Joseph May saw Napoleon

Joseph May was born in Devonport in 1808. At the age of 16 he was articled to Doctor Tripe, a prominant Devonport surgeon and by age 22 he had graduated to become became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Just a few years later, while still in his 20s, he set up his own practice in St Aubyn Street; thereafter devoting his life in the service of Devonport. Towards the end of his life, on 25th July 1899, he was awarded 'Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Devonport'.

Joseph May was a well respected resident who became mayor of Devonport four times. Looking back when in his nineties he recounted how, during his lifetime, he had seen four Napoleons.

The following is a transcription of the newspaper article headed:


There are at least two Englishmen in the borough of Devonport who remember seeing Napoleon I when he arrived in Plymouth Sound on board the Bellarophon in 1815. One of these is Mr. James Doel, who claims to be the oldest living actor, and the other is Mr. Joseph May, a former mayor of the town.

The latter set forth, in a letter to the “Westminster Gazette,” his recollections, and he states, with pride, “I have seen the four Napoleons.”

He has a very clear remembrance of the dreaded prisoner on the Bellerophon, whose presence aroused the greatest curiosity at Devonport and Plymouth, and throughout the counties of Devon and Cornwall. “It was understood,” Mr. May states, “that at a certain hour in the afternoon he would gratify that curiosity by showing himself on deck - I think it was 4 o’clock. The public were not slow in availing themselves of that opportunity, and long before the time arrived great crowds of people of all ranks had gathered round the ship, but were not allowed to come quite near, being kept at a proper distance by row-boats.

“I was then a boy of seven years of age, and I have a distinct recollection of the scene at the moment Napoleon presented himself at the gangway and received the respectful homage of the thousands – men, women, and children – that stood up in their boats and gave expression to their feelings by a subdued roar, not approaching to a hurrah nor partaking in the least of reproach. I fancy I see him now – short in person, stiff, upright, rather stout. He graciously saluted the assembled crowd, stayed a few minutes, and then retired. This was continued day after day so long as the ship remained in the sound.

“The Second Napoleon – son of the above – born King of Rome, 1811, on the downfall of his father retired with the Empress, his mother, to her former home at the court of Vienna, in which city I happened to be in the month of November, 1831, on my way back from Poland, where I had been serving in the Polish army as surgeon in the struggle they had made with Russia for their independence. The exiled Prince was known at the Court under the title of Duke of Reichstadt, and was fortunate in being at the theatre one evening when he was present. He died the following year, at the age of 21 years, of consumption. The Third Napoleon, with his son, the Prince Imperial, the Fourth Napoleon, I saw in the year 1871 at the seat of the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe After the catastrophe of Sedan, they had sought a refuge in England, and were then the guests of his lordship.”

Reference: Transcription of the newspaper article headed: THE FOUR NAPOLEONS. RECOLLECTIONS OF AN AGED EX-MAYOR. Printed on page 6 of The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) on 25 December 1900.
Location: TROVE digitised newspapers - article number 14369921 Accessed: 13 September 2011.

(page added 20 September 2011)