Waterloo's Early Tourists
by Stacy Weissner
The pandemic has given all of us a new appreciation for the ability to simply get out of the house and, as COVID restrictions are lifting, everyone is delighting in the idea of going on vacation again. Britons in the early 19th century experienced something remarkably similar after Napoleon’s defeat. For a generation, they had been confined to their island. With his defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, the “Corsican Tyrant” could hamper their travel plans no longer.
While the record shows that curious (or foolhardy) civilians ventured out to watch the fighting from behind Allied lines as the battle raged and that scavengers made their appearance as soon as the firing stopped, the first true “tourists” were on site as early as the next morning. One civilian who had fled to Ostend from Brussels when the alarm was first raised prior to the battle declared, “We resolved to make up for our former retreat by being among the first to contemplate the scene of action.” Cavalie Mercer, the commander of G Troop Royal Horse Artillery and one of the best-known diarists of the Waterloo campaign, noted on the morning of June 19th:
We had not yet finished our meal, when a carriage drove on the ground from Brussels, the inmates of which, alighting, proceeded to examine the field. As they passed near us, it was amusing to see the horror with which they eyed our frightful figures; they all, however, pulled off their hats and made us low bows. One, a smartly-dressed middle-aged man, in a high cocked-hat came to our circle, and entered into conversation with me on the events of yesterday. He approached holding a delicately white perfumed handkerchief to his nose; stepping carefully to avoid the bodies (at which he cast fearful glances en passant), to avoid polluting the glossy silken hose that clothed his nether limbs. With a world of bows my man took leave, and proceeded, picking his steps with the same care as he followed the route of his companions in the direction of Hougoumont.
These first day trippers had no qualms about indulging their curiosity on the still-smoldering battlefield, even at the risk of their silk stockings. Whig politician, Thomas Creevey, had been living in Brussels prior to the Waterloo campaign and visited the battlefield on June 20th. One of Wellington’s aides-de-camp, Lord Arthur Hill, was obliging enough to give Creevey a tour of the site. Unlike Mercer's first civilian visitors who seemed to view the human cost of the war-torn field as both an obstacle to their curiosity and threat to their finery, Hill was--as might be expected of a fellow combatant--more sympathetic to those who had been caught in the literal crossfire, interrupting his narrative to give brandy and water to the French wounded and expressing his regret to one Imperial Guard sergeant for the delay in moving him off the field. Army wives, too, were not beyond touring the battlefield once they had established the whereabouts and safety of their loved ones. Both Charlotte Sloane Paget (wife of Henry William Paget, Earl of Uxbridge) and Emily Somerset (wife of Lord Fitzroy Somerset) had husbands who had lost limbs in the fighting but survived their wounds. Before returning to England in early July, the women took Uxbridge’s barouche to the Waterloo battlefield and made a stop at the homes where their husbands’ limbs had been amputated. At the farm where Uxbridge had been treated, the farmer’s wife, “took me [Lady Charlotte] into the garden to show me where his poor dear, dear leg was buried, and she has promised me to plant a tree on the spot.”
A print from a sketch done by E. Walsh on June 25, 1815--a week after the battle---near La Belle Alliance, the inn near the spot where Wellington and Blucher met at the close of the fighting. Soldiers take a break from digging graves in the foreground while one of their group speaks to a civilian on horseback. (From the Royal Trust Collection)
The compact nature of the battlefield and the ferocity of the fighting meant that clean up lasted months. Instead of a trim, verdant landscape dotted with monuments, the earliest tourists to Waterloo encountered all the grim sights and smells that went along with the carnage of war. Charlotte Eaton nee Waldie, a civilian visitor in Ghent, arrived a month after the fighting and noted the still-smoking piles of human ashes throughout the area. Her own tour of the field was disturbed by the sight of a hand, stripped of flesh, “outstretched above the ground, as if it had raised itself from the grave.” Another visitor, Henry Crabb Robinson, made his own trip to the battlefield on August 14, 1815 and found:
There were arms of trees hanging down, shattered by cannon balls, and yet not cut off. And there were ruined burnt cottages in many places, and marks of bullets and balls on both houses and trees…In the circular brick church of Waterloo we saw two plain marble monuments, bearing simply the names of the officers of the 1st Foot Guards and 15th King’s Hussars who had fallen there. Even the reward of being so named is given but to one in a thousand. Sixty thousand men were said to have been killed or wounded at Waterloo. Will sixty be named hereafter?
