Haslar Heritage Group

Section Two - The Portsmouth Story

On 27 September 1808 the Admiralty was informed that enemy vessels had anchored in the Portsmouth harbour, with their flags streaming, as if in times of peace. The Lord Mayor of London declared the convention disreputable for Britain’s prestige and many in the Admiralty shared his opinion. The Russian fleet was therefore detained in Portsmouth under various pretexts until winter weather made their return to the Baltic impossible.

Whilst the Russian fleet was impounded in Portsmouth the crews were further detained onboard their ships. Having endured many months aboard ship, both at sea and having been impounded at Lisbon before their voyage to Portsmouth, a large number of the Russians were becoming sick. Many suffered from scurvy and arrangements were made for them to be admitted directly to Haslar, with other less sick being transferred to the hospital hulk Pegase anchored in Portsmouth Harbour. Some Russians were also held on the prison ship San Antonio and records show those who had died on board were sent to Portsmouth for burial.

The Royal Navy ship Pegase, a 74-gun ship of the line originally of the French Navy, had been launched in 1781 and at that time was the lead ship of her class. [Length 55.2 metres (182 feet) and Beam 14.3 metres (48 feet).] Pegase was captured by the Foudroyant on the 21st April 1782 and following capture was commissioned by the Admiralty as the third rate HMS Pegase.
In her later years Pegase was to serve as both a prison ship from 1799 and was finally used as a hospital ship before the order to be broken up in being given on 31st December 1814.

HMS San Antonio 74 guns was captured from the French in1807 and known as the St Antoine she was immediately put to service as a prison ship. In 1814 she became a powder hulk and was finally sold in 1828

Pegase was commanded by Lt John F Miller RN from 27th October 1808 to June 1809. He had a difficult command, enduring many problems especially those associated with the crew who were continually absent and deserted the ship in droves, possibly not being able to stand dealing with the sick and more so Russians.

The Surgeon in charge was William Halfpenny who was required to swear an oath to Record all admissions, deaths and those placed run1. The surgeon also had the responsibility of hiring staff (nurses) and ordering stores and supplies used in the running of the hospital ship these were demanded from Haslar on a regular basis from linen for bandages to hospital shirts. One such order for shirts alone numbered 100 shirts and many orders included requests for medication and also for coal and wines as well.

Patients were nursed between decks in hammocks, which the ship’s orders stated ‘were to be scrubbed on deck and aired’. Nursing staff2  were employed at a rate of 19 shillings (90p) a month and a matron was eventually employed as the nursing staff increased in numbers to deal with the growing number of patients. The matron by the name of Elizabeth Arnold was paid £1-10shillings (£1-50p) a month. Mary Clerk (Nurse) was the first of the nurses to die onboard of disease, possibly Typhus and her body was sent to Haslar for burial.

Victuals were demanded regularly and paid for monthly and in February 1809 £3-12s-2d (£3-61p) was spent on milk for the sick. In the same month on one day alone 10 bags of bread, 331lb of Flour, 347lb of raisins, 67lb butter, 163lb Cheese, 220lb sugar were demanded to include 10 bushels of Pease and 8lb of oats with 126 gallons of beer and 2 casks of water.

Regarding bread it is interesting to note that contractors for the supply of bread in the Portsmouth area had complained (in writing to the admiralty) that they had been expected to bake good bread for foreigners, something the bakers did not agree with. This information being found recently in a letter held on file at the Public Records Office at Kew.

Surgeon Halfpenny was responsible for hiring and firing of staff and as was found with Haslar staff of the time if you did not report for duty No Pay! Many Russian patients who overcame their illness were recruited to serve onboard in the daily care of the patients.  There is recorded a Barber (I Cenoff), cook and also those rated as Helper(s) (Eli Danieloff and Timothy Elifican), obviously Russians who, being able to speak English, were acting as interpreters etc. The staff were paid on a monthly basis with the staff bill for July 1809 being £17-12s-9d (£17-64p). At this point the dead were being returned to their ships for disposal and the ships in turn were transferring the bodies to Haslar for burial.

