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Betsy Balcombe

Napoleon’s Friend

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.{a}

Napoleon’s relationship with a young girl has led to much speculation, but what do we really know?

Betsy Balcombe
Betsy Balcombe
Balcombe’s house (left); Briars Pavilion (right)
Balcombe’s house (left);Briars Pavilion (right)
Betsy as a young woman
Betsy as a young woman

Bringing the two together

In 1807 The East India Company posted William Balcombe and his family to St Helena. Described in a letter as a respectable inhabitant they took residence in Briars House in The Briars, since demolished, and in addition to his duties William also became a merchant{1}.

And so it might have remained; another insignificant family playing an unremarked part in St Helena’s history, if it hadn’t been, some eight years later, for a chance encounter between William’s daughter Lucia Elizabeth (‘Betsy’) and St Helena’s arguably most famous resident.

Napoleon first set foot on St Helena on Tuesday 17th October 1815 at around 7:30pm. He spent his first night on the island at Mr Porteous’ house in Jamestown, and was to have remained there until his permanent accommodation was ready, though at that stage it was still not certain where this would be. Napoleon, however, had other ideas. He did not like being in Jamestown. The heat bothered him (and in October Jamestown is only just warming up after Winter) but he also took exception to being the object of so much interest. Everybody wanted to see and say they had spoken to the most famous visitor the island had ever known, but Napoleon did not wish to be sociable.

William Balcombe
William Balcombe

The next day Napoleon, while out sight-seeing, discovered The Briars and Briars House, where he was welcomed by the Balcombes. When he learned of the Pavilion he asked if he could stay there until his permanent residence was ready. Governor Wilks and the military commanders agreed, probably not so much to please the former Emperor but more likely considering that having the prisoner shut in a narrow steep-sided valley would be preferable to having him in central Jamestown near where many ships were constantly calling. He slept there that night.

In time William Balcombe was appointed Napoleon’s ‘provisioning officer’ which meant that whenever Napoleon wanted something he simply asked Balcombe for it and it was purchased for him. (It is not clear to what extent this was for Napoleon’s convenience. An alternative explanation is that it was a device to minimise Napoleon’s contact with people, to prevent him from passing or receiving letters or other messages.)

Napoleon and Betsy, then aged 13, first met when Napoleon arrived at The Briars on the 18th and she was presented to him. We do know that William Balcombe’s daughters made an impression that day on Napoleon’s staff - Count Bertrand is reported to have remarked that the Balcombes had two pretty young ladies that [Baron Gourgand] shall be able to marry, referring presumably to Elizabeth and her two years elder sister, Jane.

At The Briars

While Napoleon stayed at The Briars he and the Balcombe daughters seem to have had several adventures. One day while out walking with the girls the party was challenged by an angry cow{2}, causing Napoleon to vault a small wall leaving General Gourgand to defend himself and the two Balcombes. Fortunately, the minute Napoleon left the field the ‘cow’ regained her calm and General Gourgand had no need to use the sword he had so swiftly unsheathed. Napoleon later joked that the animal wished to save the English government the expense and trouble of keeping me.

A deep friendship quickly developed, with Betsy being allowed to claim that all Frenchmen ate frogs (which she even illustrated with a cartoon) without apparently enraging the former Empereur des Français, and when Napoleon’s companion Les Cases took offence at Betsy’s antics Napoleon admonished him, not her. It seems Napoleon was particularly indulgent with children because when Betsy’s younger brother Alexander referred to him as ‘Bony’ Napoleon was simply curious (being amused the child perhaps thought he was thin) rather than annoyed at the diminutive. He even allowed, with no sign of protest, Betsy to play-threaten him with a real sword until her sister Jane intervened. Napoleon played at blindman’s buff with Betsy and entered into the spirit of the game as heartily as a child. He pleaded with her father on Betsy’s behalf that she be allowed to attend a ball being given at Briars House; successfully.

In Longwood

On Sunday 10th December 1815 Napoleon moved to Longwood House. While this meant that Betsy and Napoleon were no longer constantly together, they stayed in contact, Napoleon having extracted a promise from William Balcombe that Betsy and her sister be allowed to visit him next week; and often. On New Year’s Day 1816 Napoleon sent Betsy a present of some sweets made by his own confiseur (a M. Piron), in crystal baskets covered with white satin napkins and laid on expensive decorated plates.

