Chapter 5: BALCOMBE IN ENGLAND (1818-1823)

Whilst the Balcombes were still en route from St Helena for England, Hudson Lowe struck. At the time he had no tangible cause of complaint against Balcombe but he had strong suspicions that his relations with Longwood were not limited to the ostensible duties of his office. He was also close to O’Meara, with whom the Governor was becoming daily more dissatisfied.[1]

Lowe took the purveyorship for Longwood from the ‘Balcombe, Coles & Fowler‘ business even though the Balcombe family had gone from the Island.

In April 1818, Count Bertrand wrote to Sir Hudson Lowe and advised of the regret of Napoleon’s household that Mr. Balcombe’s house was being deprived of supplying provisions that the journey to England of the principal of that house to London could not be a reason for depriving him of his business since the services had always been performed by his partners Messers Fowler and Cole and Mr. Balcombe had never directly interfered therewith.[2]

The news had not reached England with The Times in London reporting in May 1818 that

We are desired by a Correspondent to state as from undoubted authority, that no other cause existed for Mr. Balcombe’s quitting his situation at St Helena than the dangerous state of Mrs Balcombe’s health at the time of her embarkation. The writer suggests that if there had been any improper conduct on the part of Mr. Balcombe, Sir Hudson Lowe would scarcely have been so indulgent as to appoint Mr. Cole, the partner of Mr. Balcombe, to act for him as purveyor to Buonaparte during the period of his absence in England.[3]

Lowe was probably right to be somewhat paranoid about an attempt to escape by their prized prisoner. A letter signed by “La Meu”, had been sent to Napoleon on 29 March 1816 suggesting he should get away and Bertrand had been sent everything for his use. A letter was found at the St Helena post office giving details of a ship which would be waiting 14 miles off shore to take him to the United States, a rope to scale the cliff, a small craft which looked like a cask from the cliff top, a light to be shown on the port side. [4] One can only imagine it was members of Napoleon’s household who were party to these arrangements.

It is most unlikely that Balcombe would risk his neck by being involved in this particular exercise, he loved life, had a family to consider and too much to lose, and in fact at this time he had sent all the notes he received from Napoleon direct to Sir George Cockburn.[5] But the first man to live on the island by the name of Saul Solomon was said to have tried to help Napoleon to escape, he smuggled him a silken rope ladder in a teapot! [6]

Passing on letters was a far less serious ‘crime’ than assisting an attempted escape and General Gourgard, Aide-de-Camp remarked that there was no difficulty carrying on secret correspondence with Europe as it was done through O’Meara and Balcombe and some English visitors. [7]

It appears that William Balcombe and family left St Helena just before major trouble would have erupted for him. Lowe had serious mistrust of Dr Barry O’Meara, Napoleon’s doctor, who had also left the island on board the Griffon on 2 August 1818. [8] Lowe vented his feelings in this long letter to Lord Bathurst in September 1818

To Earl Bathurst KG

St Helena, September 29, 1818,

My Lord,

Your Lordship will peruse with feelings of no ordinary disgust the details of the accompanying report disclosing such mean and unworthy tricks and artifices to elude the regulations in force on this island, to establish a secret correspondence with Europe for pecuniary and other concerns, and to raise a cabal at the same time on the island itself in favour of Napoleon Bonaparte, as it could have been hardly expected would been at once brought to view.

The Marquis de Montchenu, who is as yet uninformed what has been done, mentioned to me two days since that Mr. O’Meara, a short time before his departure, received a letter from Lord Melville. (I repeat what the Marquis said and I immediately set right because it could not of course been Lord Melville though not impossibly one of the clerks the department), saying he was to be recalled from his situation here; that he had shown this letter to the persons at Longwood but that Napoleon felt too secure of the effect of the reports of his illness to admit the idea of the removal taking place believing neither Government nor myself would dare, whilst he was supposed to be so ill, to deprive him of Mr. O’Meara’s assistance. This information the Marquis must have had from Count Balmain’s conversations. Such a material point being, as he conceived, gained, Napoleon appears resolved to have pushed to the utmost limit the advantage he trusted to have derived from it. Hence the vulgar insolence and audacity with which Mr. O’Meara was encouraged to act towards me, by which he hoped to shake in some degree the regard due to authority; the cabals sought to be formed amongst the officers of the 66th and in the navy; the pretensions he sought to establish for Mr. O’Meara in society when he found his character begin to droop; and all the prospectus [?] which is displayed in the correspondence annexed to the report, deeply laid but illusory, and only proving how easily Napoleon himself can be rendered the dupe of ignorant and pretending people, and to what mean shifts he can at the same time descend. The blame, however, does not appear to originate wholly in him, as there seems to have been at least as much of fanaticism and pretension, with an eye at the same time to the trade to be carried on, on one side, as of excitement on the other.

