Napoleon’s Military Carriage at Madame Tussaud’s

The capture of Napoleon’s carriage by Major von Keller. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland.

Among the many relics at Madame Tussaud’s was Napoleon’s military carriage used by him on many of his campaigns and while he was exiled on Elba. The carriage had been captured at Genappe during the Waterloo campaign. The French overturned cannons and carriages and from behind these barricades, they fired muskets attempting to stop the Prussians. However, it was the Prussian horse-artillery that dispersed the French, and “the town was taken, along with Napoleon’s traveling carriage, private papers, hat and sword.”[1]

The capture of Napoleon’s carriage was accomplished by Major Heinrich Eugen, Baron von Keller, who also killed the driver during the fight. Keller also claimed that Napoleon escaped through one door as a he was attempting to force open the other. In fact, he said Napoleon’s exit was so hasty, Napoleon dropped his sword and mantle, and then when Napoleon leapt on his horse, he lost his hat too.

Having captured the carriage, Keller confiscated it as “his own booty.” Keller then took it to England with four horses and a French coachman who had been present at Genappe and who had lost his right arm while fighting against the Prussian advance. The Literary Panorama noted of the carriage in December of 1815:

“It arrived a few days ago at the mews, at Carlton House, and has been exhibited to the Regent in its complete state, accompanied by the officer who took it, and a number of English and Foreigners of distinction. The driver, in his full dress, sitting on the near pole-horse, drives the four horses with a whip, long, but he manages the horses principally by talking to them. The two leading horses are at such a distance from the other two that there is nearly room for two more.”[2]

William Bullock. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

William Bullock, who had an exhibition on Piccadilly at the Egyptian Hall, obtained permission from the English government to display the carriage, and at some point, purchased it. During the time that he showed it at the Egyptian Hall, spectators filled the room, and it was claimed that at least a hundred thousand curious spectators sat in Napoleon’s carriage. After displaying the carriage in London, Bullock took it on tour and visited the principal cities and towns throughout the United Kingdom to much acclaim. The spectacular carriage was driven by the French coachman and pulled by four brown, stout Norman horses.

After Bullock finished touring with the carriage, it was sold at auction. The purchaser planned on touring with it in the United States, but it never came to fruition, and he sold it to another individual, who also had the same idea. However, due to debts, the carriage became the possession of a coach manufacturer who accepted it as part of what was owed him. The coach manufacturer was Mr. Robert Jeffreys of Gray’s Inn Road, and it was Jeffreys who sold it to Madame Tussaud and Sons in 1842.

Supposedly, Madame Tussaud’s oldest son Joseph was the person who discovered the carriage. It occurred one day as he was leaning over London Bridge watching a carriage being hoisted from a barge. He began a conversation with a gentleman, who revealed, “I can take you to a place where you can see Napoleon’s carriage which he used at Waterloo.”[3] Of course, Joseph was interested and accompanied the man to a carriage shop in Gray’s Inn Road. There he discovered the carriage, complete with ‘a sleeping bunk, a writing-desk, and stowage for a quantity of baggage.”[4]

Napoleon Bonaparte. Author’s Collection.

According to one nineteenth-century historian:

“[The carriage] was built at Brussels, to convey Napoleon on his ill-fated expedition to Russia. It traveled as far as Moscow, and constituted almost the whole of the equipage, either of himself or his army, which escaped on his disastrous retreat. It afterwards carried him back to Dresden, and brought him back a second time in disgrace to France. After the campaign of Paris, it bore him to the shores of the Mediterranean, and was shipped with him for Elba. It was there used in all his excursions round the island; indeed he never would enter any other vehicle. When he planned his bold attempt to regain his throne, his troops were suffered to take neither equipage nor baggage, but the favorite travelling carriage of the Emperor was carefully shipped, and landed at Cannes. His triumphant journey to Paris was performed in it … When he departed to rejoin his armies in the north of France, the carriage again accompanied him.[5]

This carriage that Napoleon so loved was claimed to possess an interior that had “an economy of space … like that of the cells of a beehive.”[6] The builder of the carriage, a man named M. Simon of Brussels, maintained that Napoleon himself had been the person who had suggested economizing the space but Napoleon also wanted to ensure it was comfortable while he traveled. This economy of space and comfort was described by one newspaper in 1815:

