Jemima Nicholas was a Cobbler from the Welsh town of Fishguard on the Pembrokeshire coast. Born sometime around 1755, Jemima became a celebrated local hero after her brave conduct and quick thinking on February 23rd 1797 helped foil what is often referred to as ‘the last invasion of Britain’.
In 1793 France declared war on Britain, drawing the Empire into what would later be known as the War of the First Coalition. French General Lazare Hoche, devised a three-pronged attack on Britain itself in which two forces would land in the country as a diversion, while a third, larger body would land in Ireland to assist Irish Republicans under Wolfe Tone. Poor weather and discipline prevented two of the forces from leaving France, but the body chosen to land in Wales and march on Bristol, went ahead uninterrupted.
Led by Colonel William Tate, an Irish-American from South Carolina, the French expeditionary force of around 1,400 men landed under the cover of darkness at the secluded bay of Carregwastad, three miles west of Fishguard on the February 22nd. Tate’s mission got off to a bad start as he had already been blown of course and half his men were recently freed convicts. When a local wine supply was discovered, all discipline rapidly deteriorated and the convicts began to rebel and mutiny against their officers while many more simply ‘vanished’ during the night.
On Febraury 23rd 1797, as 600 British soldiers desperately marched on Fishguard to meet the French force, Jemima Nicholas entered her field to find a dozen cold, starving and drunk French Soldiers chasing her sheep and chickens. Jemima grabbed her pitchfork and advanced on fatigued invaders who promptly threw down their weapons and surrendered. She singlehandedly marched the men to the Royal Oak Pub to formally surrender before locking them in St Mary’s Church.
Local legend has it that Jemima did not stop there. Many claim that she then rallied the local women together and assembled them in neat lines on the Cliffs above Goodwick Sands as the remaining French considered surrender. The exhausted troops are thought to have the have mistaken the women’s traditional tall black hats and red cloaks, for the Uniforms of British Grenadiers causing them to quickly accept an unconditional surrender.
For her efforts, Jemima was said to have been awarded a pension of £50 a year for life. She died in 1832 at the ripe old age of 82 and her headstone, detailing her heroic deeds can still be seen outside St Mary’s church to this day. Interestingly, her burial record contains notes from Vicar Samuel Fenton that read; “This woman was called Jemima Fawr or Jemima the Great from her heroine acts, she having marched against the French who landed hereabout in 1797 and being of such personal powers as to be able to overcome most men in a fight. I recollect her well. She followed the trade of a shoemaker and made me, when a little boy, several pairs of shoes.”
There are no known images of Jemima Nicholas. The above image (taken from Sydney Curnow Vosper’s 1908 painting ‘Salem’ was used to illustrate the traditional Welsh dress Jemima would have worn.