The Mayor of Troy: a study


The Mayor of Troy was written at ‘The Haven’, overlooking the Fowey estuary, in 1906. At the time Q was an established writer with a national reputation and a secure income. His son Bevil, born at Fowey in October 1890, was 16 years old, while his daughter Foy, born at Fowey in 1895, was eleven. Brittain (1947) informs us of Q’s activities as vice-chairman of the Cornwall Education Authority, as a J.P., as chairman of the Fowey Harbour Commissioners (see the Prologue to The Mayor of Troy), and as president of the Fowey Mercantile Association. Q was also immersed in Liberal politics, especially as it was election year. He was no literary recluse, inhabiting a private world of the imagination, but a man of affairs, in tune with the times (Brittain, 1948, p. 46). It is possible that he was overworking.

1906 was a pivotal year in Q’s life and in the life of the nation. As David Lloyd George, who knew Q personally, expressed it: ‘The dykes have been opened and reaction in all its forms will be swept away’ (Owen, 1954, p. 147). At the general election in January a Conservative majority of 130 was turned into a Liberal one of 200. The only cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand, was the return of 54 Labour members. As President of the Board of Trade Lloyd George rushed into law the Merchant Shipping Act and the Employers’ Liability Insurance Act, measures which Q would have greatly supported. The year appeared to fulfil all Q’s Liberal aspirations, or ‘Liberal illusions’ as Rowse (1988, p. 94)) expressed it.

It was only at the end of the year that the Liberal Party began to focus on the central issue, the power of the House of Lords. Two general elections later this finally resulted in the passing of the Parliament Bill of 1911. Yet no one was more aware than Q that the Parliament Bill was a staging post on a road that had commenced with the Reform Bill of 1832, and before that with political ideas stemming from the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

Before 1832 Cornwall had 44 MPs. East and West Looe, at the time the novel was set, and until the Reform Act, had two each, with two more for Fowey and two again for Liskeard. Virtually all Cornish boroughs were controlled by wealthy landowners who used bribery to have their sons and their placemen elected. At the centre of affairs in East and West Looe was Thomas Bond, who appears as Captain AEneas Pond of the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery in The Mayor of Troy and in the short story ‘The Looe Die-hards’. At the time, between 1804 and 1814, Thomas Bond was at the height of his influence, using it to exclude the inhabitants of the town from political involvement, in favour of local landowners. This was not to the taste of everyone, including his lieutenant, Jonathan Couch of Polperro, who fleetingly appears in the novel and the short story. Political chicanery was, if possible, even worse in Fowey, where in 1813 a Mr George Lucy is said to have paid over £60,000 to purchase the borough for political purposes (Courtney, 1889, p. 110). None of this comes directly into The Mayor of Troy, yet Q was fully aware of the political history of the area when it came to electing MPs or Mayors. Maybe this helps to explain why the idyllic early chapters of the novel are so thoroughly subverted in the final ones, as Solomon Hymen sees through the superficiality of Troy to the greed and insincerity at its heart.

In the buoyant circumstances of Q’s life in 1906, and with Troy Town a popular success, readers must have expected The Mayor of Troy to be an extension of the rural idyll. The early chapters would have gratified their expectations. However, Shining Ferry of 1905 should have warned them of deeper and darker currents flowing below a tranquil surface. Readers could have passed unscathed through the choppier waters of the middle section as indicative of the world beyond Troy. But the return of Solomon Hymen to Troy in 1814 shatters the illusion. Once the toast of the town, now a returning POW, Hymen finds the town self-serving, complacent and avaricious, and himself an irrelevance to its purpose.

According to Rowse (1988, p. 98), Q later considered the novel to have been ‘one-third’ too long; in Rowse’s words, with ‘too many complications of plot’. In the view of the current writer, there are also too many minor characters who briefly take centre stage and then disappear. Orlando B. Sturge and the theatrical troupe are an irrelevance, while the disappearance of AEneas Pond and the Looe Die-hards gives the impression of unfinished business. Furthermore, the Millennium motif is confused and confusing, with it meaning different things to different people. Q viewed the work as a tragi-comedy of a rather extravagant sort. Rowse saw it as a satire with a sad end. J.M. Barrie, who adapted it for the stage in 1917, insisted on a happy ending as the novel as a whole exhibited a ‘queer view of life’ (Rowse, 1988, p. 98). One suspects that Hymen’s self-knowledge, achieved through the blows of fate, and his final desire for simplicity, looks back to Greek stoicism, the product of Q’s classical education.

The Mayor of Troy is not a political novel, being written primarily for income, but political and social concerns show through. The selfish irresponsibility of the landowning class is symbolised in the figure of Sir Felix Felix-Williams, of Pentethy. This was the class the Liberal government of 1906 had in its sights. Q does not, however, as with some radical writers, idealise the working class, rather the reverse. He presents the Die-hards and the Gallants as over-governed by immediate emotion and the immediate situation, with a tendency to instability of purpose, when not properly led by educated and responsible men. In this, Thomas Bond comes out of the novel better than Solomon Hymen. Some would see Q as less than fair. The voluntary companies were largely made up of hardened seafaring men, who had served in the Royal Navy, on board privateering craft, or in ocean going trading vessels. However, Q is endeavouring to make the point that working people need to be educated, with responsible democracy and sound education going hand-in-hand. This shows why he connected his political and educational activities. In fact, it is not possible for the commentator to separate Q’s literary, educational and political concerns and occupations.

