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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.

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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.

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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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royal hospital chelseaIf you watched the moving Remembrance concert at Albert Hall on Saturday evening you will have seen the contingent of Chelsea Pensioners prominently featured. This is one of their busiest times of year, understandably. But you see small numbers of them out and about at other great occasions and if you’re ever in Chelsea, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter them simply out for a walk.

I had walked past their home – the impeccably symmetrical Royal Hospital Chelsea – many times, usually on my way to the National Army Museum nearby. With three sets of imposing gates out front, I had no idea that the place was open to members of the public. But it very much is (see below for details). During the summer I joined a group of our friends from the Westminster Guide Lecturers Association for a wonderful tour of the complex. Led by the excellent Michael Allen, who features in these pictures.

The moving spirit behind the Royal Hospital was Charles II, inspired during his exile by Les Invalides in Paris. With a waft of the royal hand, Sir Christopher Wren – with quite enough on his plate thanks very much – was contracted to design our very own version, using 66  acres of land originally acquired by James I in Chelsea, then of course pretty much countryside. Unsurprisingly, he did a fantastic job, which is more or less unchanged to this day.

In Wren’s day and from medieval times, the word hospital had a much wider meaning than today, being a derivation of “hospitality” rather than more narrowly a place for sick people, although it did generally imply a charitable function. There are usually around 300 in-pensioners (colloquially: “Chelsea pensioners”). As these terms imply, for a place in the Royal Hospital,  you must be over 65 and surrender your army pension in return for total accommodation and provision. You must be able to look after yourself in day-to-day normal routine and until very recently, you had to be male. There is a tiny handful of female pensioners. (In a ballot, the overwhelming vote by the pensioners in favour of staying all-male was overruled.). Generally, inmates are from “other ranks”. The only officers who may apply will have spent 12 years or more in the ranks. Pensioners retain the rank they left the forces with, hence you will see badges of rank on the tunics of some.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Figure Court. Accommodation in the wings ot the left and right. Great Hall and Chapel immediately left and right of the main portico and tower.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Statue of Charles II in classical garb, by Grinling Gibbons. Gilded for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. I’m not convinced such a great idea.

Royal Chelsea Hospital

Central cupola.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The Great Hall, where the pensioners take their meals.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The chapel.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Extremely rare example of a Royal Mail letter box with two slots, for when the gate is locked.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The public cafe does excellent cream teas.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Warriors on mobility scooters. Old soldiers are less steady on their pins than once they were.

In addition to what you see in these pictures, the Royal Hospital also has an excellent museum and shop, the entrance to which is the Wellington room, featuring portraits or the Iron Duke himself, Her Majesty, a superb diorama of the Royal Hospital in the 18C and a panorama of the battle of Waterloo painted in 1820.

You may visit the places here described for free if you’re on your own or in a small group. Groups of 10 or more must make a group booking which comes with a Chelsea pensioner guide. Or you can join an existing group booking if you want the tour. These occur twice a day. Details and opening times here.

For more of our images from the Royal Hospital Chelsea, see our Flickr account here.

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