• Tastes Of History

On This Day: Fishguard's women defend Britain


The last battle on British soil is commonly accepted as being the French invasion at Fishguard in 1797. Under the command of Irish-American Colonel William Tate, a force of 1,400 French soldiers had sailed from Camaret to invade Wales with the aim of instigating a French-style revolution in Britain. Of the 1,400 troops, some 600 were French regular soldiers that Napoleon Bonaparte had not required for his conquest of Italy, and 800 were irregulars, including republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. All were well-armed, and some of the Tate’s officers were Irish. Officially known as the Seconde Légion des Francs, they became more commonly known as La Légion Noire (‘The Black Legion’) on account of using captured British uniforms dyed very dark brown or black.

The last invasion The French force landed at Carregwastad Point near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire on February 22nd, 1797. The French moved inland and secured some outlying farmhouses. A company of French grenadiers under Lieutenant St. Leger took possession of Trehowel Farm on the Llanwnda Peninsula about a mile from their landing site, and it was here that Colonel Tate decided to set up his headquarters.


By February 23rd, Tate was having serious problems with his troops and with lowering morale, the invasion began to lose momentum. Discipline among the convict recruits quickly collapsed with many of them rebelling and mutinying against their officers. Having been instructed to live off the land, many of the convicts simply deserted to loot nearby local villages and hamlets where they soon discovered the locals' supply of wine [2]. Those troops left to Tate were the French regulars, including his Grenadiers. The rest mainly lay drunk and sick in farmhouses all over the Llanwnda Peninsula.


Instead of welcoming Tate's invaders, the Welsh had turned out to be hostile, and at least six Welsh and French had already been killed in clashes. Tate's Irish and French officers counselled surrender, since the departure of the French ships that morning meant there was no way to escape.


By 5 pm, the British forces had reached Fishguard. The remaining French troops were thus confronted by a quickly assembled group of around 600 Welsh reservists, local militia, and sailors all under the command of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor and captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry. Many local civilians also organised and armed themselves. Battle was averted when Cawdor called off the attack due to the failing light and returned to Fishguard.


The French waver Later that evening, Tate decided to try and negotiate a conditional surrender. He sent his second in command, Baron de Rochemure, and his aide-de-camp Francois L’Hanhard who could speak English, to negotiate a conditional surrender allowing the entire French force to return to France. They were guided to a house in Fishguard Square, which in later years would become the Royal Oak public house, where Cawdor had set up his headquarters. A discussion took place between the senior British officers who decided to reject the French approach and insist on unconditional surrender. Tate was given until 10 am on February 24th to surrender on Goodwick Sands, otherwise the French would be attacked.


By 8 am on the following morning, the British forces lined up in battle order on Goodwick Sands. As these local troops were being deployed, Cawdor rode over to Trehowel Farm where Tate agreed to the unconditional surrender. According to reports, when formally surrendering his sword, Tate was notably confused and frightened. The scene on Goodwick Sands was just as pathetic. Having stacked their arms, the prisoners waited until there were boats to carry them round to Fishguard. Further accounts claim that many of the men were ‘very ill of a flux’ which they had brought over with them and that some even died.

Jemima Fawr The story continues that the inhabitants of Fishguard had assembled on the cliffs above Goodwick Sands to watch and await Tate's response to the ultimatum. Among those present were women wearing traditional Welsh costume. According to the tale Jemima Nicholas, a 47-year-old cobbler’s wife also known as ‘Jemima Fawr’, is credited with tricking the French invaders into surrender by telling the local women to dress in their red ‘whittles’ (shawls) and tall, black steeple-crowned hats. It is reputed that the same Jemima Nicholas single-handedly captured a dozen, drunken French soldiers and imprisoned them overnight in the nearby St Mary’s Church. Regardless, it is claimed that, from a distance, some of the French mistook the women to be regular line infantry in red coats and black shakos. Thus it was that the French commander thought his soldiers were outnumbered and sought to surrender.


