241. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. August 1797]

241. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. August 1797] ⁠* 


AN account of the treatment which the English prisoners meet with at Brest, may, perhaps, be acceptable to some of your readers: the following statement was given me by my brother, lately a prisoner there, and I think the uncommon kindness he experienced deserves a public acknowledgement.

Your correspondent, T. Y.

“The prison of Pontenazan stands about a league from Brest, westward of the great Paris road; it was formerly the marine hospital, and is well situated for pure air and good water. There are six buildings that stand east and west, surrounded at the distance of a hundred yards from every side, by a high wall; the space within has fine gravel-walks, and is well planted with trees. The buildings are about four hundred feet long, built with great uniformity and neatness, the whole the work of the galley-slaves, of whom there are, at present, great numbers. Each of these are named; I was in the Salle de l’Humanité, the sick ward. You live in each of them upon the ground floor, which is open to the roof; a very good plan, as by that means the patients are not annoyed by the fumes of another ward ascending up to them. The beds are ranged in good order, and the head of each ornamented with a pewter porringer, quart pot, and smaller cup, all kept very clean and bright by the galley-slaves, who attend for that purpose. A bulk-head went across the ward; on the one side were 157 beds, on the other, in which I was, 109: the reason of this difference is, that the west end was occupied by the surgeon. We were allowed clean sheets, and a clean white shirt and night-cap, once a week; our provisions were served out twice a day; in the morning at ten, and in the evening at four, each time the same, being a porringer of weak soup, with a great deal of sorrel boiled in it, half a pound of beef boiled, the same quantity of coarse bad bread, a porringer of rice and milk, or * [1]  calivances, which are white beans, or stewed prunes, which of the three we chose, with half a pint of decent red wine: this is the allowance of the sick; that of the other prisoners is by no means so good, as they have meat but three times a week, and sometimes a few ounces of cheese instead of that; their soup is made of black horse-beans, neither have they wine, or either of the three articles mentioned in Italics. Between each of the buildings is a space of about forty feet; that to the Salle de la Revolution, where all the English, who are not sick, are confined, is walled in at both ends, and this is all the space the poor fellows have to walk in. They were formerly suffered to come out, a hundred at a time, and amuse themselves in the space within the surrounding wall; they are now confined to the space within the two wards, because the last party that was out broke into the surgeon’s house (which stands within the inclosure) and stole very thing they could lay their hands on. When I left Pontenazan there were between 600 and 700 prisoners there, 492 in the Salle de la Revolution, the rest were in the Salle de l’Humanité. In the sick ward we were served separately; in the prison they were served seven in a mess, they are not allowed linen as we were, neither have they nuns to superintend the galley-slaves, as we had. These women are part of those who remained in France after the destruction of the monasteries, and were, at the request of the officers of the marine, distributed among the different hospitals, where they are infinitely more useful than any other class of women could be: they have charge of the linen and other stores. They still wear their ancient dress, with the rosary and crucifix, and every body pays them the greatest respect. The one that had the inspection of our ward was a very pleasant woman; I was the only person who could understand her, and she used frequently to talk of the hardships they endured, during the reign of Robespierre, [2]  because they refused to acknowledge the republic and take the oath, till, at the application of the officers of the navy, they were thus distributed. There are four wells, one at each corner of the buildings: two of them are filled up, they had been poisoned by order of Robespierre; one of the nuns discovered it, and informed the prisoners, for which she suffered several months’ imprisonment; she is now at Pontenazan, and all the English pay her every possible respect. This is the story I heard there, but when I mentioned it to some of the officers of the vessel that captured us, who came to see me, they positively denied the fact; it is certainly improbable, and, though the filling up of the wells proves it was credited, it by no means proves it to have been true.

I was treated very civilly, and had every liberty I could expect; my stay, however, was but short, there were three cartel ships in the road ready to sail for England; I wrote to M. Bernis, the owner of the privateer that took me, to request he would use his interest, that I might be sent to England in one of them. In this he succeeded, and I left Pontenazan after a stay of only one week. The vessel was detained by contrary winds, and M. Bernis, knowing how disagreeable I should find it to remain in a small vessel with 240 men, and bad accommodations, invited me to his own house, where I received every possible attention and kindness.

I was with him till the vessel was under weigh, and never passed a week more happily, or experienced more kindness; he lent me a plain coat, and I walked about and went to the theatres, as an American. The public theatre is large, and was probably once very elegant, but, as the ornaments contained aristocratical devices, they have all been defaced. It was formerly for the use of the navy only, and the performers were officers; now, of course, it is open to any one. There are three tiers of boxes, fixed in a very light and elegant manner, projecting from the wall, without any support underneath, so that the pit runs under them; there are some small iron pillars under the lower boxes next the orchestra, which project more than the others; they are well contrived for seeing, the back seats being very high; there is no gallery; the orchestra is large, with two rows of musicians, and their music infinitely superior to our’s. The pieces I saw were Pamela from the English novel (probably from Goldoni); [3]  Barbe Bleu, [4]  from the story of Blue Beard; and Les Petits Savoyards. [5] 

The other theatre is a private one, it was once a room for the free-masons, very small, but very neatly fitted up; the cieling is concave; there is only one tier of boxes, and those small; a pit and gallery; the band was good: but, like to the other theatre, this was very badly lighted. None but subscribers and their friends are admitted; the performers are voluntary: the night I was there, a lady was handed out of the pit to take a part in Les Petits Savoyards.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 4 (August 1797), 87–88 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘T.Y.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 216. BACK

[1] *: Southey adds a footnote: ‘I take this to be a kind of lupin, which they call garvanzos in Spain, and groens in Portugal, where they form a principal part of the common people’s food. I have often eaten them in soup, and thought them excellent.’ BACK

[2] The French Jacobin leader Maximilien François Marie Odenthalius Isidore de Robespierre (1758–1794). BACK

[3] Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793), Pamela (1750). BACK

[4] Probably André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741–1813), Raoul Barbe Bleu (1789). BACK

[5] Nicolas Dalayrac (1753–1809), Les Deux Petits Savoyards (1788). BACK

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