by the Morning Herald:

The evening of yesterday [Tuesday 20th] having been fine, and the placards of the many-edition papers having been very profuse of various, if not contradictory, intelligence, groups of people remained to a late hour in the Strand, some arguing for one, some arguing for another construction of the news from Flanders. About the Horse Guards the crowd was greater, and the Park [St James’s] was thronged, all the evening, with people waiting for the dispatches. The feeling was evidently and strongly British, notwithstanding the laborious arts of the Bonapartian journals to produce a contrary spirit.

Wednesday, as the Observer newspaper would recall later, was ‘an interval of painful suspense’. It dawned with London expecting to find the official messenger in town, but Percy was then still a hundred miles off and the unaccountable absence of news deepened fears that the battle must have been lost. Soon unofficial reports of a victory began to trickle in, but people would not trust them, especially as counter-rumours of a defeat were also circulating. (Claims that the banker Nathan Rothschild was the first to know, by the way, are not supported by the evidence.)

Tension mounted as the hours passed. On Wednesday evening the streets were again filled with expectant Londoners, while War Department officials manned their desks for a second night running. At the theatres and the society parties across the West End, one topic dominated. Meanwhile Major Percy was at last making swift progress in his post-chaise and four. Changing horses at Canterbury, Sittingbourne, Rochester and Dartford, he crested Shooters Hill in time to see London in the fading light of dusk. Then soon after 11pm his yellow carriage, with two captured French eagle standards thrusting from its windows, crossed Westminster Bridge into a delirious crowd.

Percy sets out 500

Major Percy sets out, with Napoleon’s eagles.

With this happy throng in tow, Percy made his way to Downing Street, where he was told that the Cabinet was dining at Lord Harrowby’s in Grosvenor Square. These unfortunate ministers had thus far passed an evening of all but unbearable tension. One account goes:

They dined, they sat. No dispatch came. At length, when the night was far advanced, they broke up. Yet, delayed by a lingering hope that the expected messenger might appear, they stood awhile in a knot conversing on the pavement when suddenly was heard a faint and distant shout. It was the shout of victory! Hurrah! Escorted by a running and vociferous multitude, the Major drove up. He was taken into the house and the dispatch was opened.

Sixteen pages long and written in the most sober terms, the dispatch took time to digest, but eventually delighted ministers were able to announce the news to the crowd outside, who greeted it, according to the Morning Post, with ‘universal and ecstatic cheering’. Now Percy had to report to the Prince Regent, who that night was the dinner guest of a banking family, the Boehms. Carriages were summoned and most of the Cabinet followed Percy’s chaise through the streets, once again trailing a crowd behind. Dorothy Boehm, the hostess, describes their arrival at 16 St James’s Square:

The first quadrille was in the act cf forming and the Prince was walking up to the dais on which his seat was placed, when I saw every one without the slightest sense of decorum rushing to the windows, which had been left wide open because of the excessive sultriness of the weather. The music ceased and the dance was stopped; for we heard nothing but the vociferous shouts of an enormous mob, who had just entered the Square and were running by the side of a post-chaise and four, out of whose windows were hanging three nasty French eagles. In a second the door of the carriage was flung open and, without waiting for the steps to be let down, out sprang Henry Percy – such a dusty figure! – with a flag in each hand, pushing aside everyone who happened to be in his way, darting up stairs, into the ball-room, stepping hastily up to the Regent, dropping on one knee, laying the flags at his feet, and pronouncing the words ‘Victory, Sir! Victory!’

The jubilation was mixed with shock at the casualties, but for the next three days London partied. Some never made it to bed that night and were present next morning to witness the spectacular military display staged in St James’s Park by the Duke of York. Both Houses of Parliament cheered themselves hoarse, while perhaps the most vivid personal recollection comes from the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon:

Sammons, my model and corporal of the Life Guards, came, and we tried to do our duty, but Sammons was in such a fidget about his regiment charging and I myself was in such a heat, I was obliged to let him go. Away he went, and I never saw him till late next day, and he then came drunk with talking. I read the Gazette the last thing before going to bed. I dreamt of it and was fighting all night. I got up in a steam of feeling and read the Gazette again, ordered a Courier for a month, called a confectioner’s, and read all the papers till I was faint.

chelsea pensioners 500

Chelsea pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo. Detail, engraving by Burnett after Wilkie.

On Friday and Saturday came the illuminations, with spectacular lantern and candle shows at all the big houses, public buildings and businesses. The St James’s Chronicle wrote:

The streets were thronged with people beyond conception. The whole was one moving crowd, carriages going slowly and forcing their way through the populace. The fair sex were equally numerous with the male. Bands of music paraded the streets until two o’clock. Dustmen, with their bells, kept up a perpetual din. Many persons lost their shoes opposite the Admiralty and Horse Guards. The pickpockets were very busy.


Brian Cathcart is the author of The News from Waterloo: The Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory, published in 2015.

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wellington by lawrence

Wellington by Thos. Lawrence

This day in 1852, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was laid to rest in St Paul’s, having died on 14 September, aged 83. Nearly half a century after Nelson’s ceremony and almost four decades of relative peace across land and sea following Waterloo, Wellington’s state funeral was the most extraordinary street procession that Londoners could remember. It even caused the Lord Mayor’s parade to be cancelled for the only time ever.

Prior to tranquil semi-retirement in Kent, the Iron Duke had become a deeply unpopular politician and Prime Minister. During a period characterised by Reform, Wellington – deeply conservative – set is face against the inexorable tide of popular emancipation. He genuinely felt that the existing settlement could not be further perfected and famously was stoned in his house and in his carriage. Even the equestrian statue of the hero of Waterloo for the Wellington Arch had been laughed at by the public and mocked in the newspapers.

But now all was forgiven and forgotten as over a million lined the route of Wellington’s funeral cortege which ran through the City to St Paul’s. It seemed to extend forever; in its midst was the extraordinary 12 ton, six wheeled funeral car. One can only imagine the racket it made over London’s old cobbles. The car has survived and is at Stratfield-Saye House.

wellington funeral cortege

Duke of Wellington, funeral

Contemporary post card of Duke of Wellington’s funeral car.

To get some idea of the sheer size of this parade, have a look at the British Library’s full-length colour diagram.

Daguereotype, Wellington, 1844

1844 daguerreotype of Wellington

The preparation of St Paul’s took six weeks. Scaffold-borne tiered seating increased its capacity to over 13,000 as the cathedral was festooned in black crepe. The service was delayed by an hour owing to the slow progress of the vast cortege through the streets of London. Eventually, the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the crypt of the cathedral where it remains to this day in a Cornish porphyry sarcophagus.

A most extraordinary eye-witness account of Wellington’s funeral was recorded in 1940. An elderly retired magistrate, Frederick Mead, recalls attending the event as a young boy accompanied by his parents.

Links:
Apsley House
Stratfield-Saye House
St Paul’s
The Victorian Web

finally, Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington. Not Tennyson’s finest hour, I’m thinking!

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