It was the Surgeon’s duty to complete all logs and registers concerning patients treated onboard. From reading the records (held by the PRO) Surgeon Halfpenny must have spent many late hours completing these books. At times pages bear suspicious stains that could be blood, or body fluids now dried into the pages. The entries at times were just a scrawl, possibly written at night and in the candlelight of the sick quarters with Halfpenny tiring from a long day of caring for his patients.

The number of sick and dying onboard the Russian ships overwhelmed the Pegase and as records show that from November 1808 many patents were then admitted directly from other ships to Haslar. The first such patient to be admitted to Haslar was Captain (Cavalry) Ivan Petrovitche of the Sollafaell suffering from Rheumatic pains he was eventually discharged back to his ship.

Such were the numbers of patients for admission that a separate register was commenced in order to record fully the members of the Russian Fleet admitted to Haslar hospital.

The prolonged detention of the Russian sailors at Portsmouth, an apparent violation of the convention Admiral Cotton had signed with Seniavin, resulted from the military situation in the Baltic, which had become an active war zone.  In February 1808 Russia had invaded Sweden and Denmark, a French ally, declared war on Sweden in March. Marshal Bernadotte of the French army soon arrived in Denmark to command an army of French and allied troops, including a Spanish contingent, poised to invade Sweden from the south.

With Sweden beset on all sides by the forces of the Russian-Danish-French alliance, Britain responded by sending additional land and naval forces to the Baltic. Admiral James de Saumarez, 2nd Baron Saumarez of Guernsey of the Royal Navy, was sent to the Baltic Sea with his fleet (his flagship was HMS Victory). The Baltic command was established and effectively protected the coasts of southern Sweden from Franco-Danish invasion, while a British expeditionary corps of 10,000 troops under General Sir John Moore, arrived outside Gothenburg, Sweden on May 17 1808. The troops were never landed in Sweden because King Gustav IV Adolf protested strongly; with the result that Moore along with the expeditionary corps was sent to Portugal instead. The British naval presence, however, prevented any action by Bernadotte’s forces against Sweden and was successful in sweeping the Baltic of Russian vessels and keeping them bottled up in port.  While Saumarez kept watch on Baltic ports from Copenhagen to Kronstadt, British ships evacuated the Spanish forces in Denmark, returning them to Spain in August 1808 after the French occupation of Spain and forced abdication of the Spanish king led to the rebellion of the Spanish people against French rule.

In January of 1809 and further to the Russians being admitted Haslar was handed by the Admiralty to the Army in order to cope with the returning casualties from the peninsular war. Large numbers of troops, including casualties and the sick, arrived at Spithead in their thousands onboard troop transports from Corunna. It is recorded that on 7th January 1809 such was the number of ships arriving in the Solent that they stretched from St Helens to Cowes. This was only the prelude to the full evacuation of Sir John Moore’s army, which had narrowly escaped destruction by the French.  

The Royal Navy evacuated some 27,000 men from Corunna under French artillery fire, although Moore himself was mortally wounded at the Battle of Corunna.  On the 27th January an estimated 10,000 of these were disembarked [at Spithead] with 2,600 sick mainly suffering from Typhus and wounds of battle. There were also 360 dead not all admitted via Haslar for burial.

By late summer their numbers were to be increased by sick and injured who arrived for admission to Haslar from the ill fated British action across the channel at Walcheren island, which had taken place in July when it was planned that British troops would attack the French Fleet thought then to be at Flushing. The action resulted in the death of 4,000 troops and many of the sick suffering from Malaria and Fever were also transferred to Haslar.  

During this period the hospital continued to admit naval patients whilst at the same time also admitting their own hospital staff for treatment who for the first time (during this research) are recorded in the hospital‘s admission register and shown in the register as admissions on a monthly table at the end of each calendar month including their disposal, either back to duty, dismissed unable to work, or dead for burial.

