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May Talk

Date: Tuesday 10 May 2022

Talk: Springing Napoleon

Speaker:Thorold Masefield




The story of a Lymington smuggler, spy and criminal, paid by French Bonapartists 200 years ago to use his experience working with the renowned American ship designer, Robert Fulton, to build two submarines.  Armed with newly invented torpedoes, they would navigate to St.Helena and lower 

Napoleon down the notorious cliffs for passage to South America to raise an army to re-conquer Europe. What could go wrong?


For our May meeting members of the Brockenhurst and District Probus Club welcomed fellow club member Thorold Masefield who entertained with the tale local Lymington rogue Thomas Johnstone, American engineer Robert Fulton and the plot to rescue Napoleon from his imprisonment on Saint Helena.

Napoleon was the French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution. Although he was responsible for significant death and destruction he did introduce reforms in post-revolutionary France, including centralising the government, and reorganising the banking and educational systems. He also strengthened civil society through the Napoleonic Code. After escaping from exile on the island of Elba he raised a new army in France. However in June 1815 was defeated by the armies of Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo and exiled to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic.

Robert Fulton was an American engineer who developed the first commercially successful steamboat. When in England he developed his ideas for tugboat canals with inclined planes instead of locks. In France he designed the first working muscle-powered submarine, Nautilus, which operated underwater on the River Seine. In 1804, Fulton was commissioned by British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger to build a range of weapons, including submarines, for use by the Royal Navy during Napoleon's invasion scares. Working alongside him was Captain Thomas Johnstone, the son of a Lymington fisherman and smuggler. 

Captain Johnstone fought against the French as the Commander of a Privateer and was constantly in debt. He was imprisoned in England, France and Holland and each time escaped. Whilst in the Fleet debtors prison in Clerkenwell he recounted the tale of being paid by French Bonapartists in 1820 to build two submarines and travel to Saint Helena.

The smaller Etna would approach the shear cliffs enabling Johnstone to go ashore, rescue Napoleon and lower him to the vessel on a modified bosun’s chair. He would then be transferred to the larger Eagle for passage to South America where he would raise an army and reconquer Europe. It is not known whether the tale is true and Napoleon died in 1821 before the plot matured.

If you are retired and would be interested in this or any of the talks or social events organised by the club please contact the Secretary on 01590 622501 or visit the website at

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