It is a curious feature of the novel that ten years, from 1804 to 1814, have been omitted from the text except for two flashbacks. This is the time Solomon Hymen spent as a prisoner-of-war in France, from the time of his capture off Boulogne to his release and repatriation from Bordeaux at the conclusion of the Napoleonic War. Q obtained his material for the flashbacks from the records of Thomas Williams and John Tregerthen Short of St. Ives, who were POWs from 1804 to 1814, but prunes down the material they provided to the minimum. As a consequence, the reader is given the impression that Hymen’s reaction to his return to Troy is the result of the response he elicits from his former associates. This is clearly how Barrie understood it, hence having no compunction about insisting on a happy ending instead. Yet whether Q intended it or not, Hymen’s behaviour is curiously similar to what can be read in the accounts of men who were taken prisoner in 1940 and released in May 1945.

The Historical Basis of the Novel

The Mayor of Troy appears superficially to be a Greek tragedy, where a man, Solomon Hymen, falls from a position of eminence in Troy to that of a humble seaman in Plymouth. The opening section continues the ‘idyll’ of Troy Town although it has as its background Napoleon’s threatened invasion of Britain following the conclusion of the Peace of Amiens. It is set, therefore, during the early years of the life of Jonathan Couch, Q’s grandfather, who fleetingly appears as a character in the novel and in the associated short story ‘The Looe Die-hards’. There is a curious political reference in the Prologue to the Reform Act of 1832, an act Jonathan Couch fervently supported, and its effect on the political establishment of Troy/Fowey and Lestiddle/Lostwithiel.

The middle section brings the war centre stage, with Hymen taking part in a naval operation off Boulogne, through which he is taken prisoner by the French. The final section is set ten years later with Hymen’s return to Troy, his subsequent disillusionment and his departure to Plymouth. The ‘idyll’ has been subverted and Troy made to appear a superficial and corrupt society - a  ‘Vanity Fair’.

In the Preface to the Duchy Edition of 1928, Q claims the novel to be beyond tragedy or comedy as it is understood from the writings of Aristotle, and to be something peculiar to Troy, a statement deft in its obscurity. J.M. Barrie found it bizarre and had the ending changed for his stage version of 1917.

Although a reader can be forgiven for regarding the novel as pure fiction, a tendency Q encouraged in the 1928 Preface, this is far from the case. Troy is the Cornish coastal port of Fowey, while Talland, Looe and Lerryn are actual locations which appear on the map. Four characters can be identified as based on historical personages: Captain AEneas Pond of the Looe Die-hards is Captain Thomas Bond of the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery; Lieutenant Couch is a young Jonathan Couch of Polperro; M. Cesar Dupin is the master of a later smuggling cutter L’Union (according to John Keast (1950) in The Story of Fowey, Appendix K); and also according to Keast, Solomon Hymen is based on John Bennett, Mayor of Fowey, although Hymen’s experiences as a POW are based on the journal of Thomas Williams of St. Ives. It is also likely that Scipio Johnson, the servant of Solomon Hymen owes something to Francis Barber, the servant of Dr. Johnson.

The Mayor of Troy and ‘The Looe Die-hards’ are true to the later part of the Napoleonic period in the Fowey – Looe area. The works are historically and geographically correct. Smuggling through Guernsey, voluntary companies, May Day celebrations at Lerryn and the Devil’s or Giant’s Hedge between Lerryn and Looe are all fact. Only ‘The Battle of Talland Cove’ remains a mystery, although Talland is real enough. The naval operation off Boulogne is described in books of naval history, although it occurred at a slightly later date. The prisons Hymen was incarcerated in were POW establishments. There was a Reform Act in 1832 and it did bring political change to the boroughs of Fowey, Lostwithiel and Looe. Q possessed the art which conceals art, with the result that the reader can be carried away by the fiction at the expense of the historical and geographical facts. However, these facts provide a firm foundation for the fiction in the novel and the short story.

All of Q’s historical writings are based on historical fact. The Splendid Spur is based on the histories of Clarendon (1888) and Fuller (1662), both of whom had taken part in the events they describe. Fort Amity is based on the works of Francis Parkman (1874 and 1884). Parkman was not only an authority on the written sources of North American history, but he also personally interviewed leading figures and had a knowledge of Indian life through having lived in the 1840s with those Native Americans least influenced by the white man. For his Fowey-Polperro-Looe stories Q had access to written, oral and family material. His forbears lived in the area through the times he was describing. In spite of a slight family bias at times, the background information is always accurate. For the general reader, however, especially if unconnected with the area, there is a problem. What appears in Q’s stories may seem at odds with what happens in general histories dealing with the same period. For instance, in 1804, when the Guernsey merchant arrived in Troy, (in Chapter V), John Quiller of Polperro, Q’s great-grandfather, was sailing over to Roscoff on trading matters although general histories describe the country as united in opposition to the French invader. There is a temptation to see the works of general history as fact and Q’s stories as fiction. What comes to us from the families of Couch and Quiller, and from Q’s stories, is life as it was in the area and must be seen as a corrective to received historical opinion. The same is true of Alexander Dumas. The father of Dumas was one of Napoleon’s early generals, giving the son access to first-hand information and to those who knew Napoleon. The Napoleonic novels of Dumas provide the reader with information not contained in general histories.

