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Time Team Series 17: Death and Dominoes - The First POW Camp (Norman Cross, Cambridgeshire)
Broadcast 3 October 2010
Between 1792 and 1818 over 200,000 prisoners of war were brought to Britain, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars with France. The existing prisons were soon overflowing, so in 1797 a large prison camp was built at Norman Cross in Cambridgeshire – ‘The Norman Cross Depot for Prisoners of War’. This was the first of its kind in the country, specially designed with health and hygiene in mind, and housing up to 7000 inmates. We know a fair amount about the Norman Cross camp from documentary records, plans and contemporary drawings, but little is known about the surviving archaeological remains, a situation that Time Team hoped to address.
Nine trenches across the site confirmed the basic layout of the camp and provided some detail of its construction and use. The outer perimeter appears to have been a double ditch, separated by a walkway, all contained within a single brick wall. There was also evidence of an earlier timber palisade, which had been mentioned in documentary sources.
Conditions were better at Norman Cross camp than in other prisons, but even so, at least one epidemic, probably typhoid, wiped out a proportion of the prison population. Time Team found a number of graves to the north and north-east of the camp, just outside the walls. Several of these contained more than one individual, although these may have been interred in several phases. However, the ‘plague’ cemetery, reported (by local tradition) to lie to the west of the camp, was not located.
Boredom was also a problem, and to counteract widespread gambling the inmates were encouraged to make and sell craft items from bone, wood and other materials. Many of these survive in Peterborough Museum. Time Team found further evidence of this in the form of a large collection of bone-working debris, and some finished objects (combs, needles, buttons, dominoes). Personal items including metal buttons show the range of military affiliations represented amongst the occupants of the camp (British, French and Dutch).
The camp was closed in 1814 following the Treaty of Paris, and subsequently dismantled. Robber cuts found within a number of the Time Team trenches confirm this systematically dismantling. Most of the brickwork appears to have been removed and reclaimed.
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