‘Napoleon III stayed in Southport while in exile, and was inspired by Lord Street to rebuild Paris with wide boulevards.‘
It’s a great story and always a talking point, but the details were a little vague. Southport Townscape Heritage Project was determined to find the proof. This is what we’ve discovered so far!
Who was Napoleon III anyway?
Originally known as Prince Louis Napoleon, he was a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and spent most of his youth in exile after the battle of Waterloo in 1815. He became the focus for the restoration of the Bonapartes as rulers of France, and in 1836 he attempted a coup against the King, Louis Philippe. When that failed, he went into exile again, eventually reaching London in October 1838. He stayed in England until 1840 when he attempted another coup. This time he was captured and imprisoned, until he escaped in 1846 and returned to England. In 1848, when France, like many countries in Europe, was convulsed by revolution, he was elected President of France. Four years later he declared himself Emperor.
As ruler, Napoleon III was a curious mix of autocrat and social reformer. He spent much of his reign improving conditions in Paris, with major works such as water supplies and sewers, and – famously – rebuilding the medieval centre with wide new boulevards. But in 1870, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, Napoleon was captured at the battle of Sedan, and released six months later when peace was declared. Meanwhile, France had declared another republic.
In March 1871, Napoleon left France for the last time and returned to England with his wife, Eugenie, and son. They set up home at Camden Place, Chislehurst in Kent, where he died on 9 January 1873.
Did Napoleon III visit Southport in 1838?
The historian, Francis Bailey, sets out what he called ‘the sole tangible evidence’ for a visit in his History of Southport published in 1955 – ‘an old but undated manuscript, in a feminine hand’ that states that Louis Napoleon rented a house on Lord Street in about 1838, but didn’t live in it. You can read David Walshe’s analysis of this statement on his Secret Sand Land blog.
The newspapers of the time reported Louis Napoleon’s every move. He arrived in London in late October 1838, within a few weeks he was staying in Leamington Spa, at the end of January 1839 he left for ‘a tour of Birmingham and the manufacturing districts’. He certainly reached Manchester, but Liverpool’s hopes of a visit seem to have come to nothing, and within a week he was back in London, having rented a house on Carlton Terrace for a year.
Louis Napoleon seems to have spent much of 1839 in London, with a few trips to watch the horse-racing in Sussex and at Epsom for the Derby. In late August though, he travelled to Ayrshire via boat from Liverpool, to take part in the – utterly bonkers – Eglinton Tournament. Louis Napoleon took part, dressed in armour, in the tilting and broadsword fighting.
Amongst the most expert of the combatants was Prince Louis Napoleon, who exhibited considerable skill in the use of his weapon.
The Tournament party returned via Carlisle, and Louis Napoleon was back in London by the end of September. After that, he seems to have stayed in London with an increasing focus on his political future in France. This culminated in August 1840 with a ‘mad attempt … to raise an insurrection in Boulogne’, which ended in disaster. Louis Napoleon was tried in France and spent the next six years in prison.
So, Louis Napoleon certainly visited Manchester and passed through Liverpool on his journey to Ayrshire, but according to the busy schedule recorded in the papers he was mostly in London and Leamington Spa.
We thought we ought to check out Leamington Spa. It’s a lovely place – with some elegant wide streets – and a handsome house where Napoleon III definitely stayed. But when we asked staff at the museum about him, they were bemused. His stay was lost in tales of more apparently interesting visitors such as Queen Victoria!
Did Napoleon III visit Southport in 1846?
In May 1846, Louis Napoleon escaped from his prison in the fortress of Ham, dressed as a workman and returned once again to London, where he immediately picked up his social life.
An old gentleman, who is just beginning to pun, says ‘Prince Louis Napoleon, by escaping from Ham, has saved his bacon’.
In July 1846 the papers report him visiting Sir John Gerard to go to Newton Races. He had become friendly with Sir John, who lived at New Hall in Ashton-in-Makerfield near Wigan and whose family had longstanding ties with Southport. Also in the party were Sir Charles Hesketh of Rufford Hall, and Sir Henry Bold-Hoghton of Walton-le-Dale, both from families with land in Southport.
Louis Napoleon clearly enjoyed his visit. Lancashire Archives has the letter he wrote to Lady Gerard on 29 July 1846, expressing his warm thanks and saying that it was the first time in six years that he had felt truly among friends (paraphrased from the French).
He wrote again at the end of the year, sending flowers and best wishes and thanking them again for the hospitality he had received at New Hall. This letter must have been referring to another stay in November 1846, which was briefly reported in a Liverpool paper. He probably stopped off on his way to visit the Duke of Hamilton and the Isle of Arran shortly afterwards.
So, you’re probably wondering what the Southport papers said?
Unfortunately, the Southport Visiter only began publication in 1844, so there’s no record from 1838. For 1846, although at first the Visiter only appeared during the Summer months, that would at least cover the first visit to the Gerards. But – none of the papers for 1846 seem to have survived, anywhere!
The first editor of the Visiter, Frank Robinson, recounts a story of the young Louis Philippe, Napoleon III’s predecessor as French ruler, staying a night at the Union Hotel on Lord Street after a shooting trip. Robinson’s Descriptive History of the Popular Watering Place of Southport was published in 1848, and you might think a journalist would have included another good tale of a French prince visiting Southport.
What was Lord Street like in 1846?
Lord Street was certainly wide – the houses along what had been a marshy track were built up the sand dunes on either side, with private gardens in front of them. 1846 was the year of the first Southport Improvement Act, which described the town as ‘badly paved, drained, watched and lighted’. It’s likely that Lord Street was smarter than that sounds as it was the focus for residents and visitors, but even several years later, the street was lined with small buildings, some of them little more than wooden sheds.
What happened when Napoleon III died in 1873?
Napoleon III had made quite an impression on his earlier stays in England, and as a former monarch his death was national news. The Liverpool papers covered the story with long articles including memories of his visits when in exile. The Southport Visiter also published an obituary, but without mentioning any links to the town.
By 1873, Sir John Gerard and his wife had died, but there are letters at Lancashire Archives to their son Sir Robert Gerard from the exiled Napoleon III’s advisors thanking him for inviting the Prince Imperial to stay in 1872, and then again in 1878.
Is there any link between Southport and Paris?
Well, some 19th century visitors certainly saw a resemblance. Mrs Catherine Winter spent several months as an invalid in Southport in 1871 and was delighted by Lord Street.
The beauty of Lord Street – selon moi [in my view] – is that it looks like a long avenue of trees, as you look up and down, with spires of churches and tops of chimneys peeping over the lovely foliage … Thought of Leamington, Cheltenham, the Boulevards at Paris – all have trees in a town, all very beautiful, Champs Elysees alone had the advantages and beauty of the scenery of Lord Street…
She went on to write:
How I should like to see Lord Street – the miniature or wee prototype of the Champs Elysees – illuminated as I have seen the said Champs Elysees…
So, did he…?
It’s not clear when the story of Napoleon III’s inspiring stay in Southport emerged. Bailey records a possible visit, but doesn’t link it to the boulevards in Paris. None of the promotional guidebooks of the 19th and 20th centuries seem to feature Napoleon III. So what is the source of the story? Maybe that is the story…
1. The news clippings and information about Louis Napoleon’s movements are from the British Newspaper Archive.
2. The letters from Louis Napoleon and his household are in Lancashire Archives at DDGE/M/1707
3. From The Atkinson collection
4. Reproduced under a CC-BY-NC-SA licence with the permission of the National Library of Scotland