In 1931, Herbert Butterfield published his iconoclastic work The Whig Interpretation of History in which he attempted to identify a ‘tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present’. He goes on to explore a central problem in historical writing ‘between historical research and what is known as general history’ (Preface). Later he explores this in relation to the Reform Act of 1832, which Q alludes to in Chapter I of the novel, seeing the world divided into the ‘friends and enemies of progress’. Today, we might see this as the problem of political correctness in history, of producing a narrative which justifies our perspectives and prejudices and suppresses all that challenges them.

The problem facing the contemporary literary commentator is in looking back through his own biases to the world of Q in 1906, and then back again to the time of Jonathan Couch and Thomas Bond at the end of the Napoleonic conflict. Fortunately, we still possess some of the material available to Q when he wrote the novel. This is particularly relevant in that many of the political ideas which Q inherited were the product of the period between the close of the Napoleonic war and the victory of the Reform Bill. There is a direct link between Jonathan Couch’s support for the bill and Q’s support for the Liberal Party in 1906. However, Butterfield (1973, pp. 28-29) warns us against many of the Whig interpretations of Q’s time, to avoid seeing those who opposed the Reform Bill simply as the ‘corrupt defenders of profitable abuses’, thus applying a ‘principle of exclusion’. We need to get into the minds of the people of the time and not judge from some point of moral superiority, knowing what the outcome was.

Jonathan Couch and Thomas Bond were on opposite sides of the debate, and it is to Q’s credit that Bond is sympathetically presented. In fact, this is no more than historically correct, because at a personal level Bond was a decent and popular man, even if he was also a tool of local landed families. Although the relationship between Couch and Bond appears to be of purely parochial interest, both are included in The Dictionary of National Biography.

The Motif of the Millennium

The concept of the Millennium enters the text with a sermon preached by the Vicar of Helleston or Helston on Sunday, January 5, 1800 (Chapter III) and exits the novel four years later with Solomon Hymen, sitting at the house of Elihu Basket in Plymouth, on Wednesday, May 2, 1804, blaming it for his vicissitudes (Chapter XII). There is a final echo when the idea of the Millennium is dismissed with contempt by Dr. Hansombody at a council meeting on Monday, May 7, 1804 (Chapter XVIII). The use of the motif appears straightforward. In fact, it is complex and in some places obscure.

At one level Q is satirising Biblically inspired predictions, as in the novella Ia, particularly those associated with the end of the space-time universe. At another level he is using a scriptural concept, as found in The Revelation of St. John the Divine, to link various aspects of the plot: the landings of the Troy Gallants at Talland and the Guernsey contraband at Lerryn; the destructive activities of Gunner Sobey in Troy and the irresolution of the Vicar of Troy when faced with the perceived invasion; and the disgrace and disappearance of Solomon Hymen and the elevation to office of Dr. Hansombody.

There are other subtle allusions to aspects of the Millennium as contained in scripture. In Chapter XII it appears in the ‘seal’ for Hymen’s letter, the ‘key’ or latchkey ends up in the bottomless pond, and Hymen’s protest; although this is countered by the presence in Basket’s garden of a series of Greek god statuettes and their irresponsible influence. The final echo comes in Chapter XVIII, when at a council meeting a lone voice raises the issue but an embarrassed Hansombody dismisses it with apparent contempt.

The Millennium as presented in the novel does not accurately parallel what is stated in Revelation. In the Biblical account, Satan will be bound for a thousand years, before release to face defeat in a final battle. This is the understanding of the Vicar of Helleston, who supposed the thousand years to be almost up and the release of Satan imminent. Some in Troy agree, but not with the date specified, while others argue that Satan has not yet been bound.

The actual sequence of events in Troy is in line with neither of these interpretations. The ordered calm of the town is disrupted through the follies and gullibilities of those who should have known better, resulting in the fall of Solomon Hymen from a position of eminence and the rise of others no more worthy than himself. If any divine force is involved, it is not scriptural providence leading to redemption through suffering, but Fate leading to self-knowledge and stoical indifference. Hymen emerges at the conclusion of the novel as a Greek stoic not a Christian saint. Scriptural ideas are made subservient to classical concepts. A similar idea is found in Chapter VII of Fort Amity, where Jove and the Greek gods laugh at the follies of man as he is governed by Fate.

