Post card from Brittany – The French are revolting!

“Cher Tom

Lots of action in France, English sailors fighting on the side of the French in Brittany.


P.S. Always remember to lock your doors!

It cannot be regarded as a coincidence that at the time of Cinderloo (1821), the whole of Europe was undergoing or had undergone major revolutionary change. 

The American revolution had inspired people in France to rise up and storm the Bastille on 14th July 1789. They had suffered from large numbers of unemployment, increased food prices and higher taxes, disproportionately paid by the lower classes who were already suffering from a collapse in real wages.  

Many think of the French Revolution as just one night – the night the people stormed the Bastille on 14th July 1789. However, it lasted at least ten tumultuous years and had widespread connotations which rippled throughout Europe. The revolution had encouraged workers to challenge the establishment and to fight for their rights. Many in England were inspired by the movement’s core ideals of social equality and democracy. Notions of personal freedom and a just and fair society inspired and fuelled public debate about political reform. The revolution continued to have a strong influence on British society well into the nineteenth century.

Members of the establishment in Britain felt a fundamental threat from this new way of thinking. The French revolution provoked open debate about the rights of men and women, personal freedoms and the role of monarchy and aristocracy. Britain’s decision to go to war with France in a coalition with other powers was a direct result of the French Revolution. The many French successes in these wars led to the spread of the French revolutionary ideals in many other countries.

It is during these wars that ninety English sailors were captured in 1793 and led into the town where I now live in Brittany. At first they were imprisoned in the local chateau but soon became prisoners ‘sur l’honneur’. That meant they were free to do as they wished as long as they stayed in the town. It was an early form of ‘entente cordiale’. Some even had girlfriends.

On the night of 15th February 1795, one of the national guard forgot to close the chateau gate and local anti-revolutionary forces invaded. The English sailors decided to fight with the local forces in order to save the town and at dawn the following day nine English sailors had lost their lives. The chouans, the anti-revolutionary forces had lost thirty. The survivors were given their freedom and allowed to return home to Sussex, along with their French girlfriends. The irony is not lost. English sailors who were being paid by the British government to fight against France ultimately came to fight for the French revolution.

We cannot be sure to what extent the French Revolution directly affected the actions of the colliers in Shropshire. But at the time they rebelled and stood up to the ironmasters, it was against a backdrop in Europe of great change calling for greater freedoms,  liberty and justice. At the time those brave colliers were standing at the cinder hills ready to face the yeomanry were they thinking of those who stormed the Bastille prison one night? Almost certainly not. But did the French revolution empower workers like these to do what they were doing? Definitely. 

Jayne McDermott originally from Madeley and now living in France is a former HMRC employee, an amateur historian and activist with Shropshire Fights Back and the local Trades Union Council. Jayne is a Dawley Miner’s granddaughter and great granddaughter. 

2 thoughts on “Post card from Brittany – The French are revolting!

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  1. Well done Jayne. A well written, entertaining, easy read in the sense that I wished there were more of it!

    Thank you for sharing, please share, or write more in this delightfully engaging style. Not only did I live just up the road from the author, we were in the same class all the way through secondary school. On first name terms dontcha know! X


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