Calais, a part of the world most of us pass through on our way elsewhere. But John Hillman has discovered a time when for a few unfortunates it represented the end of the road.
Calais is peopled with English slight sinners and heavy debtors, the needy and the greedy, a sort of purgatory for half-condemned souls.
– Harriet ‘Harryo’ Cavendish, later Lady Granville Gower, daughter of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
During the heady days of the Regency the port city of Calais was, although ancient and historical, a pretty unappealing place to live. Not, of course, for the people who had family connections there stretching back generations, but for the numerous English immigrants to be found scratching a living on the hoary old streets of this semi-fortified town this was, quite simply, the only place left available to them.
During the 18th and 19th centuries Calais was a rather curious anomaly. A person fleeing England for legal reasons, most commonly to avoid the horror of debtor’s prison, could live in Calais beyond the reach of English law. However, to leave the town and head into the wide open spaces of Europe they would have required a passport, thus they remained stuck in a sort of strange limbo.
Many Englishmen chose to live the rest of their days in the port of Calais rather than face the consequences of their actions back home, the fashion for high-stakes gambling at the time ensured that there was never a shortage of desperate men looking to escape writs for debt-arrest issued by the tradesmen and bankers once their luck at the gaming tables had run out.
The prospect of spending their lives in jail with no realistic way of ever repaying their debts and gaining freedom was weighed against spending the remainder of their days trapped in a dreary foreign town and, unsurprisingly, the lesser of the two evils usually won.
One of the nation’s most celebrated debtors to have taken this option was George ‘Beau’ Brummell, whose fall from the highest echelons of Regency society to the depths of exile; madness and a slow syphilitic death in penury are the subject of a fascinating account in Beau Brummell, the Ultimate Dandy, by Ian Kelly. The biggest celebrity of his day found himself, like many others, trapped in Calais, forced to walk his dogs along the battlements each day and stare longingly across the English Channel to the land where he once counted the Prince Regent as a close personal friend.
Describing his arrival in Calais Kelly writes:
The place to stay in Calais for debtors on the run and English travellers was Dessin’s Hotel just off the Place des Armes. It was run by a Gascon family who had long profited from English gentry on the first or last leg of Grand Tours, and from distressed gentlefolk like George Brummell who beached themselves first, and often permanently, in Calais.
Dessin’s – Dessein’s – Hotel offered guests a large courtyard and garden, ‘commodious baths’, a small theatre, and even the novel concept of a ‘restaurant’; unheard-of in London in 1816. It was sufficiently regal – and suitably well placed next to the Hotel de Ville – for it to have been used by the returning Bourbon monarch three years earlier for his first address as King Louis XVIII on French soil.
So next time you pass through this city on your way to warmer climes spare a thought for your unfortunate ancestral countrymen, condemned to a semi-existence in a small French town so few, yet so very many, miles from a place called home.
Image Credit: Edouard-Henri-Theophile Pingret