In the early 1800s Napoleon Bonaparte was skipping across Europe gathering up countries as if they were flowers. He was keen to add Britain to his bouquet, and the British knew it. In an effort to belittle the emperor and play down the threat he posed to them, the Brits gave him the nickname “Little Boney.” And much of the propaganda showed “Little Boney” as a tiny man across from a meaty “John Bull” (the personification of England).
From Little Boney to Boney the Bogeyman
Even though “Little Boney” was miniaturized in the media, when British parents told their children about him, he was larger than life. He became “Boney the Bogeyman” and was used to frighten boys and girls into obedience: “If you don’t behave, Boney will come for you!” Boney was a giant ogre who would carry off misbehaving children and eat them for breakfast.
One British humourist, G. A. a’Beckett, wrote about his childhood during those years and his boyish impressions of Boney. In the early 1800s a’Beckett was attending a preparatory school for “young gentlemen from three to eight” near Kensignton in southwest London. In the excerpt below, he tells of his fears of Boney.
Bonapart had just escaped from Elba, and Miss Frounce, like an admirable politician, took advantage of this important event to overawe the “young gentlemen from three to eight” who were under her guidance. On all occasions Bonaparte was held up as the great bugbear, and there was not a boy in the school who was not firmly convinced that Miss Frounce had Napoleon under her thumb – that, in fact, if any of “the young gentlemen” should prove refractory, Miss Frounce had it in her power to send for Bony with as much facility as she could order the sweeps or the dustman. If a boy, when spelling, knocked an i out of the word annihilate, he was threatened with being handed over to the tender mercies of Bonaparte; and every one of the pupils of Miss Frounce felt assured that, if Napoleon invaded England, he would knock at the door of the “establishment for young gentlemen from three to eight” the very morning after his arrival.
Whatever might have been his feeling of hostility towards the Prince of Wales, or the members of the cabinet, my firm conviction was, that Master Snodgrass, who had been turned back in grammar, had much more to apprehend from Napoleon than the Regent and the ministers. Sometimes have I contemplated the possibility of hiding in case of the dreaded visit; but then it has flashed upon my juvenile mind that Bonaparte was not to be baffled, and that he would inevitably look under all the beds in the house, rather than be oiled in the vengeance which the “young gentlemen from three to eight” were convinced inspired him.
Never shall I forget the panic that seized on “all the boys” when the fact was announced that a leg of mutton had been stolen from the larder. Who could be the thief? Why, of course, nobody but Bonaparte. Miss Frounce, wishing to enhance the intimidating reputation of her great bugbear, favoured the idea, and the whole of the “young gentlemen from three to eight,” were under the firm impression that Bonaparte had landed in England during the night, secured the leg of mutton, and retreated before daylight into the bosom of his own army.G. A. a’Beckett
Boney the Man
Later, in 1815, when Napoleon was exiled on St Helena another British child had a chance to meet Boney in person. Betsy Balcombe lived in St Helena with her family and the Emperor stayed in their guest house while his own home was being built.
Betsy had grown up hearing all the fearful tales about Boney. But now, at the ripe old age of fourteen, she no longer believed that he was a fire-breathing, child-eating ogre. Still, she was very nervous and frightened when she heard that he would be coming, not only to the island where she lived, but to her home. She was the only one in her family who spoke French well, so the job of interpreter fell to her. To her surprise, she found Boney to be charming and decidedly un-ogreish. They became great friends and often teased one another – both having a mischievous side.
Once a young British girl visited the house with her mother. Like other young Brits, she had been warned many times about Boney snatching away naughty children. So, she was terrified to hear that Boney lived there.
Betsy went to tell the Emperor of the child’s fears and brought him inside. He pulled back his hair, made faces and howled. The poor little girl went into a panic. She had to be carried from the room and it took quite a while for her mother to calm her. Meanwhile, Boney was bewildered to learn of his child-eating reputation and that the very mention of his name was enough to make British children stop fighting, sit up straight, or do their school lessons. He hadn’t realized he was quite that powerful!
When his house was complete, Betsy was sad to see Napoleon go. Since her father was Napoleon’s purveyor, he visited weekly and Betsy went along as often as she could. They continued their close friendship until Betsy’s family left the island.
She later wrote about her experience with Napoleon in a book, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon: During the first three years of his captivity on the island of St. Helena.
In the end, Boney never actually made it to England and no British children were eaten. However, that didn’t stop the threats. Even into the twentieth century, one could occasionally hear a grandmother warn a misbehaving child that if they didn’t straighten up Boney would come get them.
Acknowledgements – Last September, when I wrote about the monkey that was hung as a French spy, Bill Bahr, author of George Washington’s Liberty Key, sent me a link to this article on Shannon Selin’s website. Shannon has written an alternate history book about Napoleon escaping from St. Helena and ending up in the United States – sounds like an interesting read. See links for Bill’s book, Shannon’s book, and Betsy’s book below.
Other Napoleon Stories:
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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