Whatever may have been said by General Gourgaud with respect to other persons that have been employed in clandestine communications, I could never fix a direct suspicion on any others than Mr. O’Meara or Mr. Balcombe (however assistance may have been afforded by others as the instruments or bearers) for they were the only persons who by their official situations had free access to the persons at Longwood, and, if they were unprincipled enough, whilst receiving the public money for their services there, to become the tools for any indirect purpose whatever, it was next to impossible to prevent it.

The change in the purveyorship was the first blow against the designs that had been forming, and the little noise made by Napoleon about it convinced me he was apprehensive of the discoveries that might be made in that quarter. The removal of Mr. O’Meara levelled the whole fabric, and hence the plots now developed. Mr. Balcombe‘s conduct is quite inexcusable. I had uniformly treated him and his family with attention and kindness, and had most distinctly and repeatedly cautioned him in a friendly manner on the subject of his intimacy with Mr. O’Meara, pointing out to him even the very delicate situation in which he might be eventually placed by having his name coupled together with that of Mr. O’Meara as the only persons Napoleon saw. Mr. Balcombe will perfectly recollect, if reminded of it, the pointed warning I gave him in my office some weeks before he left this island, on the latter point. He went on headlong, however, in an increasing intimacy, until he became, as it appears, completely entangled. When, after obtaining my signature to a requisition for certain stores he was to embark on board the Hyena store ship for the use of the establishment at Longwood, he got an order subsequently from the Admiral to ship stores in tenfold quantity on his own account, in prejudice of the island receiving supplies it was in actual distress for by the same ship, I remonstrated with him, as his conduct merited, in opposing or undermining the arrangements he knew I had been endeavouring to establish; but this was the only occasion where I expressed a marked dissatisfaction to him, although it appears to me, the Admiral, on the whole, had more reason to complain of the mode in which he had been circumvented than myself. This was unconnected, however, with his business at Longwood and is only mentioned lest he might be referring to it, which neither the late naval Commander-in-Chief nor the present, though acting with the best intentions, can feel any desire he should do.

I cannot sufficiently express my sense of the cordial and zealous support I have received throughout from Admiral Plampin in everything connected with the affairs of Mr. O’Meara. His reasons for not showing to, or leaving with me, the letter from Mr. Balcombe to Mr. Stokoe I do not entirely enter into; but I am convinced the letter contained nothing which could throw any new or any important light on the subject of the other correspondence, and that it is probably regard to Mr. Stokoe, with some feeling of consideration towards Mr. Balcombe himself, where actual necessity did not require his name to be brought forward. The Admiral has been somewhat unpleasantly placed in regard to the latter, by owing to him the obligation of his present place of residence, the Briars, which Mr. Balcombe, to his own great inconvenience and that of his family, yielded up to the Admiral on his arrival here. This induced at first a great intimacy between them, but the Admiral now sees Mr. Balcombe’s character and line of proceeding in the true point of view. If your Lordship reflects on this matter; on the marked support given to Mr. Balcombe by all the naval Commanders -in -Chief ; that his house was the common rendezvous of the navy, not so much for purposes of hospitality as perhaps to create distraction and make a party (Mr. O’Meara being the oracle there); on the conduct of the Commissioners, and on the protection given by Count Balmain, in particular, to Mr. O’Meara, because juridical proofs were not immediately brought forward against him – it will be felt I had many difficulties to overcome before attaining this development of what has been passing, and bringing about a right change in persons’ sentiments on the occasion: but I cannot speak on this subject without expressing my great obligations to Sir Thomas Reade, whose zeal, activity and intelligence, on this as well as on every other occasion, have never been in fault, and who has been a mainspring of the discoveries that have been made.

Even the Admiral told me he had difficulty in persuading some of his own officers Mr. O’Meara was not a much injured man (which however must have sprung from some party design, as the history of the snuff box and his communications with Mr. Vernon were sufficient to fix his character) but that now all voices are united against him. Mr. Stokoe, the Admiral said, shed tears on finding how much he had been deceived by him; and even his friend Lieutenant Reardon of the 66th now speaks of him as one of the “greatest scoundrels” to use his own terms, he ever heard of.

