Waterloo Teeth

Two lots of 200 years

The year 2014 saw the 200th anniversary of the ending of the long wars with Napoleon. Like VE Day in 1945, the celebrations in 1814 were especially joyful after more than a decade of war. As we mentioned in our newsletter for Newsletter 39 (under ‘The Start of the Hundred Days’), Napoleon escaped from exile and returned to France in early 1815, only to be defeated once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium in June 1815, giving us yet another 200th anniversary.


The French dead and wounded amounted to around 30,000, while the British suffered around 17,000 casualties and their Prussian allies about 7,000 – a total of approximately 54,000 dead and wounded. Major Harry Smith of the 95th Rifles wrote: ‘I had been over many a field of battle, but with the exception of one spot at New Orleans [United States] and the breach at Badajos [Spain], I had never seen anything to be compared with what I saw. At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies.’

In our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, we include descriptions of the state of people’s teeth, as well as dental hygiene and treatment. It was common for all ranks to lose their teeth at an early age, particularly as sugar was so popular, but the wealthy could afford to purchase dentures. These were crafted from human teeth set on an ivory or animal bone base. The teeth came from corpses, quite often removed by graverobbers.

Graverobbing was a risky business, and entrepreneurs chose to follow the army as official sutlers, which gave them the opportunity to strip dead or dying soldiers of anything useful after a battle, including their teeth. This happened on such a large scale at Waterloo that, for years to come, dentures were known as Waterloo teeth or Waterloo ivory. Nearly two decades later, the magazine The Mirror reckoned that crops grew luxuriantly over the old battlefield, although yields might have been higher:

‘if the top-dressing which the plain received during the three days of June, 1815, had not been robbed of its stamina by London dentists, who carried off the soldiers’ teeth in hogsheads [large wooden casks]; and by Yorkshire bone-grubbers, who freighted several transports [ships] with the skeletons of regiments of troopers, as well as troop-horses, to be ground to dust in Kingston-upon-Hull, and drilled with turnip seed in the chalky districts of the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire. The corn of Waterloo is thus cheated of its phosphate of lime.’

Waterloo battlefield

Engraving of the monuments at the Waterloo battlefield,
including the huge Lion Mound of 1826 (right), dedicated to
the Prince of Orange who was wounded nearby

Trafalgar versus Waterloo

In Jane Austen’s novel Sanditon, Mr Parker is building a new resort on the south coast. He has let out his old home to a tenant and is living in a new mansion that was named after the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805:

‘You will not think I have made a bad exchange,’ he said, ‘when we reach Trafalgar House – which by the bye, I almost wish I had not named Trafalgar – for Waterloo is more the thing now. However, Waterloo is in reserve – and if we have encouragement enough this year for a little Crescent to be ventured on – (as I trust we shall) then, we shall be able to call it Waterloo Crescent.’

Alas, we will never know what was planned for this crescent, because Jane Austen died in 1817 before completing the novel. Being fond of the Royal Navy and her two naval brothers Frank and Charles, Jane would most likely have preferred the name ‘Trafalgar’, and we have the feeling that for people today, the allure of the sea and the Age of Sail will ensure that Trafalgar always wins the popularity stakes.