Literature, History, Heritage

Why, Why, Why, Jemima?


The perhaps best-known historical event relating to Fishguard is a failed attempt by a small contingent of the French Revolutionary Army to invade Britain through the Welsh backdoor in February 1797. Although today this event is popularly referred to as ‘The Last Invasion of Britain’ and is commemorated in a beautifully rendered tapestry, there appear to be very few contemporary depictions of the events. It is as if the story and its popular retellings, first in the local memory and later on a broader national scale, required some historical distance in order to produce a visual language with which to reference the events.

Three of the few contemporary visualisations of the invasion were produced by James Baker and quickly disseminated as cheap, mass-produced prints by J. Buck in May 1797 for inclusion in Baker’s A brief narrative of the French invasion, near Fishguard Bay: Including a perfect description of that part of the Coast of Pembrokeshire, on which was effected the landing of the French forces, on the 22nd of February, 1797, and of their surrender to the Welch provincial troops, headed by Lord Cawdor. The first image, titled Carngwastad & Ebewalin, shows the landing of the French with the help of two large sailing vessels and the second image, Goodwick Sands, their surrender to an understaffed and badly armed local militia, the Fishguard Fencibles, and the third a view across the bay towards Fishguard. Only the last print includes the work ‘Fishguard’, but neither mention the ‘French Invasion’.

These images follow William Gilpin’s picturesque aesthetics in depicting a wildly romantic Wales of craggy hills and dramatic coastlines (for lack of mountains or crumbling castle ruins) where domineering landscapes dwarf humans and transform them into little ant-like swarms. After such a de-personalising transformation, it is no longer possible to tell Frenchman from Welshman from Britisher, if it wasn’t for that identifying colour flying from the rigging of the warship and being raised on the hilltop. Alarmingly, both banners are French. Only the Fishguard print restores order as it shows a man, possibly a polite traveller sketching the scene, calmly overlooking the bay. He is sat beside a formidable canon pointing out over the water and the naval flag with its Anglo-Scottish saltire signifying British supremacy over the land. Welsh iconography is conspicuously absent.

This contrasts with another print by an unknown artist and printer produced roughly at the same time which is much more upfront about its connection to the French invasion. It depicts two Welsh peasants with their agricultural weapons of choice with which they defended their home from the invaders.

Interestingly, this print depicts a man and woman side by side, he holding a scythe and she sporting a pitch fork, thus denoting Welsh women’s active participation in the battle. The inscription below the portraits reads:

A WELCH PEASANT AND HIS WIFE in their accustomed Habits and with their Kind of Weapons that several Thousand People appeared with near Fishguard, Febr24, 1797, the Day the French surrendered to Ld Cawdor & Colonel Colbey’s Troops. The wonderful Effect that the Scarlet Flannel had that Day, should never be forgotten.—
Lord Cawdor, very Judiciously, placed a considerable number of of [sic] Women in that Dress, in the read of his Army, who being [co]nsidered by the French as regular Troops, contributed in no [sm]all degree to that happy, and unexpected Surrender.—

The country dress of the Welsh lady is still a far cry from later, formalised and stereotyped depictions of rural Welsh femininity, complete with tall beaver hat and a neatly folded shawl over her shoulders. However, it must be kept in mind that this ‘national dress’ only became formalised following Augusta Hall’s efforts in the nineteenth century at promoting the Welsh country fashions and their modes of production. As part of that effort, Hall wrote a price-winning essay for the Gwent and Dyfed Eisteddfod in 1834 in which she extolled the economic and cultural benefits of protecting traditional modes of production of fabrics and, further, produced a series of watercolour drawings that portrayed the unique styles of dress across Wales, including styles popular in Pembrokeshire.

Produced some 40 years after the invasion, the difference in style between the dress of the pitch-fork carrying peasant woman and this young lady here is pronounced. Hall’s images are much closer in style to what has become known as the national Welsh costume today. At the same time, it must be kept in mind that these watercolours depict a country woman in her finery. The tall hat and the delicately woven and patterned shawl are showpieces not to be worn to work out in the field or, indeed, fighting an invading force. Furthermore, the hat still resembles more the types of top hat worn by men rather than the exaggerated stovepipe version with the very wide brim that has become part of the easily recognised silhouette of the typical Welshwoman. Symbolically, however, Hall’s promotion of Welsh fabrics and dress style served the same function as the 1797 peasant woman with her pitchfork: defending Wales and Welsh culture from destructive invading forces.

When the famous Cunard liner Mauretania docket at Fishguard for the first time in 1909, the women of Fishguard turned out in numbers again, this time, however, not to frighten off an invading force, but to give the oversea guests a warm welcome. Fittingly, they wore their Sunday best for the occasion.