Your Lordship will observe the very line of proceeding which was adopted by Mr. Fowler. It shows, however, the confidence with which Mr. Holmes and Mr. Balcombe must have been acting, when they could venture to implicate Mr. Fowler so far as to send him a letter and a box of French books under a feigned address. Mr. Cole, the other partner, has not appeared in the matter. He has conducted himself with great prudence since Mr. Balcombe’s departure, but has appeared a good deal agitated since the last discoveries. It is likely to prove a fatal thing for the business of their house; but if they have lost the purveyorship by their connection with Mr. O’Meara, it is not from want of due caution to Mr. Balcombe, and this I am particularly solicitous Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt should understand…

I have observed that part of Mr. Balcombe’s letter wherein he says the opinions of Sir George Cockburn and Sir Pulteney are with him. I can never believe a person holding the high official situation of Sir George Cockburn would offer opinions to Mr. Balcombe on a subject of such delicacy as that he adverts to, but, if he should have done so, I am quite ready to meet and refute them. If Sir Pulteney has offered such opinions in private, I am persuaded he will not think of maintaining them; but should he have expressed opinions on such subject to any person in official situation, or uttered them publicly, I should desire to learn it, as I am quite prepared for any discussion on such points with him…

Napoleon is as yet uninformed of what has been passing. To have admitted only two English persons near him for upwards of a twelvemonth and those to be proved his mere tools, can afford him no agreeable subject of reflection, particularly if he should by chance discover that the one of them, a surgeon of a man-of-war, was formerly dismissed the army by the sentence of a court-martial, and that the other, who had been a mate of an Indiaman, had been equally dismissed the Company’s service for some gross act of insubordination towards the commander of his ship. The anecdotes which are current here I have no reason to doubt the truth of, yet such, with Mr. Warden are the chief selections Napoleon has made. He has not moved out since the last report which mentioned it. In other respects he continues the same.

I have the honour

&c H Lowe [9]

The ‘Warden’ to whom Lowe refers was William Warden who was a naval surgeon and travelled on Northumberland with Napoleon. During the voyage, and afterwards for some months at St. Helena, Warden was in frequent attendance on Napoleon. The conversations, as Warden understood them, (he was not a French speaker) were published under the title of ‘Letters written on board His Majesty’s Ship the Northumberland and at St. Helena’ The favourable view in which Napoleon was represented excited bitter criticism from the supporters of the government. Bonaparte assured Sir Hudson Lowe that his conversation as reported by Warden was quite different from anything he had actually said. Lowe mentioned this in a letter to Lord Bathurst, then secretary for war, and represented that Warden, who had been permitted to visit Longwood only as a medical officer in the exercise of his functions, had committed a breach of discipline in publishing the conversations and in publicly commenting on the conduct and character of individuals.[10]

After Balcombe had left St Helena a box of books written in French arrived on the island with letters addressed to O’Meara who by now had also left the island. A letter to Fowler contained inside another for James Forbes which in turn contained a third for William Holmes. A letter addressed to Stokoe contained one for him from Balcombe and another for O’Meara from Balcombe. They were political letters suggesting there would be a change in Government and advising that Holmes was indefatigable in his exertions to your cause (O’Meara’s) and no stone will be left unturned to serve our friends on the island.[11]

So perhaps Hudson Lowe had had every right to be suspicious of the behaviour of William Balcombe!

When the family arrived back in England it was William Balcombe himself who was very sick, not his wife, and three doctors had to be called to give medical attention. [12]

Mr. Balcomb [sic], who landed at Hastings on Tuesday morning, from St Helena was taken so extremely ill, immediately on his going on shore, that three physicians were instantly called in, and were almost in constant attendance the whole day. Mrs Balcomb [sic] who had previously arrived in this country with her son, left town yesterday to attend her husband – evening paper.

It is likely that Jane had disembarked at a more westerly port some days earlier and gone to pick up her eldest son William from school and then travelled to Hastings by coach. A week later Jane wrote to O’Meara

Hastings May 27th

Dear O’Meara

My Poor Balcombe has been confined to his bed almost ever since he left your dear Island he is now getting better of this long and melancholy fit of gout and we hope in the course of another fortnight that he will be able to proceed to London – Thank God I am much better notwithstanding all the (nursing?) anxiety. (However?) Mr. B has written to your agent and he sent him a book  and wished to know if it had reached St Helena yet and also his opinion of it – which B appears much pleased with – all our friends Sir T Tyrwhitt Sir George C and Lady Malcolm & etc have been very solicitous and kind writing continually to inquire after Poor Balcombe whom they are very anxious to see in London – I am very anxious to be there also – You must excuse my writing you a long letter – as the sick room affords nothing that can amuse you – my kind remembrance to Madame Bertrand and all her family – I will write again the first opportunity. The girls unite with me their kindest regards to you remaining very sincerely

Yours Signed Jane W Balcombe  [13]

William Balcombe arrived home too late to see his mother Mary who had passed away on 1st May only a few months after her husband Charles who was buried on 22 January 1818.[14] His mother’s Will was written on 25 April and proved on 16 June 1818. Jane Balcombe makes no mention of Mary’s illness or death in her letter of 27 May 1818, so they had not yet heard the news. When they found out they would have been so sad to not have had the chance to say “Goodbye”.

