Waterloo, as any child of the 70’s can tell you, propelled ABBA to fame. News of their Eurovision victory was beamed direct into millions of living rooms across Europe. Official news of Wellington’s victory took three days to reach London, that’s an average of three miles per hour. Even when horses and sail power were the only way to travel that seems like a mighty long time.
Brian Cathcart’s book tells us the story of why it all took so long and more importantly why no other reliable word of victory reached London before the official messenger. What has the potential to be a dry tale is told with verve, we glimpse into the drawing rooms of High Society, into the offices of London’s newspapers, into the Cabinet room, onto the battlefield and traverse the rutted and unreliable roads of the early nineteenth century.
London might have had 56 daily newspapers at the time but not one of them had a correspondent in Brussels ready to file copy. The Post Office controlled the flow of letters and news coming into the British Isles so it was pointless for independent journalists to be at the scene of news. Roads might have been improved but those leading to Waterloo had borne the brunt of hooves and feet of Wellington’s army as it rushed toward Bonaparte and were a quagmire.
Wellington left the field of battle a drained man. His army had won but many people on both sides were dead including some of Wellington’s closest aides. After the battle he slept and didn’t write the despatch until the next morning. He entrusted Major the Honourable Henry Percy with taking it with two of Napoleon’s captured battle eagles to the Prime Minister, Prince Regent and the Duke of York, but en route he had to visit the King of France to tell him that his throne was safe. The eagles wouldn’t fit into the carriage and so poked out of the window: they must have made an arresting sight.
Whilst telling the King of France the good news in Ghent it would appear that the news was overheard and a mysterious figure set off for London first. Percy continued with his eagles, creating quite a stir as he went. In the meantime Daniel Sutton, an Essex ship-owner, fetched up on the doorstep of London newspapers with a story of Napoleon’s defeat, which was printed and believed, but unfortunately he referred to an earlier battle that had been followed by one more favourable to the French.
The Knight of Kerry sounds as if he should live in the pages of a particularly fine fantasy novel but in actual fact is a real Irish title and the 1815 incumbent happened to be spending his holiday following Wellington’s campaign. He was sent back to London in a quasi-official role to reassure London that even though things were looking rough with the rout of the Prussians, victory could still be had. The masses did not read of his report because the newspapers were wary in the wake of Daniel Sutton’s misinformed story.
Next on the scene is a mysterious Mr C, this is our friend who overheard the King of France being told of victory. Who he was and why he made the journey remains a mystery. Some thought that he was in the pay of Nathan Rothschild but that makes no sense. Indeed the persistent myth that Rothschild made his fortune by having early news of Bonaparte’s defeat is roundly quashed.
Finally our gallant hero Major the Honourable Henry Percy becalmed on the English Channel sets off to row to the Kent shore. From there he gets in a Post Chaise and makes a dramatic entrance into London. The Prince Regent and the Duke of York are at a society party when Percy, all bloody and dusty from the battlefield and brandishing two eagles, bursts into the room with the words: “Victory, Sir, Victory”.
I loved this book. How the news got back to London is not something that I have ever given a moment’s thought to but the excitement and derring-do of the tale had me enthralled. The Junior CW’s, currently enthusiastic for this period, are both keen to wrest the Kindle from my hands and read it next.
NetGalley sent me a PRC of this book.
The News from Waterloo by Brian Cathcart, published by Faber and Faber.