In 1804 Britain was engaged in the long and bitter struggle against Napoleon’s France. The Channel swarmed with French privateers that seized English merchant vessels on an almost daily basis. This was the fate of the brig, Friendship – a vessel of 15 tons burthen, built at Swansea in 1801 and partly owned by Josias Sincock of St Ives.
The Friendship had left St Ives on 2nd January 1804 and arrived in due course in the Thames carrying Government stores, mainly sheet-copper, said to be valued at £80,000, and flour. She then received orders to proceed to Devonport dockyard. On the 24th March Friendship joined a convoy of some twenty merchant ships destined for Portsmouth, but whilst anchored in the Downs, the sea area between the Goodwin Sands and East Kent coast, she was captured by the French.
There were seven crew members on board – Josias Sincock, the master; George Dunn, the mate; Thomas Cogar, an able seaman; three apprentices who were cousins and the nephews of the master and the master’s son – William Sincock who was 12 years old. The three apprentices were John Tregerthen Short, aged 19, Thomas Williams and James Sincock, both aged 17. As apprentices they were exempt from the press gang as were the master and mate. The crew immediately became prisoners of war but not all survived the experience. Josias Sincock died in prison at Verdun and Thomas Cogar died in prison at Givet.
Details of the capture of the Friendship and descriptions the adverse fortunes, hardship and privations suffered for the next ten years by the remaining crew members were recorded in the journals of Tregerthen Short and Williams - Prisoners of War in France 1804 – 1814. The group did not stay together throughout this period. Initially they were marched to Givet over a period of two weeks, frequently handcuffed as they covered an average of twenty miles each day. At Givet they joined about 930 other prisoners of war and made uniforms for the French soldiers. There were sixteen prisoners to a room existing on meagre rations of black bread, meat and vegetables but until 1806 these were supplemented by additional provisions provided by the British. Each prisoner had an allowance of three farthings per day from the French with intermittent additional monies being sent from England. This could be used to buy brandy and other spirits which were inexpensive.
The French tried to make the prisoners’ conditions as wretched as possible to tempt them to enlist into French service. Some did, some tried to escape and others sank into despair, despondency and discontent. Thomas Williams made several attempts to escape, often assuming the identity of other prisoners to aid his plan. Success was always short-lived and resulted in him being sentenced to 6 years in irons, although he did eventually receive a pardon from Napoleon and did not serve the full term.
As the war continued the prisoners were marched through France, often retracing their steps, to avoid the allied armies advancing from the East. Williams said that he “travelled upwards of 3,000 miles in chains, lodged in dungeons and very frequently suffered hunger and thirst, badly clothed, many times without shoes and having to march in severe weather for more than twenty miles per day in the midst of winter.” For those prisoners who had not attempted escape there was a degree of freedom as they moved about the country. They moved en masse and under supervision but often found their own food and accommodation for the night, spending any allowances received from the French or from home.
Tregerthen Short and William Sincock returned to St Ives some two weeks ahead of William. Sadly Josias’ widow died on the day of their return before either her son or nephew could see her.
This account is largely based upon The Diary of John Tregerthen Short and Thomas Williams which is also the source for the illustrations.