The Bible is steeped in imagery and symbolism, particularly number symbolism, nowhere more so than in the Book of Revelation. Q adopts certain of these images and symbols for the novel. In Revelation, the image of a ‘beast’ who is worshipped by the worldly and whose ‘blasphemies’ continue for ‘forty and two months’ comes in Chapter XIII (13:4-5). In verse 18 he is given the number 666. The ‘beast’ is then thrown onto a ‘lake of fire’ (19:20), while an ‘angel’ binds ‘satan’ for a ‘thousand years’ and throws him into a ‘bottomless pit’ (20:2-3). The righteous who refused the ‘beast’ ‘reign(ed) with Christ a thousand years’ (20:4). In relation to the ‘bottomless pit’ there is also a ‘key’ and a ‘seal’ (20:1-3), as in the novel.

The motif of the Millennium is introduced into the novel in Chapter III with a sermon preached by the Vicar of Helleston. The Vicar drew on a local legend, dating back to about 800 A.D., that St. Michael of St. Michael’s Mount had bound Satan and cast him into a pit near the present Angel Inn at Helston, placing a large stone to seal the entrance. Calculating correctly, or otherwise, the Vicar concluded that the thousand years or Millennium would be up on Helston Flora Day of 1800.

In opposition to the calculations of the Vicar of Helleston, as printed in a pamphlet, the Vicar of Troy argued that as the new century begins on Thursday, January 1, 1801, the scriptural Millennium dates to Tuesday, May 1, 1804; somewhat awkwardly as it is the day proposed for the landings of the Troy Gallants at Talland and the Guernsey cargo at Lerryn. To outshine his clerical colleague the Vicar of Troy proceeds to draw a similar inference to that drawn by Pierre Bezukhov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace of 1869, equating the ‘Beast’ with Napoleon Buonoparte. This predicts cataclysmic events for Tuesday, May 1, 1804, and events possibly involving the French. (This explains the response of the Vicar to Gunner Sobey’s announcement of a French landing at Troy on the night of April 30). Although the Vicar and the Mayor endeavour to prevent these observations becoming general knowledge, they soon run through the town, creating uncertainty and confusion (Chapter VI).

There can be little doubt that Q, for who literary allusion was ubiquitous, had Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) in mind when writing of the Millennium. Q rarely refers to Russian literature in his lectures, having little time for novels which stagnate in inaction. Yet in his published lecture ‘The Poetry of Thomas Hardy’ from Studies in Literature of 1919, he brings together Hardy’s The Dynasts with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, making special reference to Napoleon, and indeed Plato, and Shelley’s lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound.

In the autumn of 1812 Count Pierre Bezukhov was in Moscow with the French army of Napoleon advancing along the Smolensk road. He is informed by a fellow freemason of a system of computation whereby ‘l’empereur Napoleon’ works out numerically as 666, the number of the ‘Beast’ in the ‘Apocalypse’ (13:18). When the thousand years include the ‘forty and two months’ (13:5), the system produces 1812. When the system of computation is applied to ‘l’russe Besuhof’, 666 also appears. Thus Pierre assumes a direct connection between himself and Napoleon (Vol. 2, Book 4, Part I, p.19). Tolstoy’s use of Revelation is fairly straightforward, but in The Mayor of Troy the Vicar of Helleston is proposing that the Millennium is coming to a close while the Vicar of Troy is assuming its commencement, with the people of the town in a state of confusion. It is easy for the reader to be similarly confused.

In his lecture on Hardy, Q sees Tolstoy as presenting a Napoleon who is the recipient of a divine purpose, or alternatively of a purposeless fate over which he has no real control. Solomon Hymen appears to see himself as the victim of Fate. His response is to achieve self-knowledge and thereby to rise above its influence. Such ideas may not be congenial to many today and thus not taken seriously. This is a mistake. The fact that most historians dismiss Tolstoy’s idea is a matter of their opinion against Tolstoy’s.

Prisoners of War

The novel was written in three sections:

  1. Chapters I to XI when Solomon Hymen is Mayor of Troy and the Captain of the Troy Gallants;
  2. Chapters XII to XVIII, set in Plymouth, the English Channel and off Boulogne, when his experiences are based on historical fact;
  3. Chapters XIX to XXII, set in Troy, where he is an anonymous former POW.

Between sections two and three there is an interregnum of ten years, from 1804 to 1814, when Hymen is a prisoner of war at Givet, Mezieres and Briancon in France. What happened in those ten years is revealed in two flashbacks: Chapter XIX, page 256, and Chapter XX, pages 263-4. The facts can be briefly stated:

  • Capture at Boulogne from the Vesuvius in August 1804.
  • First prison: Givet, refuses to give name. Escapes as far as Mezieres where he is shot in the cheek.
  • Second prison: Briancon in the Alps, one specifically for escapees. Loses leg in second escape attempt.
  • Release from Briancon. Walks to Bordeaux. Transported aboard the Romney for Plymouth.

