Burying Napoleon – A Family Story


Recently whilst researching some distant ancestors I came across one with a birthplace, in 1817, of the island of Saint Helena. I thought that there must be a good story in how a working-class resident of Lanarkshire in Scotland came to have this exotic place of origin. As it turns out, the explanation was Napoleon Bonaparte, whose exile on the island in 1815 ended with his death there in 1821.

The Stewart Family

Isabella Elliott (c. 1848 – ?) was the wife of Joseph Spence Bell (1845 – 1904), the brother of my wife’s second great-grandfather, John Gamble Spence Bell. Isabella was the daughter of William Elliott (c. 1811 – ?) and Sarah Grace Stewart (1817 – ?).

It is Sarah who was born on Saint Helena on 4 June 1817. Her baptism record was the key to explaining her family’s presence on the island. It reads:

“June 4th 1817 Sarah Grace Daughter of Charles & Elizabeth Stewart Royal Sappers”

Charles Stewart had enlisted in the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners at Fort Leith, Edinburgh on 25 February 1809 “for unlimited service”. He was discharged in 1828 due to chronic rheumatism and other old injuries. His particular skill was that of blacksmith. In later years he appeared in census records as a Chelsea pensioner in his home county of Perth, Scotland.

The Napoleon Connection

Charles’ discharge certificate records that he served in “the East Indies” between December 1816 and July 1822. At that period Saint Helena was governed by the East India Company, so this is a reference to service on the island. These extracts from History of the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners (T.W.J. Connolly, Volume 1, London 1855) ) explain why the Corps were there:

(1816) “On the 26th January the seventh company, fourth battalion, of forty-eight total under Sub-Lieutenant A. Wallace followed Napoleon to St. Helena, and landed from the ‘Phaeton ‘ frigate on the 13th April. Major Emmett, R.E. took command of the company on its arrival. In carrying on the duties of the island the men were much detached and separated. Many acted as overseers of the Chinese and line workmen, and were found very useful in their several occupations. The headquarters were at St. James’, and parties at different periods were employed at Prosperous Bay, Turk’s Cap, Sandy Bay, Great Pound Ridge, Horse Pasture Point, Lemon Valley, Rupert’s Hill, Rupert’s Valley, Ladder Hill, &c. Besides attending to the repairs of the barracks and public buildings and strengthening the sea-defences, the company rendered efficient assistance in the building of a residence for Napoleon at Longwood. ” (p. 226)

(1821) “Napoleon died, at St. Helena on the 5th May, and his remains were deposited with quiet solemnity in an unpretending tomb, shadowed by a willow, in Slane’s valley. The company of sappers at the station took part in the funeral arrangements. The stone vault was built by privates John Warren and James Andrews. The body was lowered into its resting-place by two privates of the company, and other privates, appointed for the duty, refilled the grave, and secured all with plain Yorkshire slabs. Thus, without epitaph or memorial, were entombed the ashes of the most extraordinary man of modern times. As the necessity for retaining the company, now reduced, by deaths and the withdrawal of a detachment in 1819, to twenty-five of all ranks, no longer existed, it quitted the island and arrived at Woolwich on the 14th September. Private John Bennett was detained for three months after the removal of the company, and during that period he was employed with the Clerk of Works, in giving over the stores of the engineer department to the island storekeeper.” (p. 237)

I wonder if Charles got to throw a few shovelfulls of dirt onto Napoleon’s coffin?

There is some evidence that the Stewart family maintained an association with Saint Helena after Charles’ discharge from the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners in 1828.

Sarah Grace married William Elliott on the island in 1832, and their first two children were baptised there, William in 1834 and Mary Ann in 1835.

It seems that following his discharge in 1828 Charles re-engaged with the St Helena Regiment as there is a National Archives (UK) discharge record from 1836 of a soldier of that name who had also served in the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners. (WO 97/1182/208).

(Herrmann Family)


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