Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon Scared Children

Boney the bogeyman: caricature of Napoleon as the devil's son. Copyright McGill University.

Boney the bogeyman: caricature of Napoleon as the devil’s son. Copyright McGill University.

In the same way that early 19th century British caricaturists portrayed Napoleon Bonaparte as a devilish tyrant, British parents and teachers used Napoleon as a threat to scare children into good behaviour during the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the word “bogeyman” is sometimes said to be derived from “Boney,” the popular British nickname for Napoleon, even though it actually comes from the Middle English bogge/bugge (hobgoblin).

Napoleon the scourge of English children

Betsy Balcombe, an English girl who befriended Napoleon when he was in exile on St. Helena, noted in her memoirs:

The earliest idea I had of Napoleon was that of a huge ogre or giant, with one large flaming red eye in the middle of his forehead, and long teeth protruding from his mouth, with which he tore to pieces and devoured naughty little girls, especially those who did not know their lessons. (1)

English humorist Gilbert à Beckett described Napoleon’s malign effect on his life at a preparatory school near Kensington in 1815.

Bonaparte had just escaped from Elba, and Miss Frounce, like an admirable politician, took advantage of this important event to overawe the ‘young gentlemen from three to eight’ who were under her guidance. On all occasions, Bonaparte was held up as the great bugbear, and there was not a boy in the school who was not firmly convinced that Miss Frounce had Napoleon under her thumb – that, in fact, if any of ‘the young gentlemen’ should prove refractory, Miss Frounce had it in her power to send for Bony with as much facility as she could order the sweeps or the dustman. If a boy, when spelling, knocked an i out of the word annihilate, he was threatened with being handed over to the tender mercies of Bonaparte; and every one of the pupils of Miss Frounce felt assured that, if Napoleon invaded England, he would knock at the door of the ‘establishment for young gentleman from three to eight’ the very morning after his arrival.

Whatever might have been his feeling of hostility towards the Prince of Wales, or the members of the cabinet, my firm conviction was that Master Snodgrass, who had been turned back in grammar, had much more to apprehend from Napoleon than the Regent and the ministers. Sometimes have I contemplated the possibility of hiding in case of the dreaded visit; but then it has flashed upon my juvenile mind that Bonaparte was not to be baffled, and that he would inevitably look under all the beds in the house, rather than be foiled in the vengeance which the ‘young gentlemen from three to eight’ were convinced inspired him.

Never shall I forget the panic that seized on ‘all the boys’ when the fact was announced that a leg of mutton had been stolen from the larder. Who could be the thief? Why, of course, nobody but Bonaparte. Miss Frounce, wishing to enhance the intimidating reputation of her great bugbear, favoured the idea, and the whole of the ‘young gentlemen from three to eight’ were under the firm impression that Bonaparte had landed in England during the night, secured the leg of mutton, and retreated before daylight into the bosom of his own army.

Such impressions as those I have related are strange and absurd; but there are many now living who, if they happened, during the time of the Bonaparte panic, to be inmates of a preparatory school for ‘young gentlemen from three to eight,’ will recognize the fidelity of the feelings I have described.

I never ate the lollipop which went by the name of his ribs, without being awed by a sort of unaccountable fear that Bonaparte might yet break from his captivity, and pay me off personally for the indignity offered him in purchasing a hap’orth of his anatomy, and sucking it, like Tom Trot or Everton Toffee. (2)

Napoleon or Wellington?

Boney the bogeyman: Napoleon ready to dine on the children of England

Napoleon ready to dine on the children of England

This nursery rhyme (and variants thereof) is often cited as a popular lullaby in England during the Napoleonic Wars:

Baby, baby, naughty baby!
Hush! you squalling thing, I say;
Hush your squalling, or it may be
Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he’s a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
And he dines and sups, relie on ’t,
Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, he will hear you,
As he passes by the house,
And he, limb from limb, will tear you,
Just as pussy tears a mouse. (3)

The trouble is that I have not been able to find the verse in any pre-20th century source. What does appear in print in the 19th century is the same poem with “Wellington” in place of the word “Bonaparte.” Setting aside the issue of how the words would have to be rearranged to rhyme in French, this actually makes some sense. The vast majority of British children would never have seen Rouen’s steeple, whereas the comparison would presumably have meant something to French children. According to the introduction to the rhyme in the Wellington Anecdotes, published in 1852:

In time of war the name of Wellington used to be employed by the bonnes to subdue refractory infants. The following version of a nursery rhyme is said to have been familiar in France thirty or forty years ago.… (4)

And The Westminster Review (1848) noted:

Whatever may be the sins of the Jesuits, there can be no question but that their name has been, and is, often made use of as a mere word of fear to frighten grown children with – as the name of the Duke of Wellington, we are told, was, some years ago, among nurses in France; and many of the goblin tales concerning the order are probably about as true as the description of his Grace in the nursery song:

Tall he is, as a Rouen steeple,
And his teeth like iron saws,
Breakfasts, dines on naughty people,
Crunches babies in his jaws. (5)

So perhaps “Old Nosey” was as much the bogeyman to French children as Napoleon was to their English counterparts.

You might also enjoy:

10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte

Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena

Songs about Napoleon Bonaparte

The Girl with Napoleon in her Eyes

Sweetbreads, Sweetmeats and Bonaparte’s Ribs

The Duke of Wellington: Napoleon’s Nemesis

Napoleon’s Ghost

Supporters of Napoleon in England

  1. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena(London, 1844), p. 12.
  2. Gilbert A. à Beckett, “Bonaparte at Miss Frounce’s School,” in Douglas Jerrold (ed.), The Illuminated Magazine, Vol. 1 (London, May-October 1843), pp. 23-24.
  3. M. Broadley, The Three Dorset Captains at Trafalgar (London, 1906), p. 148.
  4. Wellington Anecdotes: A Collection of Sayings and Doings of the Great Duke, Vol. 5 (London, 1852), p. 41.
  5. The Westminster Review, Vol. 48, No. 95 (London, January 1848), pp. 269-270.

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The whole of the young gentlemen . . . were under the firm impression that Bonaparte had landed in England during the night, secured the leg of mutton, and retreated before daylight into the bosom of his own army.

Gilbert à Beckett