These flashbacks are short, important and based on historical fact. In 1830, the Rev. R.B. Wolfe, the chaplain Solomon Hymen refused to acknowledge when imprisoned in Givet, published English Prisoners in France, with a number of similar books by others. In 1914, Sir Edward Hain of St. Ives edited the POW records of John Tregerthen Short and Thomas Williams, also of St. Ives, under the title Prisoners of War in France from 1804 to 1814. This was seven years after the publication of The Mayor of Troy. However, the second part was a republication of The Adventures of Thomas Williams, which Brentford published in 1901. When Q published the short story collection Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts in 1900, it contained ‘Prisoners of War: A Reported Tale of Ardevora’, Ardevora being St. Ives. In the Preface Q acknowledges the short story to have been based on the records of Thomas Williams and John Short of St. Ives. Williams died in 1862 and Short in 1873, with Q born in 1863. It seems likely, therefore, that Hain or someone made the records of these men available to Q when he was staying with relations in Penzance, quite possibly when Q was doing his researches for the novella Ia, which came out in 1896. ‘Prisoners of War’ should be read as an adjunct to The Mayor of Troy, and to a number of Polperro tales. The historical Young Zeb Minards of ‘I Saw Three Ships’ spent time as a POW.

There appear to have been numerous POWs from Polperro in French prisons. In 1812, Sir Harry Trelawney gave a group of Polperro women thirty shillings to cover a ‘draft of their husbands who are in a French prison’ according to Frank Perrycoste’s Gleanings from the Records of Zephaniah Job (ed. Johns, 1994, p. 67). A ‘draft’ is a written order to pay a specific sum. This went through Job in Polperro but how it was arranged on the French side is unclear. Young Zeb Minards, who was in Sarre Libre prison, is mentioned as a ‘purveyor of fish’ in the 1820s, so must have returned. Job probably dealt through the Guernsey merchants such as Hillary Boucault & Co. or Thomine Moullin & Co. Old Zeb Minards made payments, for whatever reason, to John Lukis (ed. Johns, 1994, p. 202). Although Cornish coastal ports may have been difficult of access by land, by sea they opened out to a very big and complicated world.

The prison of Givet lies beside the River Meuse, in the Department of Ardennes, in what was the French Netherlands. It was originally a horse-barracks for the fortress of Charlemont which rises above it. The building was interlaced with parallel passages, with eight rooms opening into each passage, and with eight beds to each room. The officers went to Verdun. The French government provided for each prisoner per day: one pound of bread, a half-pound of beef made up of heads, lights, liver and offal, a thimbleful of salt, a noggin (quarter pint) of peas or calavances, and per week three farthings. A loaf of brown bread could be purchased for one penny. From 1808 Lloyds of London made a penny a day available. The prisoners do not appear to have work to do.

Briancon was a prison, isolated in the Alps between France and Italy, whose purpose was to house escapees and troublesome prisoners. Thomas Williams arrived there on March 1, 1812, following escape attempts from Givet. After being caught he went through Mezieres, considered by Williams and Short to be the ‘worst jail’.

By December 1813 there were 16, 280 POWs in eleven depots. In 1814 they had to walk to a port for repatriation. Bordeaux, where Wellington had a headquarters, harboured six transports capable of carrying 1500 men to Plymouth. The account given by Williams is closer to that found in the novel than the one given by Short. After capture near Dieppe on March 28, 1804, Williams was sent to Givet. During 1811 he attempted to escape three times, but was eventually detained at Mezieres and then marched to Briancon, arriving in March 1812. From there he endeavoured to escape again. In 1814, he marched 231 miles to Bordeaux, arriving on April 27, 1814. There he boarded a transport to Plymouth but went ashore in Mounts Bay. Solomon Hymen was an escapee who went through Givet, Mezieres and Briancon during his ten years in France, before being transported from Bordeaux to Plymouth in 1814.

POWs in the Second World War

It appears that following the Second World War there were no detailed studies of the effects of long term imprisonment on servicemen, in part because the investigations that were made tended to have disturbing results. It is generally recognised that imprisonment of over 18 months generally resulted in the creation of certain states of mind which become exacerbated over time. In the Second World War five years was the maximum. Those taken before Dunkirk in May 1940, if they survived, were released in May 1945. Although there are no studies there are numerous autobiographies and autobiographical accounts, some written soon after release but most long afterwards. Robert Kee’s A Crowd is Not Company came out in 1947, Roger Coward’s Sailors in Cages in 1967, Dr. John Borrie’s Despite Captivity in 1975, and Denis Avey’s The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz not until 2011. Sean Longden’s Dunkirk. The Men They Left Behind, with a final chapter ‘Going Home’, and written with the assistance of many ex-POWs, was published in 2009. Exactly what being a POW entailed and the difficulties following the release are clearly explained.

As an aside: Dennis Avey obtained entry into Auschwitz through changing clothes with a Dutch Jew called Hans, but he never knew what eventually happened to Hans. It appears that Hans provided a similar service for a POW in BAB 21, as recorded by Roger Coward (1967), but was discovered – see Chapter 12.

