Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, was intrigued by a cruciform headstone in Ladywell cemetery. His research uncovers links to Napoleon Bonaparte and Irish novelist James Joyce.
Located at one remove aside the outer pathway in Ladywell cemetery is the cruciform headstone of Eugene Sweny ( d.1895).
At the time of his death he had been living in his family address on Clarendon road, Lewisham, and probate records disclose that the estate of this gentleman was worth £12,023.1s.11d.
Informed by an enduring historical curiosity about the headstones in the cemetery, this one had long intrigued me. I was encouraged to find out more about Eugene Sweny’s background and uncovered two remarkable links – to Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military general, the first emperor of France and one of the world’s greatest military leaders, and the Irish novelist, poet, and literary critic, James Joyce, which I now share with readers.
Brothers John and Mark Sweny were respectively the eldest and second sons of Eugene Sweny, a chemist who practised in Dublin. Captain Mark Halpen Sweny (1783-1865) was a naval officer who fought under Captain James Morris at Trafalgar in HMS Colossus.
His older brother, Major John Pagett Sweny (1778-1841), attained the rank of sergeant major in the 4th Dragoon Guards. He had thereafter gained a captaincy in the King’s Dragoon Guards (KDG) in 1805 before taking command of a troop at Waterloo.
They both also met Napoleon Bonaparte. The first to encounter the French emperor was John at Waterloo where he was the Commander of 4th King’s Dragoon Guards.
The then captain went further than most of his regiment, and the British heavy cavalry, in their first and greatest charge at that battle, penetrated into the enemy’s rear areas.
Here he was captured having sustained seventeen lance and sabre wounds. On being brought before Napoleon for questioning, Bonaparte was reported to have ordered his surgeon to save Sweny’s life as he was suffering from an immense loss of blood.
Some months later, Napoleon, when travelling on his prison vessel HMS Northumberland en-route to his second and final exile on Saint Helena, recognised John’s image in that of his brother Mark who was a lieutenant on board the ship.
When playing chess with Sweny, Bonaparte, who apparently had a great memory for faces, commented that he was sure he had met him before but he had been wearing the dress of a British army officer. Once they had discovered their connection through John, Bonaparte was reported to have commented: ‘Such are the vicissitudes of life, your brother was my prisoner, and I am now yours.’
Eugene Sweny was born in France in 1836 to the Dubliner Major John Pagett Sweeny of the Dragoon Guards and Elisa Louisa Longden. He appears have followed in his fathers footsteps in the military reaching the rank of Captain.
In one account from 1859 it was noted that he had been acting as a ‘spy’ for his country, having been sent to visit French dockyards on information trips and then supplying plans to the Admiralty on the launch of the French warship, La Gloire (which was the first ocean-going Ironclad ).
Eugene was cited in the 1871 England Census as working as a civil engineer. He married three times , his third wife Mary Lambert Polwart d.1926 is also buried here.
A dramatic recreation of the charge of the heavy brigade can be viewed on this You Tube link to the 1970 film , Waterloo.
Tucked away on Lincoln Place, in the heart of Dublin’s south inner city, is Sweny’s pharmacy. 100 years ago, it was made famous by James Joyce’s Ulysses. Though Sweny’s is no longer a working pharmacy, it is a key part of Dublin’s literary culture.
Sweny’s pharmacy was originally built in 1847 as a GP’s consulting room. A few years later, it became a pharmacy – around the same time that Oscar Wilde was born around the corner on Westland Row. However, it wasn’t until 1904 that a young James Joyce called to this very store.
In the novel Ulysses, the fictional Leopold Bloom visits Sweny’s pharmacy to pick up a lotion for his wife, Molly. He consults with Frederick William Sweny – the pharmacist at the time.
Eugene Sweny’s familial link to the above literary gem is through his grandfather, also called Eugene.