In addition to fun and games it seems Napoleon also opened up some of his deeper emotions to Betsy. In her account of her time with him{3} Betsy records the strong feelings he expressed on the subject of Josephine and her role in his life, reporting him saying Josephine was grace personified; everything she did was marked with it. She never acted inelegantly during the whole time we lived together.

It is known that Napoleon’s mood materially deteriorated after his move to Longwood House. It has been suggested that the weather in Longwood may have been to blame, but it may also have been his reduced contact with the Balcombe children and Betsy in particular. His evident joy at her arrival one day when he was practicing shooting{4} led him to give her the gun and, with her modest success, promise to form a team of sharp-shooters with Betsy as its captain. And when Betsy fell ill in 1816 Napoleon was constantly asking after her health and sending her from Longwood delicious treats to tempt her to resume eating.

The Balcombes Depart

In 1818 Mrs Balcombe began suffering from ill health. Eventually it was decided that the only solution was for her to return to England, and naturally her family would accompany her. This was the official explanation. However it is more likely that their departure was occasioned by Governor Hudson Lowe’s suspicion of the close relationship the Balcombes had with Napoleon. Eventually Lowe began investigating William Balcombe for supposedly passing letters from Napoleon to European destinations, which could have led to a charge of treason. It seems probable that the Balcombes fled St Helena to avoid any risk of Lowe pressing charges.

Betsy records in her account{3} the tearful farewell, with Napoleon saying Soon you will be sailing away towards England, leaving me to die on this miserable rock. Look at those dreadful mountains - they are my prison walls. You will soon hear that the Emperor Napoleon is dead, to which she burst into tears. At Betsy’s request Napoleon presented her with a lock of his hair, which she kept until her death in 1871. The Balcombes left St Helena on 18th March 1818.

After remaining in England for a few years, Betsy went to reside in New South Wales, where her father had been appointed Colonial Treasurer. She afterwards had interviews with Joseph Bonaparte, and was favourably noticed by Napoleon III, who granted her a tract of land in Algiers.

Betsy marriage certificate

She married Edward Abell in May 1822 and in 1844, as Mrs Abell, she published her recollections, and two other editions followed in 1845 and 1853. A fourth edition, by her daughter, appeared in 1873.

Her brother, Alexander, also moved to New South Wales where in 1846 he built a house called The Briars.

A descendant of the Balcombes, Jill Nicholas, then Assistant Editor of the Daily Post in Rotura, New Zealand visited St Helena in 2001 (see the article below).

Read More

Below: John Tyrrell’s blog“Recollections of the Emperor…”Article: Betsy and Napoleon, A Friend in the South AtlanticWebsites: Napoleon on Saint Helena

John Tyrrell’s blog

There’s more about Betsy and her relationship with Napoleon on John Tyrrell’s blog{5}.

“Recollections of the Emperor…”

You can read her book, published under her married name.

Article: Betsy and Napoleon, A Friend in the South Atlantic

Published in the St Helena Herald 22nd June 2001{6}

Betsy article, 2001 Fenella and Jill
Fenella and Jill, 2001

Napoleon Bonaparte - Emperor of France, a man with a quest to conquer the world. A man feared by millions of people since his destructive battles throughout Europe. Betsy Balcombe, a young girl filled with spirit and adventure, a young girl, innocent but with a mind of her own. These were two completely different characters but yet it would seem as though they were made for each other.

The Balcombe family arrived on St Helena in 1807 having travelled thousands of miles by sailing ship. Betsy’s father, William Balcombe, worked for the East India Company and also became a local merchant. The family took up residence at the Briars House where Betsy enjoyed a happy childhood often having friends over for tea and games. Some 8 years later, a wave of shock swept over the Island, Napoleon Bonaparte was soon to arrive. The Emperor had been defeated in the Battle of Waterloo, surrendered to the British and St Helena had been chosen as his place of exile. He arrived on October 15, 1815 and spent his first night at Porteous House in Jamestown. Then as chance would have it, he expressed an interest in taking up residence at the Briars. The Emperor was to become the Balcombes neighbour. He stayed at the Briars Pavilion where East India Company visitors used to stay. In the year 1815, the name Napoleon would have brought fear to many children but it was not long before he and Betsy had become the best of friends even though Betsy was just 15 years old. They spent many hours in each other’s company, and in one instance, it is said that a bull chased the two of them!