Short and Williams survived ten years in captivity. Unlike POWs in the Second World War, except for officers, they did not have to work. Although working for the Germans was often dangerous and unpleasant – six days a week and twelve hours a day, with the main provision coming through monthly Red Cross parcels – it was the salvation of many men. Those who could not or would not work tended to go insane. However, it is unlikely that those captured in 1940 would have survived another year of captivity. For Short and Williams to have survived ten years and to have remained sane is remarkable.

In The Third Reich, Michael Burleigh (2000, p. 879, note 77)  using three German sources – Wegner, Streit and Streim - informs the reader that of the 232,000 British and American servicemen captured by the Germans, 8,348 or 3.5% had died by 1945; using this as a ‘contrast’ to the Russians captured by the Germans (57.5% died) or Germans in Russia 37.5%, suggesting treatment was according to race; ‘British and American prisoners were treated relatively well’ (ibid., pp. 512-14). These figures and this conclusion appears to be accepted by academic historians. For instance, Gordon Corrigan in The Second World War says: ‘the Geneva Convention was adhered to and prisoners properly treated’ (2010, p. 11).

Unfortunately, Burleigh fails to explain whether his figures relate to the period from September 1939 to January 1945, when German administration disintegrated, or to repatriation in May 1945. Two historians specialising in POWs, Nichol and Rennell, state in The Last Escape (2002) that there are no definite figures, with between 250,000 and 300,000 POWs as the best estimate (Preface).

Richard Evans in The Third Reich also seems to take his POW figures from a German source, the work of Andreas Hilger (2008, p.787, note 213). He follows Burleigh in drawing a contrast between the number of deaths of Red Army soldiers, 58% of those captured, with others: ‘This was far in excess of the mortality rates of British, French and other servicemen in German captivity, which were below 2% until the last chaotic months of the war’ (p. 185).

There seem to have been two distinct phases in the history of POWs, one before and one after Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel’s order of July 8, 1943, for all prisoners to be made available for armament production, in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention. Responding to this order, Albert Speer is recorded in  Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth to have said: ‘My duty as Minister of Armaments was to put to use for war production as many workers as possible and in that sense I considered it proper to use prisoners of war and concentration camp prisoners’ (Sereny,1995, p. 332), amounting to ‘Extermination through Labour’ (ibid., p. 334). This change was almost certainly as a result of the capitulation at Stalingrad in February 1943 and the ineffectual opening of the Kursk Offensive on July 5, 1943. Yet even before this conditions in camps were deteriorating. In June1942, Dr. John Borrie of E3 in the notorious Blechhammer industrial region, noticed a German order which had been delivered to the camp from O.K.W.: ‘To spare the German volk (people) in their drive for ultimate victory, guards must get utmost work-results from all prisoners’. Later in the day a POW came to Borrie with a ‘huge quadriceps maematoma’, having been struck by a rifle butt (Borrie, 1975, p.109).

Denis Avey describes an incident on February 23, 1944, when a certain Corporal Reynolds refused to climb a seventy-foot gantry, covered in ice, at the Buna-Werke and was ‘shot dead on the spot’ (2011, pp. 110-11). This sort of treatment was not meted out by the French to Williams and Short, and by definition to Solomon Hymen, however severe their conditions were. British POWs in Greater Germany survived the deteriorating work conditions because of the millions of Red Cross parcels, medicines etc, dispatched via Geneva to the eastern camps in one of the biggest and most difficult humanitarian exercises in the history of humanity, one about which academic histories are largely silent. However, even this aid to survival faltered in late 1944 and early 1945 owing to allied bombing.

The standard figures are open to further question. There is a considerable difference between those taken prisoner during the defeats and retreats of 1940 to 1942, who experienced years of imprisonment in labour camps to the east of the River Oder, and those captured during the allied advances from 1943 to 1945 who were imprisoned mostly in western camps and liberated earlier. We learn from D. Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe (1948) of the camp near Le Havre which was liberated in August 1944 and whose earliest inmate was taken in early 1943, eighteen months before release. The camp contained 47,000 prisoners, mostly Americans, or over one fifth of the total figure given by Burleigh, and many of whom would have been taken during the Normandy campaign of May and June. To lump together servicemen taken in Normandy, in the Ardennes or at Arnhem with those taken at Dunkirk or at St. Valery in 1940, and to draw conclusions regarding treatment, is clearly unsatisfactory.

The organisation of the German camp systems was similar to that of the French as it is accurately described in The Mayor of Troy. The officers were separated from the other ranks and sent to Oflags, as in the novel they are sent to Verdun. Hymen was sent to Givet, equivalent to the German stalag. Unlike the German system he was not then sent to a Wehrkreise or work camp. Following an escape attempt he ended up at Mezieres, a standard holding camp, before being sent to Briancon, equivalent to a German punishment camp. Corrigan is theoretically correct in saying that the stalags came under the Wehrmacht and were run under military discipline. In practice and especially from 1943, they became an arm of the German agriculturalists and industrialists, such as Krupp and I. G-Farben. Unlike the POWs in France like Solomon Hymen, other ranks in Greater Germany were expected to work. Following the disaster of Stalingrad, when defending the Reich became the overriding concern, this meant twelve hours a day for six days a week and sometimes seven. However, work kept some inmates sane and Short and Williams were not necessarily lucky in not working, although some POW jobs were dangerous, resulting in death.