Many of the Haslar staff who died had been employed as washerwomen, nurses and labourers who themselves caught Typhus, obviously from handling fouled bed linen. It is understood that the army quartermasters of the day were selling articles of clothing from the returning soldiers to civilians and that all manner of diseases were spreading along the south coast of England because of infected clothing.

As a matter of note naval pensioners were at this time also being admitted for care into Haslar. This period in Haslar’s history was to see the greatest number of admissions to the hospital, totaling some 1800 – 2000 patients being mustered on the hospital wards at any one time during this period.

Russians who had died both onboard their own ships and on Pegase were sent directly to Haslar for burial, the numbers including a nurse who died onboard and recorded as an admission in the Haslar register. Death amongst the patients (Russians) was caused by many medical conditions but notably Scurvy3, which was rife amongst the crews showing the lack of suitable food for those impounded even in a British port, although many could, or would have possibly been suffering from the disease exacerbated by a poor diet since arriving from the Mediterranean and from having spent further time being impounded in Lisbon.

In the period 1808/09 both Russian and British seamen4 , marines and British Army5 died at Haslar along with Haslar staff and all being interred in the (Paddock) grounds of the hospital.

Reference should be made that at the same time as dealing with the Russians admission to Haslar Portsmouth had over 3900 French and Spanish prisoners of war both in Prisons onshore (Portchester castle being the largest) and afloat in prison hulks within the harbour and creeks in and around Portsmouth.

It is also known that French (and possibly Spanish) prisoners of war were being admitted to Haslar at this time. In the Russian register of admissions to Haslar a Frenchman’s name appears as being of the French marine and yet he must have strayed into the wrong queue as he is recorded admission wise as a Russian.

In 1941 whilst workmen were carrying out repairs on the Haslar sewers four skeletons were found in the sewer.  These are thought to have been the bones of patients attempting escape, as this was a favourite escape route for all patients to freedom. They were possibly trapped and either overcome by foul air, or incoming tide from the harbour that on rising and falling cleared the waste from the main sewer. 1805 hospital records show that one Richard Tipper was employed to scrape the sewer walls and clear the sewer of waste for 4shillings (20p) a month.

In the Haslar admissions register for August 1809 the first listings of ‘Effects of the Dead’ appear. The effects are recorded on paper notes signed by the head nurse of the ward, or block in which the patient died.  These have been pinned into the register at the head of the page bearing the deceased’s name and some make pitiful reading – officers having many items of personal effects and sailors and soldiers very little save for the shirt, trousers and coat they were admitted with.

The last member of the Russian fleet to be admitted was Seaman Ivan Sakowloff of the Spitzbergan and having been treated at Haslar he was discharged.

On the 5th August 1809, the nearly-starved Russian officers and crews embarked on British transports for repatriation to Russia in accordance with the terms Seniavin had negotiated at Lisbon, arriving at Riga on 9 September 1809.

The Russian ships themselves were to spend several more years in captivity until the alliance between France and Russia was shattered with Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. The long years in port, though, had taken their toll on the hulls of the Russian vessels.
Of the 8 ships interned at Portsmouth, only two – Moshnyi and Silnyi – remained sufficiently seaworthy to make the voyage back to Russia in 1813.  The rest were sold at Portsmouth for breakup.

Thus closed the final chapter of the Russian fleet at Portsmouth 1808 -09.

1 To be placed Run was to be absent from the ship or establishment ‘on the Run’
2 Nurses as such were mainly widows, or women of easy virtue who cared for patients with little, or no instruction on how to do so.
3 During May, June and July 134 patients out of 437 admitted were suffering from Scurvy.
ADM 102 / 292 PRO Kew

5 ADM 102 / 353/351 PRO Kew
All information remains copyright of Eric C Birbeck MVO & Robert Goetz and are not to reproduced without prior permission.
Scroll to Top