13 December 2011

Napoleon, The Briars and the Melbourne connection: The Balcombe family

Earlier this year I published a post about Napoleon's house in exile, on St Helena Island and noted that sections of the Napoleon’s island House Museum were in urgent need of repair. An appeal has been launched by the Foundation Napoleon to rescue the house, grounds and woods, hopefully attracting tourists and historians back to St Helena.

What I didn’t know and didn’t mention in that post was that there was a connection between Napoleon Bonaparte, St Helena Island and Melbourne. His intended prison home, Longwood, was not finished by the time he arrived on the island in December 1815. So Bonaparte had to stay with the merchant and Purveyor for the East India Company William Balcombe (1779-1929). The prisoner lived in a garden pavilion on the family estate, The Briars, and according to all reports, Napoleon became particular friends with the family's youngest teenage daughter Betsy.

Betsy’s friendship with the “enemy” did not endear the Balcombes to the governor of St Helena. But it seems more likely that William was suspected of being an intermediary in clandestine correspondence with Paris. In either case, William Balcombe decided to return to Britain in 1818 with all his family. Napoleon, as it happened, died soon after.

An excellent blog called Reflections on A Journey to St Helena was very useful. It discussed why the Balcombe family lived in very straitened circumstances back in England and why the governor of St Helena might have eventually removed his objections to Balcombe's juicy new preferment, a government post as Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales in 1823.

The Briars 1842, Balcombe homestead near Melbourne

The Balcombe family eventually settled in Australia in 1824. William died after only a few years while still Treasurer (in 1829), leaving his widow with a handsome land grant but no pension. She returned to London to plead her case and the Colonial Office gave her money to return to Sydney, together with promises of government posts for her sons.

William’s son Alexander Balcombe (1811-77) took up lots of land at Mt Martha just outside Melbourne in 1840. He and his wife were creating a large family, so they quickly built a rough-hewn slab house, and called it The Briars. The 1842 Briars homestead, one of the oldest pastoral properties on the peninsula outside Melbourne, recalled The Briars home on St Helena Island.

The family prospered and Mrs Balcombe moved to East Melbourne sometime in the 1850s, first into a prefabricated house that used British materials and an Indian design. Then the Balcombes built a new and large house in East Melbourne c1857 which they called East Court. Alexander Balcombe must have been dividing his time between town and country. He settled down to pastoral pursuits and the life of a country squire, was appointed a magistrate in 1855 and was first chairman of the Mount Eliza Road Board from 1860 on.

Napoleon's own furniture, in The Briars museum near Melbourne

In another remarkable connection, Dame Mabel Balcombe Brookes (1890-1975), Australia’s most famous society and charity leader, was the granddaughter of Alexander Balcombe. She was the president of every charitable and cultural organisation in Melbourne. And she married well. Her husband Norman Brookes won Wimbledon in both the singles and doubles, and was later appointed commissioner for the Australian branch of the British Red Cross in Cairo. After the war ended, Norman resumed his previous employment at Australian Paper Mills Co. Ltd, becoming chairman in 1921. He too led a blessed life.

But it was Dame Mabel’s connection with Napoleon that most interests me here. In her older age, she wrote St Helena Story and had the book published in 1960. She wrote of her family's substantial collections of furniture, objets d'art, books and relics of Napoleon. She even purchased the freehold of the pavilion that Napoleon had occupied on her great-grandfather's estate on St Helena, and presented it to a grateful French nation in 1960.

Dame Mabel Brookes’ city home, East Court, had some of the furniture used by Napoleon on St Helena, a teak table used by both Wellington and Napoleon, a writing desk bearing Napoleon's kick marks on the lower panels and the Frenchman’s death mask. The Briars homestead near Melbourne is now a museum where visitors can see the Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection. It includes furniture that Bonaparte shared upon his stay with the Balcombes, plus some of his hair, papers, letters, a legion d'honneur medal and artworks.

The St Helena Story 1960, a book written by William Balcombe's great grand daughter

I was interested to see a reference to Betsy Balcome Abell's book To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe's Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena, Welwyn Garden City, Ravenhall, 2005. Betsy, the little girl who had been so kind to Prisoner Napoleon, was the great aunt of our other author, Dame Mabel Balcombe Brookes.

The link between Napoleon Bonaparte, The Briars on St Helena Island, William Betsy and Alexander Balcombe, The Briars in Melbourne and Dame Mabel Brookes' Napoleonic Collection is irresistible. The Briars homestead-museum is open daily.


