This vigorous account of how reports of that most newsworthy of 19th-century military triumphs were relayed to Britain has a touch of the Keystone Cops to it, as all manner of folk career across Belgium and southern England. Brian Cathcart admits that the story has its farcical side: “There are roles in the drama for an exotic Russian diplomat, a Regency dandy, a shady French courtier, a tearful young lady, at least one smuggler, a wild-eyed newspaper editor, a Green Knight, a forged diary, fast coaches, slow ships and a little boat with four stout sailors heaving at the oars.” Scrub Keystone Cops – it sounds more like “Carry On Follow That Carriage”.
Cathcart takes what could have been a fairly thin tale, puts assiduously researched padding on its bones and turns it into a rattling good yarn. It’s a fascinating snapshot, too, of the British press in 1815 and of a government mired in mediocrity.
After his gruelling victory at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was faced with the challenge of getting the good news home. Despite later Hollywood assertions to the contrary, the news would not be sent by pigeon post, nor would it go by mechanical telegraph, an innovation to which the British hadn’t taken with quite the same enthusiasm as the French.
What’s more, this was no social media-length communiqué (“Boney KO’d, the boys done good”). Instead, lengthy dispatches were handed over to Major Henry Percy for delivery to London. It wasn’t just a matter of tucking them into a coat pocket – Percy would be accompanied by two gilt-copper eagles and 10-foot staffs that had been seized from the French. In theory, the journey from Brussels to London would take about 26 hours by horse and boat. In practice, though, take 36 hours and start adding, especially when your boat is becalmed.
Enter, stage left, a picaresque cast: a dodgy ship owner, the wonderfully named Knight of Kerry, and the mysterious Mr C, all of whom turned up in London with news in various stages of confusion. Cathcart’s research allows him to quash the myth that the banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild was the first man in London to know of the victory and that he exploited the news to make a fortune on the stock market.
With an eye for the offbeat and a talent for the pleasantly dry aside, Cathcart captures the excesses of society London (all the bigwigs had to be rousted from parties when Percy arrived), as well as the eccentricities of London’s 56 newspapers, almost crippled by stamp duty, where adverts were king, letters from abroad were likely to be intercepted by the Post Office and no reporter went anywhere near a foreign shore.
Once Percy arrives and offloads the eagles and staffs at the Prince Regent’s feet, Cathcart wraps up his story pretty smartly. There is a cursory summing-up of technological advances – perhaps the book’s only slightly weak link, given the absence of any context for the rise of the foreign correspondent. But he is back to his storytelling best in the final chapter, in which he briskly addresses the Rothschild legend and makes an educated guess about Mr C’s identity.
There was to be no happy ending for Sutton, the boat owner, who was packed off to Australia by his family and died in poverty, and whose son was eaten by cannibals in New Caledonia. Apparently the cannibals voted him tasty.
Sharon Wheeler is visiting lecturer in journalism, Birmingham City University, and author of Feature Writing for Journalists (2009).
The News From Waterloo: The Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory
By Brian Cathcart
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £16.99
Published 7 May 2015