Remembrance and a search for meaning after a two decades’ long struggle were among the main factors driving British tourists of all stripes to see for themselves the place where that struggle ended. When he arrived in Flanders, John Scott found, “a host of my countryfolks, of each sex, and every age, profession, residence, and condition.” Artists and literary giants of the age descended on the field, eager to capture for posterity its true significance in verse, prose, and art. Among early tourists were names like Southey, Byron, Wordsworth, Scott, Haydon, Wilke, Eastlake, and Soane. Satirical poet Eaton Stannard Barret wryly commented in 1816 that “everyone now returns from abroad, either Beparised or Bewaterlooed.”
Locals quickly adapted to the flood of visitors. Peasants and military officers alike were soon providing tours. Carriages and drivers could be hired for a trip about the field. The towns of Waterloo, Mont St. Jean, and the inn at La Belle Alliance welcomed visitors and provided refreshments for hungry and thirsty tourists. Given the havoc the battle had caused in their lives, it is hard to fault residents for finding ways to profit from their locality’s newfound fame.
One of the best means of making money was through the sale of souvenirs. No matter what reason someone had for making the trip to Waterloo, there was a nearly universal desire to acquire some physical remembrance of the journey. Immediately following the battle, weapons, bits of uniforms, and even letters and Bibles were stripped from the dead. Early 19th century tourists (not so unlike their modern counterparts), it was found, would purchase anything. Henry Robinson noted that “On the field and at other places the peasants brought us relics of the fight. Dr. Stewart purchased a brass cuirass for a napoleon, and pistols, &c. were sold to others.” Even Charlotte Paget, who had visited the site of her husband's lost limb, made sure to secure souvenirs:
Lady Fitzroy and I have each got some grape that [we] picked up there, and one of mine is the exact size that wounded your beloved Papa—it just fits the hole in his Cossacks which he wore that day—I need not tell you that I have saved them also, but the poor old farmer I have before mentioned…would keep the boot and offered two Guineas for it.
The two guineas’ investment was a good one for Monsieur Paris, the "poor old farmer." The boot, along with the table and bloodstained sheets on which Uxbridge’s leg had been amputated, became part of a display at his farm, including a tombstone marking the site of Uxbridge’s buried leg. (For those who are wondering, the promised tree was planted nearby.) As one historian remarked, in a later age it might have been billed as the “Uxbridge Amputation Experience,” and it provided a decent income for the Paris family for generations.
While bullets and other military paraphernalia were among the most common souvenirs, more macabre items were sometimes acquired. Charlotte Eaton bought a broken sword on her visit but also saved human ashes from one of the smoldering pyres with the intention of burying them in England. (Given that the bulk of the corpses that were burned were French, her care may have been misplaced.) Walter Scott’s collection of Waterloo memorabilia included a human skull. It was identified as having belonged to a Life Guardsman who had once modeled for his friend, artist Benjamin Robert Haydon. When it came to remains being removed from the field by visitors, however, these more respectful remembrances were not necessarily the norm. The early 19th century demand and preference for dentures made of human teeth meant Waterloo was a potential gold mine for those with pliers and a willingness to use them. Teeth known to have come from young, healthy people struck down in the prime of their lives (as opposed to those forcibly pulled from criminals or plundered from unknown graves) commanded the highest prices. While scavengers certainly took advantage of the ready supply on the battlefield, there are records of other early visitors—particularly those in the medical profession—adding “Waterloo Ivory” to other battlefield souvenirs. Human bone and ash collected from the battlefield to be sold as fertilizer offered another opportunity to turn a profit off the heroism of the fallen.