William’s mother Mary, nee Vandyke, formerly Balcombe, had married Charles Terry on 25 December 1788 at Rottingdean and they lived at Whipping Post House in the village. This was a home with quite a history, being the former home to Captain Dunk, one of the most famous smugglers of the village. It had cellars to store the contraband and tunnels which led to the beach and for many years was a butcher’s shop. In front of the house was a small patch of grass where the Whipping Post stood from the time when public floggings were part of daily life. Dating back to Saxon times it was subsequently Henry VIII who passed the Whipping Act where ‘offenders’ were taken naked to a place and beaten with whips till the body shall be bloody.[15]

001In her Will, Mary wanted all her accounts settled, her funeral paid for and she left her administrator John Woods, a shop keeper of Winchelsea, five guineas for his trouble plus his expenses, the rest she left to her son William of the Island of Saint Helena.

wThis is the last Will and Testament of me Mary Terry of Winchelsea in the County of Sussex, widow this twenty fifty day of April in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eighteen.  First I direct that all my just debts and funeral and testamentary claims and expenses be fully paid and satisfied. First to my friend John Woods of Winchelsea aforesaid shopkeeper the sum of five guineas as a small acknowledgement for the trouble he may have in the execution of this my Will and I appoint the said John Woods, Executor of this Will and as to all that rest, residue and remainder of my Estate and Efforts whatsoever and whomsoever and of what nature find or quality such… the same may be I give and bequeath the same unto my son William Tompsitt Balcombe of the Island of Saint Helena therefore… to and for his own absolute use and benefit I so will it and I do hereby declare that it shall and may be lawful for the said John Woods to retain to reimburse himself all such costs, charges and expenses as he shall or may sustain or be put to in the execution of this my Will and hereby revoking all former and other Wills by me at any time heretofore made.  I declare this writing only contained in one sheet of paper to be and contain my last Will and Testament. In witness whereof I the said Mary Terry the Testatrix have hereunto set my hand and seal this day and hear first above written.  Mary Terry.  Signed sealed published and declared by the said Mary Terry the testatrix as and for her last Will and Testament in the presence of us who have hereunto subscribed our names as witnesses. Weeden Daws, attorney at law  H G Stace, Winchelsea.

This Will was Proved at London 16th June 1818 before the judge by the oath of John Woods the sole Executor to whom admin was granted having been first sworn by … duly to administer.

It appears that William’s brother Stephen also died soon after the family arrived back in England. Did William have any inkling that his relatives were so sick? Stephen’s Will was Proved 17th September 1818. He named his Mother as an Executor but she had already passed on, so the Will was Proved by George Prishaw, the surviving executor. [16]

This is the last Will and Testament of me Stephen Balcombe of Pentonville in the parish of Saint James, Clerkenwell in the County of Middlesex, Gentleman. I own and first that all my debts, funeral expenses and the charges of the probate of this my will be immediately paid by my executors hereinafter named. I give and bequeath unto my mother Mary Terry wife of Charles Terry of Winchelsea in the County of Sussex and George Prishaw of Earth Street, Holborn in the County of Middlesex, Gentleman my executors and trustees hereinafter named. All the part share and interest of the product of the personal estate and effects of Charles van Dyke late of Steyning in the county of Sussex, Collarmaker toward given and bequeathed to me by the will of the said Charles van Dyke expectant on the deaths of Ann Van Dyke the widow and relict of the said Charles van Dyke, my grandfather George Van Dyke and my said mother Mary Terry and also all the rest, residue and remainder my personal estate and effects whatsoever and wheresoever subject to the payment of my debts funeral expenses and charges of the probate of this my will In trust as soon as conveniently maybe after my decease to sell and dispose thereof and convert the same into money and to plan out and invest the monies arising therefrom upon government real securities at Interest and opened and be possessed thereof upon the trusts and to and for the interests and purposes hereinafter expressed and declared of and …..sing the said effects, funds and securities unto and amongst all and every the child and children of my brother William Balcombe now living or that may hereafter be born if more than one share and share alike the portion or share of such of them as shall be a son or sons to be paid to him or them at his or their respective ages of twenty one years and to such of them as shall be a daughter or daughters on her or their attaining her or their respective ages of twenty one years or day or days of marriage which shall happen first …….. and I do hereby direct that in the meantime and until such child or children shall respectively become entitled to their said portions my said trustees do and shall pay apply and expend the whole or so much of their respective shares of and in the dividends, interest and ….. of the said trust funds or securities as they shall form to pay for and towards the maintenance, education and support respectively………

Proved at London 7th Septr 1818 before His Worshipful Samuel …… Parson, Dr of Law and sworn by the oath of George Prishaw the surviving executor to whom admin was granted by first sworn duly to administer.

