During a routine valuation in Dorset, a Duke’s Auctioneers specialist found a rare working model of a guillotine made out of animal bone scraps. According to family lore, the model has been in the family since the 19th century, but they had no idea what it was until Duke’s expert Amy Brenan (who also generously provided the sweet high resolution pictures herein) identified it.
The guillotine was crafted by a prisoner of war, probably French, who was held in Britain between 1805 and 1815 during the Napoleonic wars. He collected sheep bones from the trash, carved them and put them together with impeccable attention to detail to make the 20-inch high model of an execution. An elaborate superstructure crowns the decapitation machine which rests on a platform with a victim lying horizontally waiting for the blade to fall. The victim is surrounded by armed guards on the platform, and the base of the structure is also manned by armed guards and cannons. Each figure has a hand-painted face, the blade of the guillotine drops and the soldiers holding weapons have moveable arms.
Amy Brenan describes its rarity:
“Napoleonic prisoner of war models made from bone and ivory are hard to come by. Many designs such as the model battle ships, spinning jennies and guillotines are so intricate that they disintegrate overtime and this makes any surviving examples extremely rare.
The sheer skill in creating a working model of the guillotine coupled with its social significance at the time, has made the guillotine models particularly desirable.”
Britain held approximately 100,000 prisoners of war over the course of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The Revolutionary government decreed in 1793-4 that prisoners would no longer be ransomed, or even taken, and Napoleon would later also eschew traditional prisoner exchanges. Since Britain was at war with France for pretty much the whole time from 1793 until 1815, they soon had more prisoners than they could stuff into their prison hulks. Enemy officers were allowed parole and housed in various towns across England, but most of the prisoners enjoyed no such privileges.
The first permanent camp built intentionally to house prisoners of war was built in Norman Cross, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, in 1797. From 1797 to 1816, about 10,000 prisoners were held at the Norman Cross POW camp.
Conditions were miserable — prisoners were crammed into barracks on rows of hammocks, disease was rampant, England was cold and wet — albeit comparatively humane. (French soldiers were known to voluntarily surrender to the British because they treated their prisoners better than anyone else.) Typhus cut a swath through the population in 1800 and 1801 killing 1021 prisoners. At least another 770 more died during the camp’s 17 years of existence.
Many of these soldiers and sailors had been conscripted into the Napoleonic military machine. They had crafting skills from their civilian lives, and desperate to make a little money to pad their meager subsistence, they made models of bone, ivory, wood scraps, even straw which they used to create marquetry baskets. Many of them are signed with the artists/prisoners’ names. The prisoners would then be allowed to sell their crafts to the local inhabitants. (They also fabricated counterfeit banknotes and porn, but the authorities weren’t so supportive of those creative endeavors.)
A British soldier describes being dispatched along with his regiment in 1799:
“….to Norman Cross for the purpose of guarding some thousands of unhappy Frenchmen, cooped up in that place and clothed in yellow (the prison dress), to expiate their revolutionary sins by many years captivity and exile in loathsome prison, cut off from family and friends.
Their necessities forced them to exert their ingenuity in making various curious toys which the disposed of at a very low rate to enable them to procure a few comforts to alleviate their extreme wretchedness…..for want of clothes many of them suffered every privation rather than be clad in a conspicuous and humiliating colour.”
The Peterborough Museum has a large collection of these models from the Norman Cross prisoners, and many of them are in deteriorating condition due to their inherent fragility. A working Napoleonic prisoner guillotine with all the parts moving and all the paint still attached, therefore, is a museum-quality find.
The guillotine will be sold at Duke’s on February 9 with an estimated price tag of £4000 – £8000 (about $6300 – $12,600).