27 July 2022
By William O’Chee
The Battle of Waterloo forever changed the course of European politics, but few know the story of how news of the battle made its way to London, and the amateur oarsman who got it there.
The Battle of Waterloo, fought on the 18th of June 1815, put an end to the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, and brought peace to a continent that had experienced over two decades on continual war. However, the battle was bloody, even by the standards of the day; at its close, some 50,000 men were left killed or wounded on the battlefield.
In the fashion of the day, the battle had been witnessed by many civilian spectators, and Wellington knew it was important that his news should be the first to reach London. He set about writing his dispatch, which was the official account of the battle, in a farmhouse on the battlefield in the early hours of the 19th of June. After breakfasting, Wellington proceeded to Brussels, where he finished the dispatch.
Wellington entrusted the delivery of the dispatch to Major Henry Percy. Percy was a grandson of the 1st Duke of Northumberland and had served in the Peninsula War until his capture by the French in September 1810. He spent most of the next four years as a prisoner of war in Moulins in the Auvergne in France. His father, the Earl of Beverley was on parole there, having been detained as a civilian in Geneva in 1805 after the French took control of Switzerland. While he was in Moulins, Henry fathered two sons, Henry and James, with a local vigneron’s daughter, Marion Durand.
After Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, Henry Percy had returned to the Army and was one of Wellington’s aides-de-camp at Waterloo. Wellington had been impressed by Percy’s conduct and knew that delivering the dispatch would see him promoted. Taking the dispatch and a number of other important letters, Percy left Brussels in a carriage, along with two captured French regimental colours with their finial eagles. He called on the French King, Louis XVIII, in Ghent, and thereafter travelled to Bruges, and then Ostend, where the Royal Navy had a station. It was now around midday on the 20th of June.
At 2pm, Percy boarded the brig-sloop H.M.S. Peruvian, and set sail for Dover, which was 75 miles away. The Peruvian was one of 110 Cruizer-class brig-sloops built during the Napoleonic Wars, plans for which still exist in the Royal Museum at Greenwich. She had two square-rigged masts and carried 18 guns. Her crew of 120 were crammed into a single internal deck 100 feet long, and she carried two gigs on the main deck.
After being commissioned in 1808, H.M.S. Peruvian had seen action against the French, and against Americans between 1812 and 1814, during which time she took a number of prize ships. She was potentially very fast, but as they made their way across the channel, the winds became progressively lighter until the sloop was becalmed entirely that night. It wasn’t until 11am the next day that white cliffs were sighted by lookouts atop the fore mast. With no winds, and the possibility the current would take them away from the coast, at midday the brig’s commander, James Kearney White, decided to put out one of the gigs, which he boarded with four sailors and Percy. At this stage they were 15 miles from the Kent coast.
According to legend, both White and Percy to their places on the oars, although Henry Percy’s biographer, Colonel Sir William Mahon, says he has no evidence of this. It would depend on two things: the design of the gig, and whether Percy knew how to row.
Unsurprisingly for a nation with a strong maritime tradition, the Royal Navy does a good job of preserving its history, and, in fact, has its own naval history section. In response to queries about the type of gig used on H.M.S. Peruvian, their view was that it had to have been a six-oared boat. Brig-sloops were often used for so-called “cutting out” missions to capture vessels at anchor in enemy harbours by cutting their moorings and making away with them. To do this they needed boats that were swift and could carry a decent raiding party. Four-oared gigs would not suffice.
Another reason why they had to have been rowing a six-oared boat was the tide. The English Channel is home to very strong tides. While the notional distance to the Kent coast was 15 miles, in the three hours they took to make it there, the sideways sweep of the tide could have effectively doubled the distance they had to row. That would be difficult in a clinker boat with only four oars and two passengers, but would be achievable in a six oared boat if everyone was rowing.
So did Henry know how to row?
Mahon says that Henry was a ‘wet bob’ at Eton, although it is unclear the basis of this statement. Historian Brian Cathcart, who has written about Percy’s carriage of the dispatch, is somewhat more circumspect and notes Percy “is said to have rowed” at Eton. He adds that perhaps “the idea belongs in the often-speculative embroidery attached to the legend of the dispatch in the later 19th century.”
The fact is Eton holds no rowing records from that time, so it is impossible to be sure, however Henry Percy would not have been the only Army officer of the time who could row.
A few years after the battle, we know of a circle of aristocratic rowers which included Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Lord Arthur Moyses William Hill (later 2nd Baron Sandys), Lord Robert Manners, and Viscount Valletort. All had fought at Waterloo. Lord Fitzroy Somerset was Wellington’s Military Secretary during the battle, where he lost his arm. Lord Hill was, like Percy, one of Wellington’s aides-de-camp. Other military members of this circle included Lord Charles Somerset, the Marquess of Worcester, and Sir Charles Greville. Interestingly, none had been at Eton.
More importantly, Percy’s family seems to have had a longstanding interest in rowing and boating. In fact, the Duke of Northumberland’s archivist, Christopher Hunwick, has traced the history of boating on the Percy estates as far back as the 17th century. Irrespective of whether he rowed at Eton, Henry Percy would probably have partaken of boating before he entered the school, since it was a family pastime.
It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Percy did actually row the gig, and that he was more than capable.
On arriving at Broadstairs, Percy took a chaise and four with the French eagles protruding out the windows and proceeded as fast as he could to London. His destination was Downing Street, where he was to deliver the dispatch to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. However, when he arrived at Downing Street just after 11pm, Bathurst was not present. By now a large crowd had gathered around the carriage, and the noise drew the attention of Charles Arbuthnot MP, who told him the Cabinet was dining at Lord Harrowby’s residence in Grosvenor Square.
Percy must have been filthy, having worn the same uniform for six days, including throughout the battle. On top of that, he had rowed for some three hours.
Lord Harrowby’s 14-year-old daughter, Mary, later recalled being woken by the sound of cheering, and looked over the bannisters to see a dishevelled officer in a scarlet coatee enter the house crying: “Victory! Victory! Bonaparte has been beaten!” After a toast by the Prime Minister to the victory and the bearer of the good news, Percy then set out in search of the Prince Regent who, along with the Duke of York, was at a ball hosted by Mr and Mrs Boehm at 16 St James’s Square. Dinner had ended and the ball was just commencing on the first floor when Henry entered, laid the flags at the Prince Regent’s feet and pronounced the words: “Victory, victory, Sire.”
After promoting him a Lt Colonel, the Prince Regent is said to have asked: “We have not suffered much loss, I hope?” Percy replied: “The loss has been very great indeed,” at which the Regent burst into tears as he read the names of his aristocratic friends who had been killed in the battle. The Prince Regent left shortly after the dispatch was read to the crowd from the balcony, as did the other guests, so ruining the ball.
16 St James Square is now the East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools’ Club, and the room where the ball took place is known as the Waterloo Room. Its charm is all the greater for its place in history. They suitably have their own rowing club.
As for Henry Percy, in addition to being promoted, he was made a Commander of the Order of the Bath. He remained close to the Duke of Wellington until Percy’s untimely death just ten years later. Percy’s eldest son became Major-General Sir Henry Durand and was eventually Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab. His eldest son, Edward, was British Resident in Nepal, and awarded a baronetcy, while another son, Henry, became a Major-General.