How Samuel Hemmans helped give Napoleon the Elba…

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Many gravestones and memorials were lost when the area around Croydon’s parish church was redesigned in the 1960s to allow the construction of the Roman Way dual carriageway. One such stone commemorated the Hemmans family. DAVID MORGAN tells their story

The entrance to the Minster’s churchyard and many clues to history

On the Hemmans family memorial in the churchyard of what was once known as the Croydon Parish Church had the following information: “Samuel Hemmans, late of Chatham Dockyard, d June 14th 1819 aged 74, Ann his widow d Oct 22, 1833 aged 81, Susannah Hinton her sister, d Dec 18th 1845, Samuel Hood Hemmans, Lieut. R.N. d at Ceylon, May 2 1854 aged 62, Mary Eliza Hemmans, d Feb 15th 1872, aged 81, Thos. Hinton Hemmans, Lieut.-Colonel d Nov 17th 1873, aged 79, Ann Hemmans, d April 1 1875 aged 75.”

The lives of the two Hemmans brothers, Samuel Hood Hemmans and Thomas Hinton Hemmans, provide rich examples of military life in war-dominated early 19th Century England.

Strean’s Victorian book Croydon In The Past has a note beside the family’s memorial entry. It said that the Hemmans family were originally from Mitcham, where they ran a brewery in Lower Mitcham. He also wrote that William Hood Hemmans, the brothers’ grandfather, was churchwarden of Mitcham Parish Church in 1820 and that his name was cast on one of the bells. William was buried right by Mitcham Church together with his wife.

That memorial refers to “other family members who lie in sacred places”.

Samuel Hood Hemmans and Thomas Hinton Hemmans were the sons of Samuel Hemmans, the first name on the memorial. He was the Master Attendant of the Docks at Chatham, responsible for managing the ships in harbour and seeing to the maintenance of the vessels laid up there. He had previously been employed in similar positions at Sheerness and Plymouth, retiring in 1816 and eventually moving to Croydon.

With a father so involved with the sea, it was no surprise that young Samuel Hemmans should join the Royal Navy. This he did on July 10, 1806 when, at the age of 14, he became a Volunteer 1st Class on the recently built 22-gun ship HMS Boreas, under Captain Robert Scott, with a crew of 200 officers and men. This was just nine months after the great victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, and the heroic death of Admiral Lord Nelson – a time to stir the patriotic passions of any young lad eager to make his way in the world.

Samuel quickly saw active service in the capture in October 1807 of a privateer ship La Victoire.

Six weeks later, though, on November 28, disaster hit when the Boreas struck rocks off Guernsey and sank, with the loss of Scott and 120 men. Only 68 of her crew survived, which included Samuel.

Defeated, Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile on Elba – though not for long

By this time, Samuel Hemmans had risen to the rank of Midshipman, and he was then set to work on a variety of ships – including HMS Resolution, HMS Pompee, HMS Volage and HMS Resistance – before he was appointed to HMS Undaunted, a 38-gun frigate, and gained his commission as a Lieutenant in 1813, at a time when the Napoleonic wars still raged across Europe, following France’s ultimately doomed invasion of Russia in 1812.

The Undaunted was part of the British fleet which harried and attacked the French and blockaded their Mediterranean ports. In November 1813, after attacking Port-la-Nouvelle, the ship’s commander, Captain Thomas Ussher, noted in his report that they captured two vessels and destroyed five. This brought to a total of 70 ships either destroyed or captured in the previous 10 months that he been in command of the vessel. The French fleet had never recovered after the defeat at Trafalgar, and British naval dominance was used to starve Napoleon’s armies of outside assistance.

One evening, in early April 1814, while stationed off Marseilles, the Undaunted’s crew noticed unusual lights from the shore. The next morning they were approached by a boat flying a flag of truce and carrying deputation including the mayor and civil authorities of the city. After the British had captured Paris, Napoleon had been taken prisoner and forced to abdicate.

Undaunted Ussher: the commander of the ship that ferried Bonaparte into his first exile

Captain Ussher went ashore, where he received orders from the British forces’ commander, Lord Castlereagh, to prepare to convey Bonaparte into exile on the small Italian island of Elba.

The Undaunted, with 22-year-old Samuel Hood Hemmans among its crew, set sail to St Tropez and then to Frejus, where Napoleon was being held under guard in a hotel. On the evening of April 28, Napoleon, plus a retinue of some of his followers and representatives of the French allies, boarded the ship and set sail.

