So many stories and traditions have become attached to the famous events of 18-22 June 1815 that it was not possible to address them all in THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO. Here in brief are a few.
In 1858 a reader of the Wiltshire County Mirror, having read of the death of a prominent squire, took up his pen and wrote to the editor:
In none of the sketches of the career of the late Mr Assheton Smith has mention been made of a fact which I have heard stated on good authority, that he was the first to bring into this country intelligence of the overthrow of the great Napoleon on the plains of Waterloo. It having reached him while cruising in his yacht off the coast of France, he immediately set sail for England, and was the first to proclaim the glorious news.
This was picked up and repeated in the journal Notes and Queries, which invited readers to comment. It was the beginning of a lively correspondence about the news from Waterloo, though little light was shed on the original inquiry.
Assheton Smith was a leading English character of his time. With a family fortune built on Welsh slate mines, he lived a life of sport, hunting, playing cricket and – indeed – at sea in fast yachts. According to his biographer, however, he knew of and personally denied the tale that he had brought the first news of Waterloo. Page 33 of Reminiscences of the Late Thomas Assheton Smith, Esq (1862), by Sir John E. Bardley Wilmot, recounts:
Mr. Smith brought the late Lord Raglan (then Lord EitzRoy Somerset) from Ostend to England in his jacht [sic], after the battle of Waterloo, where the gallant officer had lost his arm. It has been stated that, at an earlier period of the same year, he took the duke of Wellington over to Calais, and that he afterwards brought the first intelligence of the victory to England, but the truth of these statements he invariably disavowed.
There may be an explanation for the story in a paragraph in the Kentish Gazette of 16 June:
Mr Assheton Smith landed here with dispatches this forenoon from the cutter Elizabeth of Southampton and immediately proceeded post for London.
That report was dated at Margate on 12 June, a week before the battle. My guess is that, after the newspaper report and the mission with FitzRoy Somerset, somebody or some people put two and two together and made five, and despite his denials the story lingered on. Nothing in the reports of the time suggests there is any truth in it.
Also mentioned in the same exchanges in Notes and Queries is another alleged messenger. This came in two instalments, the first of which was this:
The intelligence of this battle was brought to England by the engineer, or, as the term would now be, projector of the Hungerford Suspension Bridge. Upon reaching London, he went to Lord Harrowby, who discredited the news (after consulting with his coadjutors in the government), especially as their informant would not give a satisfactory account of how he had crossed the Channel, and how he had left France, and yet was able to say that the French were in total flight. He was immediately placed under surveillance. Rumours had been flying about London for some days of a great battle having been fought, but the weather had been so tempestuous that no vessel had been able to cross the Channel. Weary of delay, the government, after another examination of their informant, resolved to draw up a paper, and publish it in the Gazette next day. Whilst actually engaged in compiling this document a messenger arrived, and confirmed the fact of the defeat of Napoleon; but even then the utter disorganisation of the French was not believed. I had the above statement form the gentleman’s own lips, a year before his death.
This was signed ‘Alfred John Dunkin, Dartmouth’. Victor Rothschild, in his book about his ancestor Nathan, Shadow of a Great Man, made fun of this. He pointed out that the Hungerford Suspension Bridge (long since disappeared) was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel between 1841 and 1845, and that Bruenl was hardly likely to have brought the news of Waterloo since he was nine years old at the time of the battle.
I spent some time investigating the people behind the bridge and was intrigued to find that one of them was called Daniel Sutton, but on close inspection I decided he could not be the same person as the Colchester solicitor who plays a large part in my narrative. Some time later I came upon another item in Notes and Queries, written five years later:
Some years since, you allowed me to explain in N&Q how the intelligence of the Battle of Waterloo reached London. I had the account from the gentleman’s own lips who brought it to England; but I had then forgotten his name, although I knew [him] when he had resided in Gravesend, and had called upon him in his office in Adam Street, Adelphi; and I knew, too, that he had designed Hungerford market and many other structures.
It was well known by Government that a great battle had been fought in Belgium; but who was the victor or who the vanquished no one could imagine. The first certain knowledge that reached London was communicated to the Earl of Harrowby by a stranger, who said that he had landed from the Continent in an open boat, and his intelligence was that the French were utterly routed. As the antecedents of this gentleman were unknown, the Government would not act upon his revelations; but upon the second or third day, however, the ministers resolved to send an account to the journals embodying his report. Whilst they were drawing it up, Major Percy arrived with the dispatches, which confirmed the statement they were engaged upon discussing.
By accident, I was engaged in a review of the memoirs of Trevithick, the Civil Engineer, and, wanting to obtain a date, I referred to Cruden’s History of Gravesend, and there, unexpectedly, in a foot-note of three lines, I recovered the clue:
“A.D. 1818. Charles Fowler, architect, ordered by the corporation of Gravesend to proceed with the improvements in the market etc.”
Again it was signed by Alfred John Dunkin of Dartford. Fowler was not the architect of the Hungerford pedestrian bridge over the Thames but of Hungerford market, nearby and also of Covent Garden Market; read his Wikipedia entry. I can’t account for this tale, to which no Notes and Queries reader appears to have responded. No source of the time (June 1815) that I have found mentions Charles Fowler, who would then have been 23.
The Westminster Gazette of 14 April 1903 carried the following on page 2:
In the year 1815 my father, a boy of seven, with an elder brother, aged nine, was, in the company of other persons, on the beach of Hastings watching a boat endeavouring to reach the shore. At length it touched land, and a man jumped out waving his hat and exclaiming, ‘Hurrah, Wellington has thrashed Boney!’ My father told me he remembered the incident well and was at the time under the impression that thus the news came to England. It might have been stale news so far as other parts of the kingdom were concerned, but the incident created some excitement in Hastings and the man’s cry was taken up and repeated – the whole town being generally roused to an uproar of delight. Of course this is merely a boy’s recollection, but my father’s memory was a good one, and he told me the story when, many years ago, the matter was referred to on some public occasion.
R. St J. Corbet, New Oxford and Cambridge Club, Pall Mall
Perhaps this is true.
The tale of the Trafalgar dispatch of 1805 is no less exciting than Henry Percy’s adventure, if considerably longer. The battle took place on 21 October. On 26 October the 10-gun fast schooner HMS Pickle, under Lieutenant John Lapenotiere, was sent off with Admiral Collingwood’s dispatch. It was delayed by a storm and did not reach Falmouth until 4 November, upon which Lapenotiere set out in a post-chaise for London. It took 37 hours and 19 changes of horses and he reached the Admiralty at 1am on 6 November – 15 whole days after the battle. There’s a (pricey) book about it here, though I have not read it.