After expenses were covered, Stephen left everything to be shared by his brother William’s children when they reached the age of 21 years (or on marriage for the girls) with the dividends and interest to pay for their maintenance, education and support.

No doubt the income earned from the interest and dividends would have been used to support the whole family as these years spent in England were not good financially for the Balcombes. The paranoia Hudson Lowe felt about the Balcombe’s friendship with Napoleon continued even after they had left the Island, he refused to assist with references or recommendation in any way. [17]

Lowe was even suspicious of their servants. The Balcombes had taken Sarah Timms with them back to England. She was local woman born on St Helena who had been a great friend and support to the children for many years.[18] After a year in England and hating the cold weather, she decided to return to her warmer island home on board the HEIC ship Larkins. Balcombe wrote from London on 10 April 1819

I am sending you back to the island of St Helena, your native country, you must understand that I do it upon the condition that you do not take charge of any package, parcel, letter whatever and that you do not undertake to convey any such, or any message to or for any person whatsoever on the Island.

He also told her that if any letter or parcel was given to her she should immediately pass it on the Captain Locke.[19] This proved to be very wise advice.

It was noted that the Larkins arrived

having on board a black female servant of Mr. Balcombe. This poor inoffensive woman had, it appeared (through attachment to Mr. Balcombe’s family) accompanied them to England, a crime you may suppose of no small magnitude in the eyes of Sir Hudson Lowe. Innocent, however, as the conduct of this harmless old creature was, the officers and men of the Larkins were doomed to suffer the greatest inconvenience for their humanity in giving her a passage to her native country. They were not permitted to land for two days in consequence in having her on board nor were the restrictions placed on them removed until the most inquisitorial examination before Sir Thomas Reade took place of this unoffending woman’s person, papers and baggage. [20]

No doubt the Balcombe family would have been saddened to hear of the death of their friend Napoleon on 5 May 1821. He was buried in ground he had selected and consecrated by the Government’s clergyman and also by the priest Vignali. Napoleon left a codicil to his Will dated 16 April 1821, leaving to Lady Holland a beautiful gold snuff box with a valuable antique cameo on the lid presented to him by the Pope in 1797. All he possessed on the Island was to be equally divided between Counts Bertrand and Montholon and M. Marchand except for three small mahogany boxes principally containing snuff boxes, cameos and medals set into the lids, asking that they be delivered to his son when he turned sixteen. All the furniture provided by the British Government for Napoleon and his entourage was sold by auction on the island, the details of the furniture, purchaser and price make for fascinating reading covering over 200 pages.[21]

During their time back in England it was difficult for William Balcombe to earn a living. It would have been hard for the family with their money tied up in both the business and The Briars back on St Helena…it is doubtful if William was ever fully reimbursed in terms of any rent owing or sales which followed on the island.

He had to rely on the generosity of family and friends and, so as not to ‘out-stay’ their welcome, they appeared to move frequently.

Initially they lived in Plymouth but then more quietly and cheaply at Chudleigh in Devon. [22] William did support Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt’s efforts to get a railway built, buying 4 shares at £25 each in the Subscription list for the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway.[23] It was a scheme which was Tyrwhitt’s passion but it was also very expensive and it cost him dearly. Subsequently the Parliamentary Act of 1821 allowed for public funding of a long tunnel, a huge financial relief for him and the railway opened in 1823 but was never the success he hoped it would be. By now Tyrwhitt’s other scheme, the large stone Dartmoor prison was not in use. Building had been started in 1806 and initially housed French Prisoners of War. Once peace was declared they left but from 1812-1816 there were American POWs. It eventually became a notorious prison for criminals in 1851.[24]

Balcombe kept in touch with his former business partners Fowler and Cole but they realised letters were being monitored and did not want to be embroiled in any scandal caused by Balcombe’s friendship with Bonaparte.

Dr O’Meara had been a fierce critic of Hudson Lowe in the English newspapers and he arrived back in England on HMS Griffon [25] and immediately was encouraged by the newspapers to disclose the events on St Helena. He did but was censured and lost his Navy pension in the process.