Despite the vast age difference, the two clearly had a lot of fun. On another occasion, Betsy threatened to attack Napoleon with his own sword, all for the sake of a laugh. No man would dare to have done this, let alone a child - but Betsy did, and Napoleon did not seem to mind. He loved to tease her and delighted in seeing her get angry. They made each other happy and a strong friendship developed as they spent time together; sharing in each other’s happiness and sorrows. When news was received that Napoleon was to be moved to Longwood, Betsy was so upset that she wept with sorrow. She did not like Longwood and it would take her a long time to travel this distance to see him. She had previously been accustomed to seeing him on a daily basis.

Before he departed Napoleon presented her with a bon bon box and her mother with a gold snuff box. After this, visits were not as often, although Betsy was still able to see him and the two would have tea and lunch together.

Betsy was fortunate in that she could speak French; so they were able to communicate fluently. It is said that she was also teaching Napoleon how to speak English. However, their friendship soon ended. St Helena was to be ruled by a new Governor - Sir Hudson Lowe. He became suspicious of Mr Balcombe since the Balcombe’s were in constant contact with the Emperor. Later, Mr Balcombe was suspected of secretly dispatching letters to Europe for the Emperor. This was very serious, and if proven true, Mr Balcombe could have been tried for treason. The Governor had ordered that no person was to carry letters for Napoleon, his Officers or servants, and all such communications would have to go through him. The tension became stronger after Betsy rode Napoleons best horse at the races on Deadwood since this indicated that the Balcombes were on very friendly terms with the Emperor. For this, Mr Balcombe was seriously reprimanded by Sir Hudson Lowe. The Balcombe’s left the Island in March 1818, and Betsy’s lost her special friend forever. Their parting was said to be sorrowful and Napoleon gave Betsy his handkerchief to wipe her eyes. He told her to keep it to remember the sad day, and she told him that she would return - but she never did. With her, she took a lock of his hair and a beautifully engraved napkin ring that the Emperor had given her. This same napkin ring has been handed down over generations, and today it is the property of Jill Nicholas, Assistant Editor of the Daily Post in Rotura, New Zealand. Jill’s great grandmother’s sister married Betsy’s brother, Alexander Beatson Balcombe, who was born on St Helena and named after the Governor of that time.

The Napkin Ring
The Napkin Ring

Jill inherited the ring from her aunt Eily when she was christened. As a child, her aunt would tell her what she knew about Betsy and Jill says that this always remained in her mind. Her aunt inherited the ring from her mother who had inherited it from her mother - a Lady Murphy. I am hugely grateful to have such a wonderful piece of history in my procession says Jill. The ring was originally inscribed with the initial N, and now bears Jill’s own initials. Also inscribed are the words: Scipit que reputat which is Latin for Think before speaking.

Jill now keeps the ring in a glass fronted corner cabinet, and used it as a child even taking it to boarding school. She says: I now truly appreciate its value and historical significance. For all of the years that it has been in her possession, few people have ever seen it. Even more remarkable, is the fact that Johnny Drummond, Editor of the St Helena Herald, met Jill’s daughter Fenella whilst at the Commonwealth Press Union Offices in Fleet Street, London. Fenella was helping to organise the conference which Johnny was attending in Barbados.

Jill then contacted the St Helena Herald telling of the connection between her and St Helena. She says that she imagines Betsy to be lively with a good sense of humour. I can see her being quite firm with the Emperor and impatient when he was slow to grasp her English tuition says Jill. Betsy Balcombe has become a famous character in St Helena’s history.

Her name appears in nearly every St Helenian based history book that encompasses the years 1815 to 1821. Several people have taken the time to study her amazing life. The Balcombe family lived in England until 1824, and then moved to Sydney, Australia where William Balcombe took up the position of Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales. Betsy had married a Mr Charles Abell and remained in England where she taught music.

It is said that she had an unhappy marriage and that she later visited her family in Australia for a short while, accompanied by her daughter. The happy years which Betsy and Napoleon spent together had ended so suddenly. Had Betsy stayed, then the two would still have been parted for in 1821, Napoleon died. It is still so remarkable that a young girl could develop such a good friendship with such a powerful man.

Websites: Napoleon on Saint Helena (two sites)


There is lots more about Napoleon and his time on St Helena on these two sites, both of which happen to have the same name:

Please Note there are many, many sites about Napoleon. These are just two we have chosen to mention. If you think there is one we should include please contact us.


{a} Mark Twain


{1} And, later, provisioning officer for Napoleon, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…{2} This is Betsy’s description; it may have actually been a bull.{3} ‘Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon’, published in 1844. You can read her book, published under her married name.{4} Yes, Napoleon was allowed a pistol!{5} See more blogs.{6} @@RepDis@@