It is interesting to compare the food given to Williams and Short, and therefore to Hymen, with that given to British POWs in 1940. It is perhaps worth noting that ‘lights, liver and offal’, as received from the French in 1804, are more nutritious than appetising. The following comes from the secret diary of Kriegsgefangenen no. 7184, who was working on the Konin canal in Poland.

2 September, 1940 – Reveille 4.00, porridge 4.30.

Work (shovelling sand) 5.00 to 12.00.

Pea soup 12.30.

Half loaf, soup and coffee 5.00.


3 September, 1940 – Reveille 4.00, porridge 4.30.

Work (shovelling sand) 5.00 to 12.00.

Barley soup 12.30.

Half loaf, soup and coffee 5.00.


4 September, 1940 – Reveille 4.00, porridge 4.30.

Work (shovelling sand) 5.00 to 12.00.

Pea soup 12.30.

Half loaf, soup and coffee 5.00.

The coffee was ersatz and the loaf small and probably rye.


Academic historians claim that there was a hierarchy of food supply related to racial identity, with the British at the top and the Slavs at stages below. In fact, there is probably little difference between the food supplied to the British POWs in the 1940s and the Russians in 1941. The standard narrative of the academic historians is open to severe question.

What saved the lives of the British POWs in the winter of 1940 was the arrival of Red Cross parcels, which trickled into the eastern camps from August. If it had not been for the Red Cross parcels British POWs would have succumbed to the famine oedema and other conditions found in Russian camps (see Borrie, 1975). Red Cross parcels, which were routed through Lisbon, Marseilles and Geneva, were one per month for each prisoner and the suggested contents were aimed at countering the gross deficiencies of German food rations. During the war 19,663,186 food parcels were distributed to POWs, without which most would have died. A detailed account can be found in the History of the Red Cross, 1939-1947, (1949) a work rarely if ever mentioned in standard histories of the period. In early 1941, the Germans issued a representative daily menu of food issued to British POWs which was read out in the House of Commons on 4 March, 1941, with figures in grams:

  • Morning – coffee 7; sugar 15; honey 24:
  • Mid-day – beef 70; fresh beetroot 350; potatoes 1000; flour 10; salt 15:
  • Evening – coffee 7; sugar 300; bread 300; fat 25.

The actual rations received on that day were:

4 March, 1941

Reveille 6.30.

Coffee 6.45.

Roll Call 9.30.

Barley soup 12.00.

Roll Call 4.00.

18 Knockabrats, dripping, jam, milk (milk always seems sour) 5.00.

Lights out 9.00.

Nothing indicates more clearly the danger of relying on German official documents, as so many historians of the period appear to do. Red Cross analyses reveal that Germany supplied British POWs with less than half of what was required in virtually every area of nutrition.

Sean Longden in Dunkirk. The Men They Left Behind correctly states: ‘Back in their first year of captivity they had been saved by Red Cross parcels…’ (2009, pp. 496). Roger Coward, a friend of POW 7184, who was taken prisoner in 1941, says in the dedication of Sailors in Cages (1967), ‘With gratitude to everyone connected with the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, organisations which saved the lives of so many prisoners of war including my own and to which the royalties of this book will be devoted’.

The journal of Thomas Williams concludes with repatriation, but that of John Tregerthen Short continues until 1872, although mainly recording economic, political and religious events; it is not possible to assess how they adjusted to repatriation. For the long-term POWs, repatriation invariably resulted in serious problems of adjustment. They had been changed by their experiences, essentially of having had the veneer of civilisation torn away, to reveal a more brutal and primitive underlie. Society had also changed, war weariness having replaced the idealism of the first months of conflict. It is not easy to compare the experiences of Williams and Short with those of the Second World War. They had spent twice as long as the earliest Second World War prisoners, although having been better prepared through a tough life at sea with poor food and primitive conditions. Yet they had not experienced the brutality and bitter cold of the camps of the east of the Oder. And they had been prisoners of Napoleon, for all his failings a man not without some moral scruples, and not Hitler who had none. In The Mayor of Troy, Q clearly describes the horrors of imprisonment in Napoleonic France, the miserable conditions, the violence following attempted escape and the sense of despair, just as it appears in the journals of Williams and Short. But nowhere is there violence for its own sake or evil as an end in itself.


Hymen’s imprisonment, as with that of Williams and Short, ends with a long march from Briancon to Bordeaux, through the heart of France. This had a profound effect upon Hymen, as it did on Williams and Short. In January 1945 the eastern camps of the Reich, such as Lamsdorf, Teschen and Sagan, were closed and the POWs marched west, often sleeping in the open with little food, to Bavaria. Charles Waite’s Survivor of the Long March (2012), The Last Escape of Nichol and Rennell (2002) and many other books describe the experience. ‘Death Marches’ feature in a number of histories of the period, but there is no mention of POWs. Q rightly emphasises this final episode in the POW time of Hymen, because for many in the Second World War it was something they never recovered from. Autobiographical accounts of former POWs clearly describe the profound difficulties they experienced on their return.

