Southampton has always played an important part in the embarkation of the British army in times of conflict with prisoners of war often coming the other way.

This important role goes back to the 14th century and the days of Edward III and Henry V when the English sailed from Southampton for France where they fought in the battles of the 100 years war such as Crecy and Agincourt.

During those early conflicts, many prisoners who were members of wealthy families were brought to England via Southampton and held for ransom being freed to return to France after the payment of substantial sums of money.

History tells us the same fate could befall Kings if they were captured.

Richard I was captured by the Duke of Austria in 1192 and was released in 1193 for a ransom of 150,000 silver marks. Richard returned to England via Southampton and stayed in the castle.

Daily Echo: German POWs in Southampton.

Defeat in battle didn’t always mean an aristocrat would be ransomed.

During the French raid on Southampton in 1338, the Prince of Sicily was overpowered by a Southampton defender. The Prince shouted “Rançon” begging to be saved for ransom but his assailant mistook it for “Françon” meaning Frenchman and said, “I know well enough thou art a Françon, and therefore shalt thou die”. He bludgeoned the Prince to death.

Before the Napoleonic Wars it was traditional to exchange prisoners and allow them to return home. Such arrangements were called cartels but were not popular with Napoleon. He believed that released prisoners could immediately take up arms again.

At Toulon in 1803 Lord Nelson tried to arrange an exchange of prisoners but was rebuffed. His captives spent eleven years in prison.

Daily Echo: The Woolhouse.

Consequently between 1793 and 1815 more than 200,000 mostly French prisoners of war were brought to Britain.

Locally, prisoners were held in prison hulks at Portsmouth and some at Portchester Castle.

In Southampton the Wool House was used as a prison where conditions were overcrowded and insanitary.

At one time the Wool House had held Spanish prisoners many of whom died and were buried in the small park off Cuckoo Lane. Today prisoner’ carvings can be seen in the Wool House timbers.

Daily Echo: Model ship in SeaCity made by French Prisomners.

Officers were treated differently to their men as they were billeted with families in parole towns having given their word of honour they would not try to escape.

There were eleven parole towns in Hampshire including Alresford and Andover.

Sometimes officers would be joined by their families or were exchanged. They had restrictions on their movements but otherwise they joined in the social life of the towns where they were billeted.

This didn’t stop a group of eight French officers paroled in Andover breaking their word of honour and riding on horseback to Christchurch planning to sail to France. A storm delayed their sailing and they were subsequently arrested. With their English conspirators, they were brought to Southampton for trial.

For those imprisoned life was harsh.

Prisoners lived principally on a diet of mutton stew collecting the bones and other materials to build models of ships and small items to relieve their boredom and to sell to improve their lot. Some examples of their work can be seen at the SeaCity museum.

Inevitably prisoners hatched escape plans.

Daily Echo: A troopship leaves Southampton.

On a stormy evening, one group seized a fishing boat at Itchen Ferry stripping other boats of their sails and oars to prevent pursuit and with a very strong wind behind them made good their escape to France.

On another occasion, a group of prisoners from Portchester Castle escaped to Southampton where they stole a boat. Having entered the Solent they sailed close to Ryde to avoid Spithead only to cause concern amongst the pilots there who on going to their assistance recaptured them.

During both World Wars prisoners were brought to Britain through Southampton.

Temporary camps were created in the new docks from where prisoners were transported to other parts of Britain.

Some POWs remained locally and were put to work building prefabricated homes and working on farms.

Daily Echo:

Godfrey Collyer is a tour guide with .