Photograph of a detailed model of a guillotine

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

In 1793 France declared war on England and Holland and, apart from a brief interval in 1802, we were engaged in hostilities with the French and other European countries until 1815.

From 1803 to 1815 we were the sole opposing force against the military and naval might of Napoleon Bonaparte.

From the outset Britain had an advantage on the water and captured thousands of prisoners.

They were held in gaols and on prison ‘hulks’ moored in locations off the coast including Plymouth.

The hulks became overcrowded and prisons were built ashore. One of these was Dartmoor Prison which opened in May 1809.

Prisoners who held certain ranks could live on parole and ‘Parole Towns’ were identified including Tavistock, Ashburton and Launceston.

Subject to certain conditions, those on parole were encouraged to live like normal citizens. Employment was not a given however, and they often had to rely on their skills to carve out a living.

Many of Napoleon’s men had been recruited from the countries he conquered as well as from France and represented different cultures, nationalities and trades.

Artists and writers served alongside soldiers and sailors. A number of them began to make things they could trade at markets held in the prisons.

These items included models of ships and churches, toys and trinkets, often made from materials such as bone, straw and wood.

The work was done with handmade tools and required a great deal of skill and patience. Despite these primitive resources many bone models were carved to scale and were highly detailed.

Today, these items are a legacy from the prisoners of war who lived and sometimes died among our ancestors.

Our collections feature a number of examples of prisoner of war work. Dating from the late 18th/early 19th century they include ship models, gun carriages and model guillotines.

close up bone model of a guillotine

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

The guillotine was invented to make execution more humane and became a symbol of the French Revolution.

Victims were placed on a bench face down. The beheading was very quick, taking less than half a second from the drop of the blade to the victim’s head rolling into a basket.

This richly carved and coloured bone model of a guillotine was on display in our ‘Plymouth: Port and Place’ gallery until the museum closed for redevelopment.

If you look closely you can see a series of miniature figures playing out a dramatic scene on the scaffold. The model was originally designed to work: the victim actually loses his head when the blade falls!

Guillotine models are not unusual, but few are as elaborate as this.

Examples of such brilliant craftsmanship show that great works of art are sometimes created under the kind of conditions you’d least expect.

Jo Clarke, Marketing and Programme Development Office. This article was first published on 15 April 2014.