The connection between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Australian politician Michael Kroger is less persuasive, but the timing (for my blog post) is sublime.  My Napoleon Obsession noted that Kroger collected a vast array of Napoleonic objets d'art in his Melbourne home, taking decades to amass imperial eagles, candelabras, clocks, vases, paintings, furniture and military paraphernalia. In October 2011, all these precious Napoleonic objects went up for auction in Paris. And left Melbourne for good.

Buyers of Napoleonic artefacts at the Paris auction did not seem to have been deterred by the Euro’s recent difficulties. A clock in Levanto marble, with rich gilt and bronze decoration, sold for €22,000. A watercolour pennant design for Napoleon's 2nd Artillery sold for €39,000. A post-abdication portrait of Napoleon, by the school of Delaroche, made €39,000.

Portrait of Napoleon, by the school of Delaroche, painted 1845 or after

Other collectors of Napoleonic artefacts existed, of course, including collectors I had written up in this blog. The Napoleon Room in Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, for example, was large enough to accommodate the sprawling 22-piece acanthus-tailed griffin suite of furniture designed for the Emperor's uncle, Cardinal Fesch. All the furniture and artefacts in the Napoleon Room were bought by Lord Lever specifically because of their associations with the French Emperor, although many of these associations have subsequently been brought into question. 

Recently important relics of Napoleon Bonaparte's last years have been analysed in New Zealand, including a daily diary kept by an officer on the island. The most interesting was a lithograph taken from a drawing of the former French emperor, made the morning after his death in 1821. The precious objects reached New Zealand via the son of Capt Denzil Ibbetson, one of only four British officers to remain on St Helena island with the deposed Napoleon. It was Capt Ibbetson who recorded Napoleon's features soon after his death... and wrote the diary.


Andrew said...

My niece worked there for a time. I do recall something about the house and Napoleon, but I never focused on it. I did learn of Balcombe Creek and Balcombe Grammar School. I took a couple of photos. http://highriser.blogspot.com/2010/05/mothers-day.html

Hermes said...

Can't add to this, what a fascinating by way of history. Fascinating.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
As Hermes says, what a fascinating and most intriguing account in which all manner of most unlikely connections are made. We find the ways in which history crosses so many different paths endlessly absorbing and so enjoy discovering how, very often, totally disparate people and events are linked.

Hels said...


You had visited The Briars and knew of Balcombe Road, Creek and School, but never put it all together.

I had known all about Napoleon on St Helena but didn't know the name The Briars, not on St Helena nor in Melbourne. So the connection escaped me also.

Sometimes blogging is brilliant!

You said in your post that The Melbourne Briars looked wonderful. Do you have any interior photos you might share?

Hels said...


When Dame Mabel Balcombe Brookes' book, "The St Helena Story", came out in 1960, I was more interested in hockey and ballet than in Napoleonic history.

But Betsy Balcome Abell's book "To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe's Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena" has been published at just the right time.

Leon Sims said...

Sue and I live in Mentone around the corner from Nepean Highway and Balcombe Rd. During the time you write about, this junction once had a paddock where the sheep on the way to the Briars would be rested. We have enjoyed a family wedding at the Briars as well. Several of my training (bike) rides take me over Balcombe hill where the Balcombe army camp once was. My father was stationed there during the war.
After the war several motor racing events were held at the camp. Its documented in a book I wrote "Rob Roy Hillclimb" linked to our blog.
Great post - thankyou.
An area rich in early Victorian history.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

sometimes the most weird things happen. Tonight I was watching Tim Wonnacott on tv and he showed a triangular silver inkwell with a French gold coin set in each corner. The coins had been in Napoleon's pocket when he died on St Helena Island.

The governor of St Helena emptied Napoleon's pockets and sent the gold coins to London. A silver smith crafted a beautiful object, using the "Napoleons", which then found its way to Melbourne with the Balcombe family.

Today the inkwell sits, improbably, on the desk at The Briars. It is the pride and joy of Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection.

Hels said...

Leon and Sue

that is amazing. Balcombe hill... Balcombe army camp... I feel as if I don't know my own city. But that will be changed as soon as the grandchildren break up for the summer holidays. We are planning an excursion!

Your area is indeed very rich in early Victorian history.

Pat said...

I saw Tim Wonnacott on tv as well. The Briars has a great cafe which my family visits often.

Hels said...


Tim Wonnacott got me thinking about Napoleon, about those artefacts that got to Australia and those that remained in Europe. Amazingly I found a connection to Port Sunlight and Lady Lever Art Gallery, a place we had looked at in classes during the year.

I have added a link.

Intelliblog said...

What an amazing network of unexpected connections one can find if one searches through the literature and historical documents relating to famous peoples lives. The story you describe could certainly make good material for a novel or a film, Helen.

Hels said...