Five days later Napoleon disembarked on to the island to begin his first period of exile.

I think the crew, including Samuel, would have made much of the spectacle of seeing Napoleon deposited on an island and, most probably, looked forward to the prospect of a free drink or two while describing the events.

HMS Undaunted continued its Mediterranean patrols, and with good reason – Bonaparte would escape in February 1815 to begin the four-month campaign which would end at the Battle of Waterloo that June.

After two years serving on the Undaunted, Samuel Hemmans did not return to England until the October of that year, when most of the crew were paid off – furloughed, as Europe was at peace for the first time in Hemmans’ lifetime.

A contemporary cartoon from the 1814 when Bonaparte was exiled on Elba. Like most dictators, Napoleon was very reluctant to stand down from power

Samuel continued his career in the Royal Navy. He joined HMS Bulwark first, then HMS Curlew, in which he saw action in 1820 at Ras-al-Khyma in the Persian Gulf.

Here, they fought pirates, eventually seizing their stronghold and capturing a large quantity of treasure. From 1824 to 1827, Hemmans was part of the crew of HMS Blanche, stationed off South America.

His final posting was with HMS Herald, which in 1829 sailed to Cartegena, a Colombian port on the Caribbean, then to Quebec and home. The crew were paid off in early 1830 and that was the end of Samuel Hemmans’s 24 years at sea.

“Join the Navy and see the World” was a late 20th Century recruiting slogan for the senior service, and Hemmans certainly managed to fulfil that during his life on the ocean waves, though when he retired from active service, he was still a lieutenant, a relatively junior rank he had held for 17 action-packed years without ever being given command of a ship of his own.

That same year that he retired from the Royal Navy, Samuel Hood Hemmans, by now 38, married Emma Jane Weatherall in Gillingham, near the Chatham docks. Over the next 14 years, they went on to have five children in the next 14 years.

Sea-faring Lt Samuel Hemmans saw action when serving on HMS Curlew

Their third child, another Samuel, was baptised in 1838 in Greenock, near Glasgow in Scotland. The family had relocated there after Lt Samuel had taken a new job as an Emigration Agent at the port with the firm of Goode and Lawrence.

We know nothing more about Samuel himself other than he died on May 22 1854, aged 61. The transcription from the old gravestone is curious because it stated Samuel died in Ceylon. A genealogical search suggests that he died in Newington, Walworth, south London.

His wife, Emma, died in 1886 in St Lawrence, Kent aged 84.

Samuel Hemmans was remembered on the Croydon memorial where his parents were buried together with his aunt. His brother Thomas, the other military figure, was buried in the family grave in Croydon. He always kept the family property at 13 George Street, likely to have been a large house at the time, just up from where the Almshouses are today.

Thomas Hinton Hemmans had a much more low-key life in the military than his sailor brother, and in a 32-year career in the army never saw active service. He was in the 78th Highland Regiment, which was later known as the Seaforth Highlanders, a unit best known for its defence of Lucknow in India during the siege in the Indian Rebellion in 1857 (long after Thomas had retired).

The 78th Highlanders cap badge reflects the regiment’s long service in India and Ceylon

Thomas Hemmans was commissioned into the army aged 17, as an ensign from May 1811, lieutenant from 1813, captain from 1826, and brevet major from 1841. His regiment served in Ireland and departed for a tour in Ceylon – modern-day Sri Lanka – in 1826, not returning until 12 years later, in 1838. Such was the life of a professional soldier in England as it entered the Victorian era.

Hemmans was unmarried, sharing his home at 13 George Street with his sisters, Mary and Ann, both spinsters, who are also buried in the family grave. By the time of his death at his George Street home, aged 79 in 1873, Thomas had reached the rank of colonel.

The family memorial in Croydon Parish churchyard held so many memories. Thomas, telling all and sundry about his time abroad with the 78th, his brother coming to Croydon and recollecting his memories of years at sea. Their father, in his lifetime, was proud of how well he had done in life and will have told stories about his boys serving the crown and travelling around the world.

“He got that rotter Napoleon on to that island. Did I ever tell you that?” you can imagine him regaling anyoone who might listen. Let’s raise a glass to the Hemmans family, a Croydon family with aspirations and loyal service.

*Editor’s note: “How Samuel Hemmans helped give Napoleon the Elba…” With apologies to Morecambe and Wise. And David Morgan

  • David Morgan is researching a new book on the Rectors of Croydon in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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