The site also had its non-human victims. One of the most notable casualties to the visitors’ rapacious desire for souvenirs was the “Wellington Tree.” This tree was at the center of the British line and was supposed to have been the spot where the Duke of Wellington spent the bulk of his day during the battle. Journalist John Scott, observed this silent witness to the battle with awe,
I found it much shattered with balls, both grape and musket; all of which had been picked out by visitors. Its branches and trunk were terribly splintered. It still retained, however, the vitality of its growth, and will, probably, for many future years, be the first saluting sign to our children and our children’s children, who, with feelings of a sacred cast, come to gaze on this theatre of their ancestors’ deeds.
Sadly, posterity did not have the opportunity. Having been stripped by Scott’s time of embedded bullets, later visitors who wished to have a memento of the Wellington Tree felt compelled to attack the tree itself. By 1816, schoolmaster John Evans told of his own visit to the tree:
I took a sketch of it, and some of my companions a bough or two. The bough immediately over the place where THE DUKE had stood, still bore the mark of a cannon-shot! This bough fell under the axe of an Irish officer in our party.
By the time Charlotte Eaton returned to the battlefield for a second visit, she discovered to her horror that, “this tree, which ought to have been for ever sacred, has been CUT DOWN!!!”
"The Waterloo Chair," gifted to King George IV in 1821 was made by Thomas Chippendale the Younger and commissioned by antiquarian John Children.
It was made from the wood of the Waterloo Tree that Children purchased after his visit to the battlefield with his daughter in 1818. (From the collection of the Royal Collection Trust)
Such was the hunger for souvenirs that when the real ones ran out, substitutes were sold to the visitors. In 1818, British Secretary of War, Lord Palmerston wrote to his sister about his own visit to Waterloo. During his tour of the field, he “picked some bullets out of the orchards of La Haie Sante and Hougoumont, cut a bundle of sticks at the latter…[and] bought [a] French sword which probably never [saw] the battle.” So long as an item was picked up at Waterloo, that it may not be a genuine relic from the battle did not seem to matter so much to its collector.
Entrepreneurs quickly realized that not everyone could make the trip abroad and found ways to bring the Waterloo battlefield home…for a price, of course. Artist Henry Aston Barker visited the battlefield and interviewed many of the officers involved in the battle before producing a series of eight paintings which showed the fighting at Mont St. Jean. These paintings were joined together in a circle and displayed in a purpose-built panorama exhibition building in Leicester Square, London. In a sort of early form of virtual reality, visitors standing in the center of the circle of paintings were able to have an immersive view of what the battle might have looked like on the day of the fighting. While Barker had made a name for himself with his panoramas prior to this exhibition, his Waterloo display was the most successful by far, earning him no less than £10,000. William Bullock, an English naturalist and antiquarian, was able to acquire and display the military carriage captured from Napoleon after the battle. He exhibited the vehicle in the Egyptian Room at his museum in London and ultimately claimed to have had more than 100,000 visitors come to see it. This rousing success encouraged him to take it on tour around the United Kingdom so that it could be seen by even more of his fascinated countrymen. By 1842, the carriage had been purchased by Madame Tussaud and Sons and remained on display there until it was destroyed in a fire in 1925.
Thomas Rowlandson's satirical take on the crush at William Bullock's Museum during the exhibition of Napoleon's carriage. (Print from British Museum)
Over two hundred years later, the Waterloo battlefield still draws over 200,000 visitors annually—more than the estimated number of soldiers who fought on June 18, 1815. The landscape has changed since those first few years but the museums, tours, and souvenir shops that cater to today’s sightseers are the direct descendants of a tourist industry that sprang up in the immediate aftermath of the battle.
Stacy Weissner resides in Suffolk, Virginia, with her husband, Will, and their two children. She earned her degree in history at the College of William and Mary and discovered Civil War reenacting while studying there. The full blame for the transfer of her affections from the mid-19th century to the early 19th century can be placed at the feet of Horatio Hornblower, the result of which transfer led to her co-founding the Regency Society of Virginia and, ultimately, an unhealthy addiction to the fabulous hats of the period.
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