Waterford- November 1784; a Frenchmans view

The Marquis de Bombells visited Waterford in November 1784, and over a week, made some observations on the area which he probably would not have had the time for, except that he was waiting on a ship to take him away.  Similar indeed, to another foreign visitor we have met previously, Arthur Young. Marc de Bombells was a young French aristocrat who entered the diplomatic corp and would later become an emissary on behalf of his country’s king, Louis XVI

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He arrived in Waterford on the 14th November taking, it is believed, the ferry at Grannagh. Here he tells us it was his good fortune to take a small rowboat across, the main ferry being full of pigs. The weather was atrocious and they had to nearly use violence, to prevent others from boarding the ferry and I presume risk it being overloaded.

Due to the weather, no ships can sail and he becomes the guest of Lord Waterford for the next week, visiting the city and environs.  On the 19th of November, he received news of a potential sailing via Passage East to Swansea in the Bristol channel.  He immediately set out for the village to look over the ship.

Passage we are told is a little town covering a small beach between the river and the steep rocks which threaten the roofs of many of the houses.  It affords an excellent anchorage, and the place is populated almost entirely with customs officers.  At anchor is a kings man-o-war, and two naval cutters who he is told are constantly on station to combat smugglers.  de Bombells is less than impressed with the character of the ship’s captain offering him a berth to England however, and the ridiculously high price sealed the decision to remain.

On the 20th of November he drove to Ballycanvan to visit with a man we have often referred to here, Cornelius Bolton.  At the time, Bolton is laying the foundations to a fine mansion, (the now Faithlegg House Hotel) which we are told will be a good location for all the enterprises currently taking place at Cheekpoint.  During the day he calls to the village where the harbour is under construction, in anticipation of the basing of the official second mail route between Ireland and England.

The Inn which Bolton has established we are told is already profitable with an abundance of passengers in what he describes as excellent lodgings. Very much at variance to the many reviews that would be published in later years!  Mind you the Marquis didn’t sleep overnight.

Later in the afternoon he visits New Geneva, for which he has as a venture, very little positive to say. I wonder did he share his opinion with Bolton, who was one of the sponsors of the scheme.  From his vantage point overlooking the harbour he espies the incoming Mail Packet, and when he later speaks to the Captain, he’s assured of a next day sailing.

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At Midday on November 21st Mr Bolton drove his guest to Cheekpoint where he boarded the Mail Packet which departed in beautiful weather at 2.30pm.  There’s an interesting aside in that as they approach Passage, another passenger joins the ship. Although he does not say whether the packet calls to the quay or that the lady is rowed out to the ship, I’m assuming the latter.

Further downriver he passes under the cannon of Duncannon Fort, an old castle which, we are told, is kept by invalids.  Then the Duncannon bar, the only obstacle to the harbour; “at low tide, there is only 13ft of water, but at high water, any ship can pass with safety”.  Whilst here another three ships of the king of England pass.

His companions are two ladies and four gentlemen.  None have good sea legs, alas and when the ship gets becalmed in the night in the Irish sea, he is surrounded by groans and vomiting of his companions as the ship wallows. At 6am on the 22nd, the wind gets up and later that morning they put into Milford Haven.

His writing was done as a journal of his travels and was never, apparently intended as a book at all. As such he is less guarded in what he writes and perhaps a little non PC.  If you can read French it’s free via google books, and if you prefer the print version it’s at amazon starting at £38.

Reflecting on de Bombelles work, it’s clear that although he’s opinionated, pompous, and judgemental in parts the writing is very informative and instructive of Waterford at the time.  Another thought is that he seems to have a very specific interest in recording military strengths or points of strategic importance.  I wonder if given the role of emissary included being something of a spy, was his journal as much an aid to memory in reporting the strengths or deficiencies of the forces of the English crown.

This piece is based on an article written by Béatrice Payat and Donnachadh Ó Ceallacháin in the Journal of the Waterford Archaeolgical and Historical Society, Decies #55 entitled “As others saw us: A French visitor’s impression of Waterford 1784 pp17-26.  Back issues of Decies is available on PDF via the Waterford City and County Libraries and also in the Waterford Room of Central Library

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