Intriguing history of 'Paris siege' letter

National Archives of Australia supplied image Image copyright National Archives of Australia
Image caption National Archives of Australia said there was no record of how the "intriguing piece of history" arrived there

When A Mesnier wrote to his mother in December 1870, Paris was under siege. The Prussians had surrounded the capital, food supplies were running low and temperatures had dropped below freezing.

Mr Mesnier wrote of his hopes for victory and his frustration at being unable to enlist. The letter was flown out of Paris in a "ballon monté", a hot air balloon, the only way to communicate with the rest of France.

Recently the letter has inexplicably resurfaced in Australia. But how it got there remained the big question.

When Emmanuel Hamel, a civil servant in Normandy, read about the letter in a local newspaper, he immediately set out on his investigation.

The first clue, he said, was the mother's name Mesnier and the address in Pont-Audemer, Normandy. Mr Hamel calculated Mrs Mesnier's likely date of death and found her death certificate in local archives. Her full name was Julie Stephanie Mesnier.

But it was the next discovery that gave Mr Hamel a frisson.

Trawling through archives, he stumbled upon the marriage certificate of Mrs Mesnier's son Pierre Alexandre with a woman in Paris.

"I started getting palpitations, I knew I had found him," he said. "The signature on the marriage certificate matched the signature on the letter!"

Image copyright National Archives of Australia and Paris Archives
Image caption Mr Hamel discovered that signatures on marriage certificate and letter matched

So A Mesnier, the author of the letter, was in fact Pierre Alexandre Mesnier, a lawyer at the court of Napoleon the Third.

"It is wonderful to have a sense of substance, to know that Mr Mesnier was working at the imperial court, hence the fervour and engagement with Paris," says Louise Doyle, assistant director general at Australia's National Archives, who has been in touch with Mr Hamel about his discoveries.

But there was more to come.

"In the letter, the author mentioned a man called Jules who had not written to him for a long time," Mr Hamel said.

"I assumed Jules was a close relative because there was no surname." And indeed the name Jules Mesnier also appears on Alexandre's wedding certificate as his witness and brother.

Image copyright National Archives of Australia
Image caption Mr Mesnier tells his mother in the letter that "the only thing I have fired at is the practice target"

Jules Mesnier managed a Swansea-based shipping company called Poingdestre et Mesnier. He also founded France's first phosphate mining company, Phosphate de l'Oceanie, which traded with islands across the Pacific Ocean.

Quite conceivably his job would have taken him to Australia and the Pacific.

"This discovery does not exactly explain how the letter arrived in Australia, but there is no doubt there is a link," says Mr Hamel.

"The shipping company Mesnier et Poingdestre was trading in phosphates mined in Micronesia, Naura, and also on the Christmas Islands, and there are Poingdestres living in Queensland," Ms Doyle said. "There may well have been a connection."

So no chance the hot air balloon made it to Australia? "No, no, absolutely not," answers M. Hamel quite seriously. "It took a week to get to Normandy."

Image copyright Paris Archives
Image caption Pierre Alexandre's marriage certificate was found during the research

Who was who

Pierre Alexandre Mesnier

  • Born in 1832 in Beuzeville, Normandy; married Louise Claire Houllier in 1864
  • Worked as a legal practitioner at the court of Napoleon the Third
  • Bad eyesight prevented him from enlisting in the National Guard

Jules Mesnier

  • Pierre Alexandre's younger brother, born in 1840 in Beuzeville
  • Worked in the coal shipping business in Swansea
  • In 1909, founded the Phosphate de l'Oceanie, a mining company with operating in the Pacific Ocean

Madame Julie Stephanie Mesnier

  • Woman of independent means, lived in Pont-Audemer, in Normandy
  • Widow of Jean-Baptiste Mesnier, and mother of Pierre Alexandre and Jules

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