"unexpected" is the correct word. What is the chance that the most powerful man on earth, French Emperor Napoleon, would live temporarily in the back yard pavilion of a particular British family, waiting for his house on Saint Helena Island to become ready?

Then that British family moves to Sydney, then Melbourne, and brings their artefacts with them?

What is the chance that one of the best private collections of Napoleonic artefacts be collected in Melbourne by Michael Kroger? And the same month that I write up my blog is the very same month that the Melbourne collection goes to Paris for auction?

I think I should buy a ticket in Tatts!

Anonymous said...

I followed your suggestion in class and went to see The Briars. It was advertised as open but because no guide turned up, they closed the house to visitors. Not at all pleased!!!!!!!!!

All the outbuildings were interesting and I did get a super little book on the "Balcombe Family and The Briars Park".

Hels said...


I would be annoyed too... it takes ages to drive to The Briars. You could have rung The Briars before leaving home, I suppose, but if it says it is open every day of the year except Christmas and Easter, who would bother checking?

The booklets are cheaply produced but the text is indeed wonderful. One out-building I hope you found was the barn - it now houses a gorgeous restaurant.

Carol said...

I was intrigued by this,and found it all very interesting, particularly the name Balcombe. It did turn out to be a different spelling from my name.

Hels said...


Even if it turns out that you are not related to William Balcombe, his daughter Betsy, his son Alexander, Napoleon and Dame Mabel Brooks, the story is still amazing.

If you come to Melbourne, do visit The Briars homestead, the museum where you can see the Dame Mabel Brookes Napoleonic Collection.

Hels said...

It appears from the National Gallery of Victoria that there was another connection between Napoleoon and Australia, but not via The Briars and St Helena.

During the happy days in Paris, Napoleon and Josephine had become great patrons of the arts, sciences and literature. Napoleon and Josephine were fascinated by Australia. This newly discovered continent, the southern part of which had been named Terre Napoleon by French navigators, filled Josephine’s hothouses with exotic new plants and flowers. Australia also furnished Josephine and Napoleon with a private menagerie of kangaroos, emus and black swans!

Buck said...

There's another interesting coincidence which I haven't seen mentioned. As is well known, Napoleon's first imprisonment was on the island of St Lucia, from which he escaped. Interesting then that one of Alexander Balcombe's daughters was christened Lucia Emily. Does this signify anything, I wonder.

Hels said...


nice link :) But I don't remember Napoleon being sent to St Lucia, let alone escaping from there. The only Napoleonic connection I can find is that Josephine may have been born there, in 1763.

Nonetheless, I am assuming Alexander Balcombe was proud of his family's connection to Napoleon.

MailOnline said...

Thieves entered The Briars historic homestead through bathroom window. Ten items in total were stolen this week from the priceless collection that was put together by descendants of Alexander Balcombe who met Napoleon on St Helena.

Hels said...

What a sad story. What are thieves going to do with Napoleon's hair, ring and snuff box etc? They won't be able to sell the artefects, so they will have to simply look at them and admire them :(

Hels said...

I have added material written by the New Zealand Herald in 2010.

The Napoleonic collection was handed down via the son of Denzil Ibbetson, a talented artist and chief commissary officer on the Atlantic island of St Helena, where Napoleon remained under British detention from 1815 until his death in 1821 aged 51. The son arrived in New Zealand in 1864.


Joseph said...

It might be worth reading the book "Napoleon's Last Island" by Tom Keneally.

Tom and his wife went to Saint Helena to check out his draft novel about Napoleon and the Balcombe family against the real geography and atmospherics of the island. Tom became very aware that the relationship between the Balcombes and Napoleon made an extraordinary tale, even without the spirit of fiction, stories of spying and smuggling.

Hels said...


thank you. I hadn't heard of Keneally's interest in Saint Helena till I saw the Guardian article (4/11/2015).

"As the political tide turns, the Balcombes, labelled as traitors to the British empire, are forced off the island. They too become exiles in the land of their birth. Their further exile to that island continent, Australia, in the guise of a government appointment for Balcombe as colonial treasurer, shows the extent of their downfall. Alienation and exile are familiar territory to Keneally, as an active member of Sydney PEN, the literary organisation promoting freedom of expression."


Viola said...

Hello Hels,
This was a fascinating post. Betty Balcombe is all the rage at the moment. I am interested in reading the new biography of her and the novel by Thomas Keneally. Also, I am thinking of buying Dame Mabel's memoirs.

I wonder who will play Napoleons in the film?

Hels said...


History is never linear, is it? When I was at school, Napoleon was a villain and an unstoppable threat to European peace. Later he became a great French leader and law maker (with serious flaws to be sure). Now you are correct, everyone is talking about the Balcombes and Dame Mabel, especially in Australia.