The books which were sent to St Helena along with illicit letters appeared to embroil Balcombe in a plot to assist Napoleon to escape from the island. [26] He was summoned to answer several tricky questions by Lord Bathurst. No doubt he was saved by the intervention and advice of his friend Thomas Tyrwhitt.[27]

For the sake of their two daughters the Balcombes joined the ‘debutante’ whirl of social events. These engagements could be expensive but appearances had to be maintained in the search for suitable marriage partners for both Jane and Betsy. The Season was in full swing from April to August and it was hoped the girls would make a good match… they would attend parties and Balls, be beautifully dressed and coiffed, be demure and graceful on the dance floor and hope to catch the eye of an eligible beau. However they faced two major handicaps in their search for a husband, their lack of money for a marriage settlement and lack of aristocratic bloodlines.

At some point Betsy supposedly relinquished a precious stone to a local and very eccentric Thomas Fish of Knowle Cottage, Sidmouth. It was a piece of topaz she won from Napoleon by beating him at chess. In 1837 it was listed in the Authorised Guide to Knowle Cottage.[28] This was a very generous gift, one which the family really could not afford, so if the topaz truly was from Betsy, we can only speculate as to her reasons… did she have marriage to Mr Fish in mind? Sadly for her no proposal from Mr Fish was forthcoming.

Jane Balcombe’s friend from St Helena days, Dr Stokoe, also proved to be unacceptable as a potential husband as he had been court martialled on ten charges related to assisting Napoleon at Longwood when ordered not to visit. He was dismissed from the Navy [29] and put onto half pay.

Betsy did find a marriage partner in the dashing Charles Edward Abell, a former officer in the Indian Army whose parents lived a few miles away from the Balcombe home.  They had probably already met in 1817 as, according to the Morning Chronicle of 4 December 1817, he had called into St Helena en route to England with the ship Woodforde from Madras via Bengal and Mauritius to St  Helena, finally arriving in Deal on 4 December 1817. However Abell was perhaps not the most suitable of partners for Betsy; he was a former Indian Army officer who gambled, protected the interests of the HEIC and looked out for his own advantage. William Balcombe may have been worried, knowing exactly what mischief young officers like Abell could get up to in India. But actively court and marry Betsy he did, most likely thinking the Balcombes were ‘moneyed’ with the rumoured connection to royalty. If he had any second thoughts, it would subsequently be impossible to change his mind under pressure from Sir Thomas as by the time of the marriage ceremony Betsy was well and truly “with child”.

As Betsy was already pregnant and Banns take three weeks to be called, a special licence was required to speed things up. This meant an application to the Archbishop and a fee to be paid.[30]

Sir Thomas was a witness to the marriage of Betsy to Mr Abell, this man with an old Cornish name. [31]

Lucia Elizabeth (Betsy) Balcombe married Charles Edward Abell Esq. at Exminster on 28 May 1822, by the Rev H J Burlton. Witnesses were Wm Balcombe, Thos Tyrwhitt, Francis Stanfell RN, Jane Sophie Turner and Henry Brown.[32] Her father was noted as being “of this place.” [33] She was 20 years old, not the 30 reported by Mackenzie. [34] Stanfell was Commander of the ship “Phaeton” which had taken Hudson Lowe to St Helena in 1816.[34a] What were the family connections to Jane Turner and Henry Brown?

On her wedding day Betsy would have become eligible for her share of the inheritance from her Uncle Stephen which in those days meant it went straight to her new husband…. and probably used to pay off his gambling debts.

The Montholons sent a wedding gift to Betsy, a silk-lined sewing and writing box with tortoiseshell and inlay (which was on display at The Briars, Mornington but, following a targeted theft from the house, is now in safe storage.) [35]

We now know from Anne Whitehead’s excellent work that the Balcombe family moved from England to live in Saint Omer across the Channel near Calais in France.[36] It appears there were several reasons behind this move, probably at the suggestion of Sir Thomas who took holidays there (and in fact died there at Calais in 1833).[37] The cost of living was less than in England and it may have been a slightly warmer climate for Mrs. Balcombe’s health. William may have hoped to gain some recognition and perhaps monetary recompense from his Napoleon connections in France. He still had a Bill drawn upon Lafitte’s bank in Bonaparte’s name from Montholon and perhaps hoped to cash that.[38]

Betsy and her husband went to Saint Omer with them and no doubt would have kept up a pretence that they had been married for a full year.[39] There was a need to avoid the social stigma of Betsy being pregnant when she married. Their daughter appears to have been born here in September 1822 [40] and the baby would be registered in France. She was called Jane Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, known as Bessie.

Whilst living in France it is more than likely that William Balcombe took the opportunity to do some travelling. We have no idea where he went, but this was his best chance to visit Lafitte’s Bank or make contact with Napoleon’s family or sympathisers. Jane Balcombe stayed at home as she was often ill.

