A new book has revealed the controversial story behind the Birmingham family which provided the pistols, cannons and muskets so necessary in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo.
On the 200th anniversary of the famous battle, two city academics have investigated the region’s part in the victory – and turned up some fascinating facts.
Titled Fortunes of War: The West Midlands at the Time of Waterloo, the book is co-edited by University of Birmingham academics Dr Andrew Watts and Dr Emma Tyler from the Department of Modern Languages.
In an article the authors said: “In June 1815 the Duke of Wellington’s army defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The victory had a profound impact on European history, bringing to an end decades of war and heralding the collapse of an imperial dynasty. It is remembered in the popular consciousness as a heroic British victory – ‘the day that decided Europe’s fate’.
“The West Midlands grew rich on the profits of the gun trade and also played host to Napoleon’s brother Lucien during his exile from France.”
It was during the height of the Napoleonic wars that the city’s gun industry came into its own as it was already renowned for the quality of its craftsmanship.
Many guns used by British troops in the Napoleonic Wars were manufactured by the Galton family from their base in Steelhouse Lane.
Samuel Galton Snr entered the gun trade in the 1750s, and his son Samuel joined the company in 1774.
The first orders of weapons for the Napoleonic Wars arrived in 1793 for muskets, carbines, pistols, gun barrels and even 5,100 ‘French pattern’ muskets.
Over the course of the war, the Galtons’ profits rose to £139,000 in 1799 – the equivalent of nearly seven million pounds today.
But the success spawned other problems among the Galton family’s deeply religions Quaker community, which frowned on making money from death and misery, and even getting mixed up in the slave trade.
The authors said: “While business was booming their success as gun makers did not sit well with the Quaker community to which they belonged.
“Quakers were pacifists, and in the Yearly Meeting in 1790 they issued a firm anti-war statement. In 1795 the Galton family was accused of ‘fabricating, and selling instruments of war’ and was investigated and threatened with being disowned by the Quaker community.
“The Galtons not only manufactured guns for the army, but also for African traders who exchanged them for slaves.
“The Quakers were at the heart of the anti-slavery movement and in 1796 Samuel Galton Junior was disowned by the Quaker Society of Friends after an argument with Thomas Clarkson, a leading anti-slavery campaigner about whether or not the Galtons were responsible for the abuse of the weapons they created.”
The story of the region’s involvement with Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, began in January 1811, when he was brought to the West Midlands as a prisoner of war.
Lucien was captured by the British off the coast of Sardinia and taken to Plymouth in December of 1810, and took up residence with his family and a large retinue of servants at Thorngrove House in Worcestershire.
The 40-strong entourage included a doctor, chaplain, tutor and painter.
The house was set in 130 acres of country estate, which Lucien equipped extravagantly, living the life of a country gentleman. Lucien stocked the lake with fish, applied for a licence to shoot game, maintained a large stable of horses and purchased a pleasure boat which was furnished with red Moroccan upholstery.
Lucien returned to Paris after Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814. Thorngrove was placed on the market and its contents sold at auction, including 650lbs of “good, family cheese”.
The authors added: “Perhaps the most fascinating tale of the West Midlands and the Battle of Waterloo is that of the button seller and the Duke of Wellington.
“A button seller from Birmingham, who was in Brussels on business, strayed on to the battlefield after becoming curious to witness a battle first-hand.
“Seeing the button seller riding between the fires, the Duke of Wellington beckoned him over to ask what he was doing. Upon hearing his story, Wellington asked whether he would be willing to take a message across the field to Marshal Kempt, commander of the 8th British Brigade.
“The Birmingham Daily Post reported that Wellington then went to sleep, and upon waking he saw that Kempt had changed tactics and the button seller’s mission had been a success. Wellington later summoned the button seller to his home in London, and, in recognition of the man’s good service, rewarded him with a post in the Royal Mint at £800 per annum. The Birmingham button seller has never been identified, and whether or not he existed at all remains a mystery to this day.”