All of this makes for a cracking story, one that has been told and retold so many times that certain key elements have become enshrined in the telling. Indeed, the story of this event is told in an embroidered tapestry that was commissioned in 1997 to commemorate the bicentenary of the Invasion. Similar in shape and design to the Bayeux tapestry, the Fishguard version is also 30.5 m long (100 feet). It was designed and sewn by around 80 Fishguard women and took four years to complete. The tapestry is on permanent exhibition in ‘The Last Invasion Tapestry Gallery’ attached to the Library in Fishguard Town Hall. Unsurprisingly the women of Fishguard are shown in their national dress arriving to watch proceedings. Historically, however, there may be a problem as this ‘traditional’ dress may have been ‘invented’ some years later by one Augusta Hall (Hutton, 2009, 247).

National dress According to St Fagan’s National History Museum, the popular image of Welsh 'national' dress, of a woman in a red cloak and tall black hat, is based on clothes worn by Welsh countrywomen during the early 19th-century. By the middle of the century, this fashion had became part of a conscious revival of Welsh culture at a time when traditional values were under threat. Thus the ‘national dress’ that developed consisted of a striped flannel petticoat, worn under a flannel open-fronted bedgown, with an apron, shawl and kerchief or cap. The style of the bedgown varied, with loose coat-like gowns, gowns with a fitted bodice and long skirts and a short gown very similar in style to a riding habit. The women’s hats were generally the same as those worn by men of the period. The iconic tall 'chimney' or ‘stove-pipe’ hat did not appear until the late 1840s, some forty years after the vents at Fishguard. That said, such hats seem to be based on a fusion of men's top hats and a form of high hat worn in country areas during the 1790-1820 period.


All things Welsh Augusta Hall, nee Waddington, was the daughter of a London family that had made its fortune in the American trade, before making Monmouthshire the seat of their family home. Augusta had married Benjamin Hall, a Welsh civil engineer and Member of Parliament for Monmouth, in 1823. Her husband is most famous for becoming the First Commissioner of Works in 1855 with the ‘direct responsibility for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster and [possibly] having the bell of the new clock tower named after him’ (Hutton, 2009, 247). In 1859 Hall was elevated to the peerage as Baron Llanover, of Llanover and Abercarn in the County of Monmouth. Through his wife, Augusta, he inherited the Llanover estate in Monmouthshire.


Augusta had fallen in love with Wales and instigated a new wave of measures to preserve and revive a distinctive cultural identity for the principality. Under her leadership she built on an ongoing restoration of national heritage in the shape of traditional literature and music (including the institution of eisteddfod to encourage new productions) and added external symbols of nationhood. In the period 1825 to 1850 she gave Wales a national hero in the shape of Twm Sion Catti [1] and a national costume, designing a female dress of tall black hat, red cloak, gown and petticoat - the same costume famously worn by the women of Fishguard nearly 30 years earlier. Of course it is possible that Augusta Hall simply promoted a national dress based on that already worn in Pembrokeshire.


Traditions championed As Lady Llanover, Augusta was very influential in encouraging the wearing of a 'national' dress, both in her own home and at eisteddfodau. She considered it important to encourage the use of the Welsh language and the wearing of an identifiable Welsh costume. She succeeded in her aim mainly because people felt that their national identity was under threat and the wearing of a national dress was one way to preserve and promote that identity.


A further influence was the work of artists producing prints for the rising tourist trade, which had the effect of popularising the idea of a typical Welsh costume. Later the work of photographers who produced thousands of postcards would do the same. All of these efforts contributed to the creation of a stereotypical 'national' dress at odds with the numerous styles undoubtedly worn earlier in the century.

 

References:


Hutton, R., (2009), ‘Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain’, Yale University Press.


Endnotes:


1. An outlaw and trickster who was something of a local legend in Cardiganshire. Augusta sponsored his conversion into a figure known to the British public in general through her patronage of Thomas Jeffrey Llewelyn Pritchard, a writer who produced a bestselling novel about Twm.

2. A Portuguese ship had been wrecked on the coast several weeks previously and many of the locals had stocked their homes with the alcoholic spoils of salvage.

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