“The carriage of Buonaparte is, in many respects very like the modern English carriages. Its colour is a dark blue, with a light ornament in gold, the Imperial arms painted on the doors. The springs, the pole, the wheels, &c. are uncommonly strong and the whole of very excellent workmanship — But with all that the carriage is of awkward appearance, because there is a great prominence in the front, which contains the … bed, the necessaire, &c. The interior of the carriage proves that Buonaparte valued convenience and security. The blinds behind the windows shut and open by means of a spring, and may be closed as to form an impenetrable barrier. They may, besides, be secured by a bolt on each side. On the ceiling of the carriage there is a net-work, to put small travelling requisite into. In the front there are many small compartments, partly, as it seems, for maps, … telescopes, &c. By the side of these small compartments there is a writing desk, which may be drawn out so as to write on it whilst riding; an inkstand, some pens, sealing-wax, &c were found in it. Beneath the writing desk there is a hole for the end of the patent iron bedstead, which was found in the carriage, and which may immediately be made up in the carriage. Two Merino mattresses seem to belong to the bed. Beneath the compartments for the maps is the room for the necessaire … and under the seat the room for the liquor case. On one of the doors of the carriage, two pistol holsters … in which two rifled pistols … were found, and in a holster close to his seat a double-barrelled pistol was found too. …

The seat is divided by a separation, so that the aide-de-Camp sitting in the carriage with the Ex-Emperor, was never to touch the person of his haughty master. In the back of the coach there is a lantern with a reverbere, and a pipe, with a spring before it, to put wax tapers into, of which the victors found a great many in the coach. Four lamps are on the corners of the carriage.”[7]

Bullock exhibiting Napoleon’s carriage. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Another description printed from Bullock’s original catalog and combined with information for Madame Tussaud and Sons stated:

“In the front there is a great projection; the utility of which is very considerable. Beyond this projection, and nearer the horses is a seat for the coachman. This is ingeniously contrived so as to prevent the driver from viewing the interior of the carriage; and it is also placed so as to afford to those who are within, a clear sight of the horses, and of the surrounding country … The pannels of the carriage are bullet proof, at the hinder part is a projecting sword case; and the pannel at the lower part of the back is so contrived, that it may be let down, and thereby facilitate the addition or removal of conveniences, without disturbing the traveller.

The under-carriage, which has swan-neck iron cranes, is of prodigious strength; the springs are semi-circular, and each of them seem capable of bearing half a ton; the wheels, and more particularly the tire, are also of great strength. The pole is contrived to act as lever, by which the carriage is kept on a level in every kind of road. The under-carriage and wheels are painted in vermillion, edged with the colour of the body, and heightened with gold. …

The interior deserves particular attention; for it is adapted to the various purposes of a kitchen, a bedroom, a dressing room, and office, and an eating-room.”[8]

Also included in the interior was a mahogany case that looked somewhat like a writing desk. It was engraved with the Imperial arms and was about ten by eighteen inches long. It contained the “peculiar necessaire” of Napoleon. There was also a liquor case made of mahogany that held liquor, with one bottle holding rum and the other a fine Malaga wine. A few English items were also found in the carriage: Windsor soap and an English court-plaster. In addition, a writing desk with an inkstand, pens, and wax seals, along with Napoleon’s portfolio, were discovered inside the carriage.

George IV. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To ensure the carriage’s authenticity and validity, M. Simon’s attested to the fact that Napoleon had owned it. Madame Tussaud and Sons also obtained a letter written by Bullock about the carriage:

“It was afterwards purchased by me from his late Majesty George IV, for the sum of £2,500, and exhibited by me at the Egyptian hall, Piccadilly, London, as well as in the principal cities in Great Britain and Ireland, by the authority of the Government, and is the identical carriage I have just seen in your possession.”[9]

Napoleon’s carriage was one of the most popular items at Madame Tussaud and Sons. It remained on display until a fire broke out on 18 March 1925. The fire was as spectacular as it was menacing. Witnesses reported seeing 50-foot multi-colored leaping flames. Twenty-five engines arrived to douse the flames, but by the time, firefighters gained control, the priceless and irreplaceable carriage, along with many other Napoleon relics were burned. In the end, nothing was left of the carriage but charred rubbish.

References:

  • [1] Henry Smith Williams, The Historians’ History of the World: France, 1715-1815 (New York: Outlook Company, 1904), p. 640.
  • [2] C. Taylor, The Literary Panorama and National Register v. 3 (London: C. Taylor, 1816), p. 500.
  • [3] New Zealand Herald, “Relics of Buonaparte,” May 9, 1925, p. 5.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Boyce, Edmund, The Second Usurpation of Buonaparte, (London: S, Leigh, 1816), p. 111-112.
  • [6] The Military Carriage of Napoleon Bonaparte, Taken After the Battle of Waterloo; Together with Its Superb and Curious Contents and Appendages; Now Exhibiting at the Bazaar, Baker Street, Portman Square, Accurately Described, Etc (London, 1843), p. v.
  • [7] Sussex Advertiser, “Buonaparte’s Carriage,” December 4, 1815, p. 2.
  • [8] The Military Carriage of Napoleon Bonaparte, p. 8–9.
  • [9] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Biographical and Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose the Unrivalled Exhibition and Historical Gallery of Madame Tussaud and Sons (London: G. Cole, 1866), p. 36.

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