The ‘last invasion’ of Britain

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The town of Fishguard, where we stayed during our time in Pembrokeshire, makes much of its connection with what is often referred to as the ‘last invasion of Britain’.

In the late 1790s, Britain was at war with Republican France, while in Ireland members of the Society of United Irishmen were preparing for a revolt against British rule. The French planned to land a large body of troops in Ireland to support the United Irishmen, while two smaller French forces were to stage diversionary attacks in northern England and Wales. The hope was that disaffected locals might support the revolutionary French.

In the event, however, only the Welsh attack took place. In December 1796 the French expedition reached Bantry Bay in Ireland but the fleet was struck by heavy storms and, unable to land any men, forced to return to France. A similar fate befell the expedition that had been heading for Newcastle in England. The third expedition, however, landed at Carreg Wastad, a headland about three miles west of Fishguard, on 22 February 1797. It was led by an American, William Tate, and was composed of a rag-tag mix of French regular soldiers and irregulars (who included deserters and prisoners).

The British hastily assembled a force of soldiers, sailors and militia, and some civilians also armed themselves to oppose the French. Discipline quickly broke down among the French irregulars, and French forces looted local settlements. On 24 February, the British force lined up in battle order on Goodwick Sands, just west of Fishguard, where the French surrendered and were taken prisoner.

Very little fighting had taken place in the ‘invasion’, but it did lead to a brief financial panic in England and was used to cast suspicion on Nonconformists (Protestants who had broken away from the Anglican church), some of whom were accused of supporting the French. The United Irish Rising did take place in Ireland in 1798, and a small French force landed in County Mayo to support the Rising. The promise of French support was celebrated in Irish nationalist folklore, such as the song ‘The Shan Van Vocht’ (‘”the French are in the Bay,/ They’ll be here without delay/ And the Orange shall decay”,/ says the Shan Van Vocht’).

In Fishguard, by contrast, it was resistance to, not assistance from, the French that was celebrated. For many years after 1797, a thanksgiving service was held annually at Goodwick Sands, and the centenary in 1897 was a major event. This memorial stone, with text in Welsh and English, was placed at Carreg Wastad to commemorate the centenary.
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The centenary was also marked by the issuing of this medal.
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The medal shows women in traditional Welsh costume, holding pitchforks, and an interesting feature of the mythology of the ‘last invasion’ is the prominent role it gives to women. Here is a photograph of a group of women who dressed up for the centenary.
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The reference in the caption to these women as ‘Jemima’s Army’ combines two stories that seem to have gained particular prominence around the centenary. The first story is that the French were tricked by a large group of women wearing traditional dress of red shawls and tall black hats, which from a distance looked like soldiers’ uniforms.

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The second story concerns a woman called Jemima Nicholas, a cobbler from Fishguard who is said to have personally captured a number of French soldiers, armed only with a pitchfork. Although this story is recorded earlier in the nineteenth century, it seems to have really taken off at the time of the centenary, and to have become fused with the idea of the ‘army’ of women, who were supposedly led by Nicholas. A newspaper clipping in the local heritage centre suggests somewhat subversively that the councillors of Fishguard, concerned that their town played only a minor role in the history of the ‘invasion’, may have deliberately emphasised the story of this Fishguard resident for the centenary. It was in 1897 that this memorial stone to Nicholas was erected in St Mary’s church, Fishguard, for example.
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Another clipping in the heritage centre suggests that Nicholas may have been happy to fight people other than the French. A Jemima Nicholas was apparently among a group of people charged (though acquitted due to insufficient evidence) with rioting in Fishguard in 1824. She seems to have been a formidable figure: at her death in 1832, the local vicar recalled that she was ‘of such personal powers as to be able to overcome most men in a fight’. Interestingly, however, what appears to be a contemporary cartoon from the time of the invasion (photographed from an information board in Goodwick) seems to show a man (possibly a version of John Bull) holding back the French with a pitchfork, while a woman tips the contents of a chamber pot over a French officer.
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Whether or not her role has been exaggerated, images of Jemima Nicholas and her pitchfork are ubiquitous in and around Fishguard today.

Another story that may have been invented or exaggerated at the time of the centenary is that a ‘peace treaty’ or document of French surrender was signed at the Royal Oak Inn in Fishguard. The pub displays the table on which this document was supposedly signed.

Women were prominent again during the bicentenary of the ‘invasion’ in 1997. A local woman dressed up as Jemima Nicholas, and was accompanied by her ‘army’.
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The major bicentennial project was the creation of the Last Invasion Tapestry, which tells the story of the ‘invasion’ and is now on permanent display in a special gallery in the Fishguard Town Hall. Designed by Fishguard-based artist Elizabeth Cramp, the tapestry was stitched by some 70 local women.

Eighteen years after the ‘last invasion of Britain’, the long period of conflict between Britain and France ended at the Battle of Waterloo. Pemrokeshire-born Sir Thomas Picton was the most senior officer to be killed at Waterloo, and was celebrated as a hero in Wales and throughout the Empire, including in New Zealand, where the Marlborough town of Picton was named for him. In February 1797, however, Picton was busy participating in the British invasion of the Spanish colony of Trinidad. He was then made Governor of the island, whose economy was based on the production of sugar by enslaved Africans, and he became notorious for the brutal and authoritarian nature of his governorship. Perhaps it is time for Picton to revert to its Maori name of Waitohi?

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