Although the female national costume is intended to reflect timeless grace unaffected by the changing fripperies of modern fashion, the photograph of the welcome party at the quay is a far cry from the peasant woman in the commemorative print from over 100 years before. Interestingly, the article and photo-spread reporting the spectacle and excitement of the landing of the Mauretania is immediately juxtaposed with another set of images and short text reminding the readers of the less ‘friendly’ landing and pursuit of the French in 1797.

The three photographs show three ‘relics’ either dating from or relating to the landing of the French. These objects by themselves give no visual representation of the event – unless the bullet hole in the grandfather clock is interpreted as an alternative form of graffiti in the sense that the French solder who shot it left a personal, permanent and visually striking mark. In fact, this bullet hole could be considered as the most authentic visual representation of the event as all others were produced after the fact with the intention to serve as lieux de memoire. This includes the gravestone for Jemima Nicholas, the supposed local heroine who is the only woman involved in the defence of Fishguard who is singled out by name. There are no portraits or photographs of Jemima in existence that were produced during her lifetime, so the historical print of the anonymous female peasant is perhaps the closest we could possibly get to an image of the historical woman.

Leading up to the centenary of the invasion, some imagery was produced, but not much with regards to the participants, but rather objects and places related to the event. A week before the anniversary, a curator for a museum in Cardiff reached out to the general public, asking for information about a commemorative silver badge dating from the surrender of the French troops.

While John Ward was able to decipher most visual clues on the badge, ultimately, its use and function and, thus, part of its significance remains hidden. Memory of the invasion was sufficiently retained with regards to the general developments, but details elude. Similarly, an article syndicated across various south Wales newspapers illustrates its description of the historical invasion and the centenary celebrations in Fishguard with a series of line drawings of differing quality regarding identification of people and locations.

The only two images that show people represent tropes or prototypes, ‘A Welsh Girl’ and ‘French Troops’, rather than historical individuals. It appears that Jemima’s formidable character does not sit well with the idealised imagination of the demure Welsh country girl in her tidy, if simple dress. The girl or young woman in the illustration is certainly not dressed for battle, nor does the passive, uninvolved posture give any indication that this is a woman to be reckoned with. Similarly, the French soldiers do not give the impression that they belong to a powerful army that can topple entire monarchies. Some of their weapons even appear suitably broken. Ironically, this was not too far from the truth. The battalion that landed at Fishguard was part of the Légion Noire consisting of forcefully recruited prisoners and convicts whose equipment and uniforms were largely comprised of British gear salvaged from the battle of Quiberon in 1795 – a failed attempt of British forces and French royalists at invading France. While the image caption reads ‘French’, those weapons were, in fact, British. These are the characters befitting the picturesque, twee setting of the invasion, as evidenced by the simple line drawings of buildings and sites of the events.

There is a clear social hierarchy in the visual representation of the involved actors. The headquarters of the British and French troops are the only buildings specifically identified. While the Royal Oak in the town centre of Fishguard formed the operational base for Lord Cawdor and Thomas Knox, the more remote farmhouse Trehowel served the French troops under Jean-Joseph Castagnier and the Irish-American William Tate. The picturesque cottages that make the space between those poles remain unidentified, even though it was small, unassuming structures like these that saw the most hostile action as they were ransacked by the French convicts who had deserted the forces almost immediately following their landing. Although photography was already a well-established and cheap method at capturing events and printing them in newspapers by the end of the nineteenth century, there are no images from the centenary celebrations at Fishguard in the article here or in its syndicated versions. Instead, the detailed report functions as a contemporary support for these histrionic line drawings.

Largely what remains today of visual representations of the ‘Battle of Fishguard’ are iterations of Jemima Nicholas and her pitchfork. Images may range from repurposed railway posters promoting Fishguard as a travel destination or memes playing with preconceptions of Welshness and femininity.

In the ‘Last Invasion Tapestry’ , Jemima appears marching twelve French soldiers into captivity and ‘dancing’ alongside an unnamed female battalion cloaked in red on the beautiful tapestry created over the course of four years for the bicentenary.

The tapestry deliberately refers back to the ‘first’ legendary French/Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, using the same measurements and technique of embroidery – and, like its historic ancestor, it was stitched by an exclusively female ensemble of embroiderers. Similarly, the Royal Oak pub visually advertises its connection with the failed invasion with the help of Jemima (or rather local Jemima re-enactor Yvonne Fox) brandishing her pitchfork not only on the pub sign, but also online where her simplified silhouette punctuates their display.

