Blatherings

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: The Thief of Europe comes to England

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable details known only to a few people.

Today: Napoleon Bonaparte on England’s shores – and an unusual witness.


BY JULY 1815, NAPOLEON BONAPARTE was a beaten man. The previous month, his renewed bid for power had come to a bloody end at Waterloo. Accompanied by his mistress and a small retinue of followers and advisers, the defeated Emperor fled Paris, heading for the coast.

He hoped to board a ship for America, where the government was sympathetic to his cause. However, the French ports were blockaded by the British Royal Navy. Escape was impossible, and in mid-July Napoleon offered his formal surrender to Captain Maitland, commander of the British man-of-war HMS Bellerophon

Napoleon aboard Northumberland

Napoleon in captivity, 1815 (sketched aboard HMS Northumberland en route to St Helena).

With Bonaparte and his retinue aboard (occupying the best cabins on the ship, to the disgruntlement of some of the officers who had to give up their berths), Captain Maitland set a course for England, and a few days later dropped anchor in Tor Bay, off the coast of Devon. A messenger was despatched to London to inform the government. The Times took great satisfaction at the news of Napoleon’s capture:

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: The British Empire's first successful caesarean delivery

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable details known only to a few people.

Today: Pioneering surgery by a woman in disguise!


THE NIGHT OF 25 JULY 1826 was cold and wet. In the small settlement of Wynberg, nine miles from Cape Town, Mrs Wilhelmina Munnik’s pregnancy was coming to a traumatic conclusion. The baby – for which Wilhemina and her husband Thomas had waited for ten years – refused to be born. The midwife had done all she could, and was forced to concede defeat. A doctor was needed.

Thomas Munnik ordered a servant to ride to Cape Town to fetch the very best surgeon available, a man known for his obstetric skill. Dr James Barry was a Staff Surgeon with the British Army garrison, as well as medical attendant to many of the Cape’s rich families and personal physician to the former Governor, Lord Charles Somerset. A fine medical practitioner, James Barry was known not only for his skill but also his eccentricity – particularly his appearance and manner. What was not well known about Dr Barry was that beneath his male attire he was a woman.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017