During the Napoleonic Wars there was a prison ship depot situated in the Medway at Chatham, moored in Gillingham Reach and Short Reach. The bodies of those who died were interred in the marshes adjoining the hulks. The bodies of those from Short Reach were buried on the marsh land known as St Mary’s Island, while those from Gillingham Reach were buried on what was known as ‘Prisoners Banks’.
In 1854 the Admiralty purchased St. Mary’s Island and the adjoining marshland to extend Chatham Dockyard. Work began on this extension in the early 1860s. In 1868 it was noted that the burial ground at ‘Prisoner’s Bank’ was eroding and exposing the skeletons and coffins. The Admiralty arranged for the bodies to be re-interred in the existing French Cemetery on St. Mary’s Island and in 1869 a memorial was placed over the cemetery, with all labour being performed by convicts.
The memorial was laid here on July 22, 1991 and commemorates the re-interment of the remains of a further 362 prisoners of war from the original cemetery on St. Mary’s Island.
1903 saw plans for the construction of a new Dockyard basin that would take in the French Cemetery, so it was decided to remove the memorial and bodies to a new site, south of the Naval Chapel in the Royal Naval Barracks. The transfer of the remains took place during late August and early September, and it was reported that 521 skulls and remains had been reburied in varnished deal boxes, with the memorial being re-erected in December. It is a mystery why all the bodies in the French Cemetery were not removed in 1904, because in late 1990 the island was part of a development by English Estates, who discovered that there were still some skeletons remaining. The site was carefully excavated and the remains were re-interred at the dockyard site behind St. George’s Church, and a short service of remembrance was held in front of a new memorial tablet placed on the site which reads:
Here are gathered together the remains of many brave soldiers and sailors, who, having once been the foes, afterwards the captives of England, now find rest in her soil, remembering no more the animosities of war or the sorrows of imprisonment. They were deprived of the consolation of closing their eyes amongst the countrymen they loved, but they have been laid in an honourable grave by a nation which knows how to respect valour and to sympathise with misfortune.
All the dead prisoners of war from His Majesty’s Prison Ship Depot, Chatham, now rest in peace in a well-kept graveyard. In November each year there is a ceremony involving the Mayor of Medway, Le Souvenir Français, the French Consulate and many local people with an interest in their heritage.
For more details of the French Prisoner of War Memorial Service, please see le-souvenir-francais.fr.