The real history behind ‘Poldark’ series three: episode five

As the third series of Winston Graham’s Georgian-set drama continues on BBC One, historian Hannah Greig considers different aspects of the real history behind Poldark. In the fifth instalment of a new series for History Extra, Hannah discusses conditions at France's Quimper prison and Ross’s dramatic rescue of Dr Dwight Enys…

Ross Poldark takes on a dangerous mission to liberate his friend Dwight from Quimper prison in France. Quimper was a real prison, which was “notorious for its terrible conditions”, says historian Hannah Greig. (BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)
Episode five finds Ross back in France, this time staging a daring prison break to rescue Dwight Enys, who has been captured and imprisoned by the French. The prison in question is Quimper, a real place notorious for its terrible conditions. Quimper was a large town in western Brittany, situated a few miles inland on an estuary. The prison was a former Catholic convent, but the nuns who formerly occupied the building were evicted in 1790 after refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the new regime. At least one was executed by guillotine. The building was then requisitioned, and the sisters were replaced with prisoners of war. 
Ross Poldark and friends sail to France to rescue Dwight from imprisonment. (BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)
In the 1790s, reports began to filter back to England about what life was like inside Quimper’s walls. “It would make your heart ache to see our poor sailors, without money, without clothes, worn down by sickness and emaciated to the last degree, fighting over the body of a dead dog, which they sometimes pick up and devour with the most voracious appetite,” wrote one prisoner in 1795. This letter made it to England and was published in the newspapers. “I am the only surviving midshipman of four”, he added, “I have lost all my hair by sickness but I live in hopes of seeing Old England and my friends again”. Those who made it home also carried accounts of terrible conditions. One such man was a Liverpudlian shipwright who managed to escape from the prison in 1794 with six others. They sailed across the Channel in a stolen boat using their shirts to construct a makeshift sail, finally landing at Sidmouth in Devon. 

Dwight Enys imprisoned at Quimper prison. Horrifying accounts of life in the prison filtered back to England in the 1790s, says historian Hannah Greig. (BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)
Winston Graham used first-person reports of Quimper prison when researching the Poldark novels. In Poldark’s Cornwall – a companion to the Poldark novels – Graham recalls using a letter by one Lady Anne Fitzroy which outlined the conditions at Quimper. Sister of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, Lady Anne Fitzroy had been incarcerated at Quimper for around nine months after a boat on which she was travelling from Lisbon was captured by the French near Falmouth. On account of her sex, she was given different accommodation from the rest of prison population and was kept under guard at a house in the convent’s grounds. Contemporary reports, however, suggest that despite being better treated than others, Lady Anne Fitzroy worked fearlessly to improve the conditions of the prisoners, sourcing medicines, buying food, petitioning the French, and sending letters home to England to raise awareness of their fate. One prisoner later wrote in his memoirs that “her benevolence was unbounded [and] through her goodness and humanity the lives of more than three thousand poor distressed objects were preserved…She was, to us, a second Moses”.

While events in ‘Poldark’ may be fictional, there were real escapes from Quimper prison, says historian Hannah Greig. (BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)
Although her story is rarely told today, Winston Graham acknowledges Lady Anne Fitzroy in The Black Moon (the fifth novel in the Poldark series). Dwight reflects on the circumstances of his imprisonment and mentions her assistance, stating, “A Lady Anne Fitzroy, who has been recently released, was invaluable in the small aids she was able to obtain for us.” Although Graham’s Poldark characters are fictional, once again we are reminded of how closely he drew on his own research into the 18th century to inspire and inform his stories.     
Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.