In the years following the French Revolution of 1789, a large number of Frenchmen fled France and took refuge abroad. Nearly one percent of the French population abruptly left France, including many members of the royal family and the French aristocracy, as well as priests, clergymen and others who had lost lands and privileges during the great uprisings.
While a large number of these émigrés gathered in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and in the United States, a significant number – particularly those from Normandy and north western France – found a safe haven in Great Britain. Though the British had nothing to gain politically from helping the Catholic French, Britain was, in fact, the only European nation to reach out to the émigrés with financial assistance.
The French refugees found an established French-speaking community in England where the Huguenots had previously settled. Some made their homes in Richmond, Surrey, though the largest community of émigrés settled in London, where they found a strong social structure and an active political lobby. In 1796, England’s Alien’s Act was renewed, and all émigrés were moved inland from the coasts and Channel Island.
By 1801, London’s West End and the Parish of St. Marylebone were populated with a substantial number of French political refugees. Aside from the 4,000 or so lay French Catholics, the area was home to some 5,600 priests and clergymen as well.
Other French communities thrived in London as well. Some settled in Soho where the Huguenots had established a French community. Others made their homes along Tottenham Court Road, Thames Street, Aldgate, Cripplegate, Temple Bar, Bishopsgate, and Shoreditch. Others still settled in Somers Town near Old Pancras Church, which was a predominantly Catholic area and the traditional burial grounds for English Catholics.
Of course, many members of the royal family and the aristocracy found a comfortable home in England as well. The comte d’Artois, the brother of Louis XVI, who would later become King Charles X spent the majority of the Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic years in England. Louis-Philippe, the duc d’Orleans (who would later become King Louis-Philippe) also took refuge in England after spending a number of years in Scandinavia and the United States.
A few émigrés were lucky enough to have English relatives who welcomed them into their homes. These were typically Stuart supporters who had followed James II to France. Many Walshes and Dillons, as well as the Duc and Duchesse de FitzJames numbered among the émigrés who fled to England at this time.
A large number of émigrés were not so lucky, unfortunately. The poorest settled in St. George’s Fields, Southwark, and many fell ill and died. Though a significant number suffered gravely during this time, this fact is often overlooked due to the fact that the more prominent émigrés were wealthy members of the church or aristocracy. Some prominent Britons like the Duchess of York and John Eardley Wilmot worked tirelessly to raise awareness. Through their efforts, they provided a measure of relief for the suffering émigré population.
Many working class émigrés were industrious, however, and established themselves fairly quickly. Some offered lessons in French, dancing, fencing, and chess. Others became tailors, seamstresses and hatmakers. Some opened boarding houses and restaurants. A number found work with the Post Office which gave them safe access to France where they were able to gather information.
The émigrés left a mark on England in more ways than one. Chapels, hospitals and schools were constructed by these industrious immigrants – many of which still remain today. St. Cross in Dudley Court, Soho Square, was the first built, followed by others in Somers Town, St. George’s Fields, Tottenham, and St. Mareylebone.