The Briars and Betsy Balcombe
Briars House was acquired by the Balcombe family in 1805, on their arrival at St Helena from
England. Betsy Balcombe’s memoirs provide a childhood recollection of the family home:
“Our cottage was built in the style of the bungalows in India; it was very low, the rooms
being chiefly on one floor, and, had it not been for its situation, would not have been thought so pretty; but surrounded, as this verdant spot was, by barren mountains, it looked a perfect little paradise – an Eden blooming in the midst of desolation. A beautiful avenue of banyan trees led up to it, and either side was flanked by ever green and gigantic lacos, interspersed with pomegranate and myrtle, and a profusion of large white roses, much resembling our sweetbriar, from which, indeed, the place derived its name.”
On 18th October 1815 Napoleon visited the Balcombe family at the Briars. Much taken with the situation, he requested that he be allowed to reside there whilst his intended residence, Longwood House, was undergoing repairs. He was housed in the Briars Pavilion, a small outbuilding in the garden, shown in this mid-nineteenth century print to the right of the main house. Betsy’s description of the arrangements suggest that some adjustments had to be made to the Pavilion to make it a suitable residence for Napoleon:
“The emperor, during his residence under my father’s roof, occupied only one room and a marquee; the room was one my father had built for a ball-room. There was a small lawn in front, railed round, and in this railing, the marquee was pitched, connected with the house by a covered way. The marquee was divided into two compartments, the inner one forming Napoleon’s bedroom...”
Napoleon’s presence at the Briars made a noticeable impact on the family, particularly Betsy, whose memoirs brim with fond remembrances of her “playmate”. Her retrospective description of the family home also appears to be unconsciously imbued with a sense of Napoleon’s exile, almost as though she is experiencing it herself. Her description of the garden, for example, uses a rather unexpected metaphor:
On the side nearest the cottage the defences of the garden were completed by an
aloe and prickly pear hedge, through which no living thing could penetrate.”
We can only speculate as to why Betsy remembers her home in this way. Perhaps her youthful mind had been captivated by Napoleon’s stories of battles and fortifications; perhaps she empathised with the emperor’s exile on the strongly fortified St Helena so deeply that she too began to view her home as a beautiful prison, just as he did.
Over the next two centuries, Briars House slowly deteriorated and was demolished. However, Briars Pavilion survived and has been restored by the French government. Today, as a small museum to Napoleon’s early months of exile, it remains a building devoted to important memories like Betsy’s.
In September 2020, Napoleon200 ran an internship programme alongside the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Interns worked to produce research reports and blogs for use in bicentenary events.