Napoleon’s Three Carriages at Madame Tussaud and Sons

Madame Tussaud and Sons were known for having obtained many priceless possessions of the famous military man and former emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Among some of the priceless relics obtained by Madame Tussaud in the 1800s were three carriages used by him. The first carriage was the one Napoleon used while exiled on St. Helena, the second had been built for his coronation as King of Italy, and the third was one of his favorite carriages, his military carriage.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Author’s collection.

The St. Helena Carriage

The St. Helena carriage was the one Napoleon used on that island and was also the last carriage that he used. Madame Tussaud and Sons acquired it from a man named John Blofeld. To demonstrate the authenticity of this carriage, the museum displayed the following letter from Blofeld attesting to its genuineness:

“In 1850, I went to Paris, where I showed it to General Count Montholon and Count Emanuel de las Cases; these gentlemen immediately recognized it, and both said they had frequently rode in it with the Emperor … General Montholon informed me that the Emperor always used it, drawn by four horses, ridden by two postilions, with the head of the carriage down.[1]

Blofeld then provided two signed certificates from Montholon and de las Cases attesting to the carriage’s authenticity.

Napoleon’s State Carriage

A second carriage in Madame Tussaud’s possession was Napoleon’s state carriage. It was built in 1805 in Milan for his coronation as King of Italy. Moreover, according to one of Madame Tussaud’s catalogs, it was constantly traveling in the train of the Grand Armée before its capture. One high-ranking Prussian officer wrote that Napoleon had intended to make his entrance into Brussels in the carriage and that it was drawn by eight cream-colored stallions.

The carriage was purchased by Madame Tussaud from a Monsieur Bourden. Pierre Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew and the son of Napoleon’s brother Lucien, attested to its authenticity on 23 April 1841 when he wrote:

“I, the undersigned, certify having this day seen at Brussels a Berlin, bearing the No. 12, which is publicly recognised as being the one which conducted the Emperor Napoleon on the field of battle, Waterloo. Some speculator having purchased this carriage, for the purpose of exhibiting it in London and Berlin, to the former enemies of France, it is to be wished that the French Government had purchase it. The carriage that conducted Napoleon to Waterloo, should undoubtedly, have had a suitable place in the National Museum.”[2]

The Military Carriage

A third carriage in the possession of Madame Tussaud and Sons was Napoleon’s military carriage. It was probably the most fascinating to those who visited Madame Tussaud’s. Napoleon used it on many of his military campaigns and while exiled on Elba. The carriage was eventually captured at Genappe during the Waterloo campaign. Supposedly, Napoleon made a harrowing escape from it. As as he left through one carriage door, a Prussian officer named Major Heinrich Eugen, Baron von Keller was attempting to force open the other door. Napoleon got away, mounted a horse, and rode out of sight, but Keller confiscated the carriage as ‘his own booty.’ Afterwards, it was sent to England to the Prince Regent along 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.

Madame Tussaud and Sons - the capture of Napoleon's carriage

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

After Keller brought the carriage to England, William Bullock, an English traveler, naturalist, and antiquarian, obtained permission from the English government to display it, and, at some point, he purchased the carriage from the Prince Regent. During the time that it was with Bullock, he displayed it at his London museum in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Spectators poured into the Egyptian Hall to see it, and it was claimed that at least a hundred thousand curious spectators sat in the carriage. After displaying it at his museum, Bullock took the carriage on tour exhibiting it in the principal cities and towns throughout the United Kingdom.

Madame Tussaud and Sons - William Bullock's image.

William Bullock. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The carriage contained everything needed for Napoleon when he was involved in a military campaign. Its interior could be easily adapted for a variety of purposes ranging from a kitchen to a bedroom to a dressing room or it could function as an office or a dining room. Moreover, it had “an economy of space … like that of the cells of a beehive.”[3] The carriage also contained all sorts of storage and compartments to hold necessities. There was a writing desk, complete with storage for pens, ink, and wax seals. The ceiling also had a “net-work” to hold things, and pistols and their holsters were placed in one of the doors. In addition, under the seat was a liquor case that contained two bottles, one held rum and the other a fine Malaga wine.

Bullock sold the carriage at auction, and it eventually became the property of a coach manufacturer named Mr. Robert Jeffreys of Gray’s Inn Road. Jeffreys obtained it as part of a settlement in a debt owed to him. Madame Tussaud’s oldest son Joseph learned of its existence one day while on a London dock, and Madame Tussaud and Sons acquired it from Jeffreys in 1842 for the sum of £2,500.

The Fire

The three carriages were prominently displayed among Napoleon’s relics at Madame Tussaud and Sons until 1925. At that time a fire suddenly erupted about 10:15pm on the night of 18 March. Passers-by noted the blazing glow coming from the building and quickly spread the alarm. By 11:00pm, twenty-five motor pumps were in action with numerous firefighters fighting the blaze atop the dizzying heights of several ladders.

The fire was fierce and burned so intently that witnesses claimed to have seen multi-colored flames lapping at the building and to have heard the sizzling of wax figures. One eye-witness reported it was the most spectacular fire he had ever witnessed and also reported:

“Strong red gold flames leapt 50 feet from the roof of the building. The surrounding gardens looked as if they were illuminated by powerful electric light. A dozen firemen stood out silhouetted in perfectly clear outline on the walls of the building and the spray from their hoses looked like fine rain.”[4]

The fire was primarily contained to the roof and the two upper floors of the building. Flames did not touch the Chamber of Horrors, but the Chamber of Horrors still suffered major damage because of the amount of water used to put out the fire. A day or so after the fire, John Tussaud, speaking as representative of Madame Tussaud’s, declared to one reporter, “To me the disaster is too terrible to dwell upon. It seems incredible.”[5]

One interesting side note to the fire was the survival of a hardy parrot. As firefighters gained control of the fire, witnesses observed clouds of white steam rising. It was at that time that certain portable property was removed. At first it was pictures. Then suddenly two men were seen emerging from the building struggling with a huge cage.

“A little knot of interested spectators soon gathered around this, and found that it contained a green parrot. Doubts were expressed at first as to whether it was alive or a wax bird, but after a moment or two in the fresh air the bird, which had been lying on the bottom of the cage, apparently half-stupefied, hopped on to its perch and began to show signs of returning perkiness.”[6]

Immediately after the fire, the exact cause was under investigation but it appeared as if “the flames had started besides the orchestra platform in the main hall.”[7] Although there was no loss of life or personal injury, losses were estimated to be at about £250,000. However, that amount was a pittance compared to the historic and sentimental value of many of the pieces. As to Napoleon’s irreplaceable carriages, they were considered priceless. Nothing remained of them but charred ashes.

Madame Tussaud and Sons - Images before and after of Napoleon's military carriage.

Before and after pictures of Napoleon’s military carriage. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Madame Tussaud and Sons, Biographical and Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose the Unrivalled Exhibition and Historical Gallery of Madame Tussaud and Sons: Patronised by His Royal Highness Prince Albert and the Royal Family … [etc.] (London: G. Cole, 1862), p. 22.
  • [2] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Exhibition Catalogue: Containing Biographical & Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose Their Exhibition and Historical Gallery (London: B. George, 1880), p. 35.
  • [3] 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.
  • [4] Western Daily Press, “Tussaud’s Ablaze,” March 19, 1925, p. 12.
  • [5] Northern Whig, “A New Tussaud’s,” March 20, 1925, p. 8.
  • [6] Aberdeen Press and Journal, “Madame Tussaud’s Ablaze,” March 19, 1925, p. 7.
  • [7] Ibid.

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