Reviewing the trajectory of imaging the ‘Last Invasion’ since 1797, it appears that precise locations, developments or even historical participants have become secondary in representing the events in a visual format. Historical accuracy in public and popular commemoration is of lesser importance than telling a good story, and part of that is the simplification of the narrative, latching on a recognisable central character such as Jemima Nicholas. While contemporary accounts, in text and image, contain no direct references to her, her role gains increasing importance over the course of the nineteenth century. It even seems like there is a considerable overlap with the ‘burly Welshwoman’ trope following the Rebecca Riots in the late 1830s to early 1840s. It appears, that since then Jemima’s character acquired a narrative function that is to equal amounts formidable (for her successful participation in defending the mother country) and laughable (for her failure at demure, graceful femininity). In her recent study Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protests in the Rebecca Riots (2015), Rhian E. Jones presents a fascinating study of the symbolic function of Rebecca in the protests, highlighting how the character (a burly, irascible woman performed by a man) bears a strong resemblance to panto Dames. It appears that the modern image and performance of the Jemima Nicholas character shows considerable common ground with this theatrical, comical character. Reminiscent of an amalgam of Dame Wales and the panto Dame, the matronly shape of Jemima in her stereotypical, anachronistic and therefore timeless Welsh dress fulfils the function of an advertisement mascot or a logo, streamlining the story of a messy invasion attempt that was doomed from the outset into an extremely simplified version of formidable Welsh womanhood.

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Why, Why, Why, Jemima? by Rita Singer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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  1. Natasha de Chroustchoff 22 January 2021

    Thank your your fascinating piece which, as a resident of Fishguard and student of local history, I read with keen interest. I’d just like to make a few points.
    1. You say there are no photographs of the French Invasion centenary celebrations in Fishguard i 1897. There is at least one, which shows local women dressed in ‘traditional’ costume. You can find it here for instance:
    2. Jemima’s ‘gravestone’ beside St Mary’s Church is a memorial stone erected at the time of the centenary. Although she is recorded as buried in the churchyard the exact spot is not.
    3. The pub sign was removed when the Royal Oak changed hands in 2016 and sadly has not been replaced.
    4. Jemima Nicholas’s existence as a cobbler was confirmed by Samuel Fenton, vicar (and son of Richard Fenton of Glynymel) in 1852. He recalled her mending his own shoes when he was a child. See here for example
    5. I believe there was one man was among the stitchers who created the Bicentenary tapestry. You could check with the Last Invasion Committee c/o Fishguard Town Hall.
    6. The role of women in repelling invaders is not unique. I have a small book titled ‘Jane Austen and Lyme Regis’ [no author], 1944, which states on page 3 that on April 20 1644, during the English Civil War, the Royalists under Prince Rupert approached Lyme, a parliamentary town, by sea.
    “…the inhabitants put up a stout defence… The womenfolk are said to have played a valiant part in the defence,, digging trenches and “manning” them, and by the wearing of red hats and red cloaks causing the Royalists to believe that the defenders were more numerous than they really were.”
    There are similar legends in North Devon and at least one other South Coast town that I have come across.

    I am delighted that you made the link to ‘Rebecca’ whose activities in the town are not mentioned or memorialised locally in any way and yet are arguably as significant as Jemima Nicholas’s. But not so ‘touristique’!

    • Rita Singer 22 January 2021

      Thank you, Natasha, for the extremely helpful comment and points of observation, and especially for providing the additional info and links. I will give them due attention. I’m really interested especially in the 1897 centenary images as none of the newspapers saw fit to include them in their reports of the festivities. Perhaps the celebrations weren’t sufficiently exciting to the reporters. Who knows.
      I’m a little sad to hear that the Royal Oak sign with Yvonne Fox’s portrait has been taken down. It was a great homage to her as well as Jemima. Regarding the latter, thank you for providing the info regarding her gravestone. I did wonder when it was put on display. It seems just fitting with the trajectory of her rising importance in telling the story of the invasion that it didn’t materialise before the centenary.
      Again, thank you for reading and commenting with such helpful information!

      • Natasha de Chroustchoff 27 January 2021

        Thank for responding so quickly (and apologies for the typos in the first line of my comment, which I have only just spotted). I will be most interested to hear of you have any other thoughts or responses when you have checked out the links. Yes, it’s a pity about the pub sign, it was a great way of catching the attention, and cameras, of visitors. Perhaps the pub managers can be prevailed upon to replace it.

        • Rita Singer 27 January 2021

          I did have a look at the links and they are most helpful. I had read that Jemima Nicholas was a cobbler and/or married to a cobbler. Similarly I had read in John Rhys (this is badly remembered and could be in truth another writer) about a similar tale of red-cloaked peasant women on the Devon coast scaring off potential French invaders. The story was recorded at roughly the same time, so there is a chance that either something similar had happened there or that someone misheard or misremembered. Either way, it is interesting how an otherwise unassuming and overlooked women’s garment suddenly takes on such significance in defending the realm from invasion.
          As regards the restoration of the Royal Oak pub sign, that could be a worthy cause for a little local rally/petition. I’m sure the sign is still knocking around in someone’s attic, although could be in need of repair. It would be great to see it back on display, since it also serves as a commemoration for the bicentenary.

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