At some point the Abell family moved back to London, leaving the senior Balcombes in France. Sadly the marriage did not last and Edward Abell abandoned Betsy and her child in the Blackfriars, a poor area of London. Was it because the money had run out and she was not the very rich and eligible young lady he had thought? William found his daughter in dire straits. However she was still legally tied to the ungallant Abell who took her jewellery and could reappear at any time to claim any money she earned. A divorce was expensive but she could hope for him to agree to an annulment of the marriage or to a private separation. She hoped in vain but in October 1823 did manage to collect and keep the money from a promissory note honoured by Sir Henry Torrens.[41]

In 1823 Hudson Lowe had returned to England and at some point the neurotic Lowe went to Paris and attempted to assassinate the son of Las Cases. Lowe fired a shot but a wallet saved Las Cases’ life. The Paris police found Lowe and quickly arranged for him to be sent back to England before a diplomatic incident could occur.[42]

Lowe asked Balcombe for support in his case against Dr O’Meara and Balcombe filed a brief affidavit in Lowe’s favour. Balcombe then sent a letter in which he expresses the hope that Sir Hudson will now overlook any differences that may have existed. [43] This Lowe appears to have done.

Subsequently Lord Bathurst appointed William Balcombe as Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales, a post he took up in 1823, an indication that either Bathurst did not take a very serious view of his supposed irregularities in St Helena or the position was a ‘banishment’ and he hoped it would be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. [44] Betsy agreed to her father’s request that she accompany the family to New South Wales.

As a merchant on St Helena William Balcombe had to deal with many different currencies. Even young Betsy playing whist with Bonaparte knew her coins, one time she caught him ‘revoking’ on which she told him he must pay her a Napoleon, He replied “No! No! You owe me a Pagoda and I will not give you a Napoleon until you give me a Pagoda!”[45]

St Helena island was known as the “Road-house of the Ocean”. Ships travelling to and from Europe, India, China, the Cape, East Africa, the Dutch East Indies, slave traders from Gambia and other parts of Africa en route to southern USA, Argentina and Brazil all called into the island to replenish stocks of food and water. In 1813 the Rupee was worth 2s. 6d, the Dollar 5s. 9d, the Ducatoon 6s 8d and the Doubloon £3. 19s.[46] Up to the time of Napoleon the Indian coins were dominant with ten different gold coins such as doubloons, pagodas and mohurs in circulation along with over twenty silver coins such as dollars, rupees, guilders and francs, all of which had legal currency. It was a “money changer’s headache”.[47]

New South Wales was an isolated penal colony, a gaol with soldiers and officers under the pay of the Government in England. It was initially thought that the colony would not need a currency of its own, so none had been provided. Consequently in Sydney foreign coins which arrived haphazardly in trade or officer’s purses and convict’s pockets acquired local acceptability, [48] so every coin on earth was traded there and each had its own value.[49]

The ‘clearing house’ that was St Helena had been an excellent training ground for the first Treasurer of this more distant Colony where even rum had become a currency, being bartered for crops, sheep, cattle and no doubt labour. [50]

William Balcombe, the newly appointed Colonial Treasurer of NSW, would need to keep a nimble mind!

#Balcombe   #StHelena  #Bonaparte  #Tyrwhitt  #ColonialTreasurer


© Caroline Gaden


There is another, later, Balcombe connection with Saint Omer. In the Second World War Pilot G Balcombe (Flight Lieutenant RAF) flew a Spitfire IX with serial number MK635 for strafing duty. His mission was not completed and he crash landed at St Omer on 1st September 1944. This aircraft was a part of squadron no. 91. However he is not the Australian descendant of William Balcombe.

The family member was Flight Lieutenant Gordon Robertson Balcombe (420815) who was co-pilot of a Lancaster Bomber in 100 Squadron RAF, on a mission to bomb Berlin. The aircraft was lost and all were missing, presumed killed, on 15 February 1944.[51]

A visit to ‘G’ for George, the Lancaster Bomber in the Australian War Memorial will evoke all sorts of emotions for Balcombe descendants as you listen to their bombing run.


In 2015 Anne Whitehead published Betsy and the Emperor (Allen and Unwin). I commend it to you.

[1] William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena from the letters and journals of the late Lieut-Gen Sir Hudson Lowe and official documents not before made public. John Murray, London, 1853, Volume III, page 6

[2] Letter from Count Bertrand to Sir Hudson Lowe The Times Wednesday 19 Aug 1818, p. 3.

[3] The Times, 18 May 1818, p. 3, issue 10359.

[4] William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena, Volume I, page 447-448.

[5] William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena, Volume II, page 469.

[6] Simon Winchester, Outposts, journeys to the surviving relics of the British Empire, Penguin Travel, UK, 2003, Chapter 6 St Helena, page 144.

[7] William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena, Volume II, page 490.