The accounts of POWs following the Second World War show certain common features:

  • a rejection of and contempt for authority and convention
  • difficulty in relating to those once closest
  • introversion resulting from anxiety and insecurity, punctuated by outbursts of anger and/or violence
  • alienation and feeling a stranger in once familiar locations
  • flashbacks and disturbing dreams.

It is remarkable to see how many of these appear in the behaviour of Solomon Hymen. What appeared bizarre to J.M. Barrie, leading to his insistence on an alternative ending, was standard to many POWs. As Q could never have known a long stay prisoner of war, the appositeness of his description is quite remarkable. Q, however, goes a little further. The problem does not just lie in the POW, but also in the decadence and superficiality of conventional society to which they returned. Q turns our understanding of Troy on its head. This may not have been to everyone’s taste. J.M. Barrie took society as given, but POWs like Hymen realised that it was a construct, and in the case of Troy a superficial and self-serving one. Barrie expected a happy ending. For most POWs there was no happy ending. Q gets it right.

The repatriation experience of Solomon Hymen in June 1814 parallels that of many POWs in June 1945, as described by Denis Avey in his autobiography and by those featured in the Appendix to Dunkirk. The Men They Left Behind by Sean Longden (2009). Firstly, there was the idealisation of home during those years of imprisonment followed by the disillusionment of the actual return. Hymen had dreamed of Troy when at Briancon, in the Alps, but had his dream shattered on first contact with Troy (pp. 256-59). Those who had known him failed even to recognise him. Gordon Barber’s mother failed to recognise him in the hospital where he was recovering. Denis Avey’s mother did recognise him although his weight, as with Hymen’s (p. 291), had declined from twelve and a half stone to eight.

Between the POW and his friends and relations there was often incomprehension, leading to repression of POW memories. Les Allen (in Longden, 2009) concealed from his future wife that he had ever been a POW. Hymen was unable to communicate with Cai Tamblyn, the one person who did recognise him, making Tamblyn promise to respect his anonymity (p. 271). The repression of past memories inevitably led to nightmares and outbursts of anger and violence. Hymen spoke with controlled anger to Sir Felix Felix-Williams, followed by a smashing of the plaster bust (p. 292). Short temper and acts of irrational violence typified the behaviour of many long-term POWs on release.

After years of slave labour and malnutrition, the worst experience for many POWs were the ‘Death Marches’ from the eastern camps from January to March 1945, as described by Nichol and Rennell in The Last Escape and Charles Waite in Survivor of the Long March . Q is correct in seeing Hymen’s trek from Briancon to Bordeaux as the worst time of the whole ten years (p. 264). Gordon Barber saved the life of his friend Ken Willats on ‘the long march out of Poland in 1945’. There are no records of those lives that were not saved!

Books of academic history on the Third Reich and the Second World War quote endlessly from official and semi-official documents, providing dates, figures and statistics. The reader is fully inducted into the iniquities of the Gestapo, the Poles and Lithuanians who betrayed their Jewish neighbours and the officials who gave the orders; but we hear little or nothing about the Red Cross and associate organisations, the Poles and Lithuanians who endangered their own lives to protect their Jewish neighbours and the heroism of countless individuals. In the Preface to the Duchy Edition of The White Wolf, written in 1928, Q attacks novelists who trafficked in the squalid and the sordid, seeing it as the easy game to play. Whatever may be the failings of The Whig Interpretation of History, and Butterfield’s work has been generally accepted, its agenda is at least positive and meaningful. The ending of The Mayor of Troy does not make easy reading, it was too much for J.M. Barrie, but it draws from tragedy an element of nobility.

It is a common opinion that academic histories give the reader the facts, while the novelist gives the reader entertainment. This begs the question of what facts are given and what agenda determines the selection. In his dedication to the Right Hon. Leonard Henry Courtney, MP for Liskeard from 1876, found in The Ship of Stars, Q states that a novel requires a truth greater than ‘fact’. In his introduction to The Oregon Trail (1849) by the great American historian Francis Parkman, whose works underlie Q’s Fort Amity, Martin Ridge says:

‘…he succeeds in bringing a twentieth-century reader into the presence of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains…by placing him in the centre of action and confiding to him what Parkman saw in the faces of men, in their physical responses, …by utilising actual experience and remaking it to suit the artistic needs of the environment.’

This can never be done simply by conning through official and semi-official documents, although Parkman did not despise this part of his work, but through entering into the lives of the historical personages. Parkman wrote as a historian and a novelist. Scott, Dumas and Tolstoy give us history written by the novelist, and something greater than fact. In The Mayor of Troy and ‘The Looe Die-hards’, Q gives us history as family tradition, observed environment and human response.



Bibliography: The Mayor of Troy

The Last Escape.

Nichol, J. and Rennell, T.
The Last Escape.