[8] Octave Aubery, St Helena story, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1937, page 377.

[9] William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena from the letters and journals of the late Lieut-Gen Sir Hudson Lowe and official documents not before made public. John Murray, London, 1853, Volume III, Letter 146, pages 415-419


[11]Gilbert Martineau, Napoleon’s St Helena, p 188 and William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena Volume II, pages 105.

[12] The Times, 23 May 1818.

[13] National Archives, UK, researched by agent Stephen Wright, 2007

[14] IGI at

[15] Image and information from Henry Blyth, Smugglers’ Village, the story of Rottingdean, self published, no date but before 1972, p. 40.

[16] Will of Stephen Balcombe from Public Record Office, National Archives, England

[17] Mabel Brookes, St Helena Story, page 214, 241.

[18] Mrs Abell, Recollections, pages 163, 170.

[19] Mabel Brookes, St Helena Story, page 243-244.

[20] Extract from a letter from St Helena 17 July 1819 in The Morning Chronicle (London) 17 September 1819, Issue 15720

[21] Martin Levy, Napoleon in Exile: the houses and furniture supplied by the British Government for the Emperor and his Entourage on St Helena, Furniture History, The Journal of the Furniture History Society, Volume XXXIV, 1998, pages 1-211.

[22] Arnold Chaplin, A St Helena Who’s Who, London, EP Dutton and Co, London 1919, page 52-54.

[23] Plymouth and Dartmoor Railroad Prospectus, from the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Item 276/3


[25] The Times, 15 September 1818.

[26] Morning Post, 17 November 1818

[27] More information on htis can be found in Anne Whitehead’s book Betsy and the Emperor. p 231-51.

[28] Harvey’s current and authorized guide to illustrations and views of Knowle Cottage, Sidmouth, the elegant marine villa orné of Thos L Fish Esq. Sidmouth, J Harvey, 1837, p.12-13, available on Google Books.

[29] William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena from the letters and journals of the late Lieut-Gen Sir Hudson Lowe and official documents not before made public. John Murray, London, 1853, Volume II, pages 140-150.

[30] When the author married there was not the required three weeks available for banns due to the couple having to fly into the UK from Australia, so application was made to the Archbishop of Canterbury for a special licence and the appropriate fee was paid. The large, impressive document was collected from Westminster Abbey en route from London Heathrow to Yorkshire.

[31] G Pawley White, A handbook of Cornish surnames, Dyllanson Truran, 1972, Abell/Abel/Able from a-bell which means far off, or possibly the Biblical name Abel.

[32] Marriage certificate, UK National archives.

[33] Exeter news of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post of Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser 30 May 1822, issue 2957. Gale Group online newspapers.

[34] Faith Compton Mackenzie, Napoleon at the Briars, Jonathan Cape, London, 1943, p. 57.

[34a] Martineau, Gilbert, Napoleon’s St Helena, Rand McNally, p. 70.

[35] Personal communication from Keith and Shirley Murley, volunteers at The Briars, Mornington.

[36] Whitehead, Anne, Betsy and the Emperor, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2015 pages 286-306. and


[38] Letter Hudson Lowe to Earl Bathurst dated 7 July 1816, quoted in Norward Young, Volume I, page 211-2

[39] Whitehead, Anne, Betsy and the Emperor, p.289.

[40] General Count Montholon History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St Helena, Vol III, p.17, (

[41] Sir Henry Torrens papers, BL Add Whitehead

[42] Information provided on ‘Napoleon Tour of St Helena’ we undertook in 2010, by Charlotta Ticha and her husband Zbynek Tichy who were from the the National Trust of the Czech Republic and interested in Napoleon because of his illegitimate son Alexandre Florian Joseph, Count Colonna-Walewski (4 May 1810 – 27 October 1868) by his mistress, Countess Marie Walewska from Poland.

[43] National Archives, Kew, England, Lowe papers Volume 20, 233 dated 1823, CO 247/35, Affidavits – Sir Hudson Lowe and Mr. O’Meara.

[44] Arnold Chaplin, A St Helena’s Who’s Who, Arthur L Humphries, 1919, pages 52-54.

[45] Henry Meynell, Conversations with Napoleon, London, Arthur L Humphreys, 1911, page 68

[46] St Helena Records, < http:www.bweaver, >

[47] David Vice, The Coinage of British West Africa and St Helena 1684-1958, Format Publications, pp. 120-1

[48] SJ Butlin, Foundations of the Australian Monetary system 1788 – 1851, p. 4.

[49]Marjorie Barnard, A History of Australia, Angus and Robertson, 1962, p. 65.

[50] SJ Butlin, Foundations of the Australian Monetary system 1788 – 1851, p. 23.