Tag: Huguenot

2381938995_23fffb7259_french-huguenotOn Monday 13th July in the presence of HRH Princess Alexandra the staff and trustees of the Huguenot Museum will be holding an event to celebrate the museum’s public opening.

Britain’s first museum of Huguenot history opened its doors to the public in May following a £1.5 million development project. Rochester’s newest museum tells the story of the Huguenots, their persecution in France, escape to Britain and the trades, crafts and skills they brought with them.

Since the early 1960s the French Hospital, La Providence, has been situated in the heart of historic Rochester. Originally founded in London in 1718 to provide accommodation and assistance to Huguenot refugees and their descendants, this institution has over the years amassed a beautiful collection of artefacts. It is this collection that forms the basis of the first museum in Britain dedicated to the history of the Huguenots.

With the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, along with generous private donors, the top two floors of an unusual 1920s building on Rochester’s historic High Street have been transformed into the new Huguenot Museum.

The project has been in the planning for some time but work started in earnest last summer (2014) as major structural works commenced. The building work and fit out of the new galleries was completed early this year and the museum started welcoming its first visitors in May (2015).

The museum site is made up of three galleries telling the story of the Huguenots from their persecution in France, their escape to England and the trades, crafts and skills they brought with them.

Alongside beautiful new galleries displaying objects never seen by the public before there is a reception area and shop, and an archive room where visitors can look at historic books and archive material relating to Huguenot families and general Huguenot history. There is also a vibrant and engaging learning space. Here visitors can further their learning experience either through a programmed craft workshop, talk, lecture, film screening or cross curricular schools session.


About the Huguenot Museum and the French Hospital

The Huguenot Museum is the first museum in Britain dedicated to the history of the Huguenots, a group of some 250,000 French Protestants who fled from religious persecution in France.

The Huguenots largely settled in the South East of England: in Kent (Canterbury, Rye, Sandwich), East Anglia (Ipswich and Norwich) and, predominantly, London (the City, Soho, Spitalfields, Wandsworth, Westminster, Greenwich).  There were approximately 580,000 people living in the Capital in 1700; the 40,000 Huguenots living there, represented approximately 7% of the population. They also settled in the West (Bristol, Southampton and Plymouth).

Today, their legacy can be found in fine crafts such as silk weaving, silversmithing, furniture-making, together with banking, insurance, in science, the arts, the church and the army.  The Huguenots serve as an outstanding example of immigration, and as an early experience of refugees. Their flight from France to England brought the word “refugee” into the English language.

The French Hospital was founded in London in 1718 as a charity offering sanctuary to poor Huguenots (French Protestants). It had several subsequent locations before moving to Rochester in Kent and currently maintains 60 self-contained sheltered flats. 

To find out more about the Huguenot Museum see:


Photo by amandabhslater

Escaping the Guillotine: French émigrés from Revolutionary France

"The Storming of the Bastille", Visi...
“The Storming of the Bastille”, Visible in the center is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (1740-1789), (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

King Louis Philippe
King Louis Philippe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Diaspora in the East End

In this Rosh Hashana greeting card from the ea...

The 19th century saw increasingly hard times and harsh persecution for Jews throughout Eastern Europe. Many Jews had emigrated to Eastern Europe in medieval times. They lived for many years under Polish rule; however, when the kingdom of Poland was divided in the late 1700s, a huge percentage of the Jewish population suddenly found themselves under Russian rule.

By the late 19th century, the Jewish people found conditions harsh and restrictive. They were confined to the Pale of Settlement, a section of western Russia between the Black Sea and the Baltic. Opportunities for employment were limited, as the Jews were only permitted to work in certain occupations. Most worked as artisans, tailors, metal workers, or carpenters. Many Jewish boys were forced into the Russian army, where they were required to serve for 25 years, facing a high risk of death and guaranteed brutality.

The local population was hostile, actively barring Jewish children from public schools, and increasingly forcing Jews out of villages into smaller towns. In 1882, the May Laws were passed, which forced the Jews in the Pale of Settlement to live in only a few select towns.

These towns were severely overcrowded, and the Jews had to compete fiercely for the few available jobs. Due to the intense competition, wages dropped far below the poverty line. Those not confined to towns fared little better, scratching out a meager existence on tiny farms.

Because they were so pressed, the Jews formed tightly-knit communities. They spoke Yiddish before learning Polish or Russian, and religious customs were strictly observed.

Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the persecution of Jews took on a new vengeance. A young Jewish woman was associated with the assassins, and this spurred the population on to violent attacks on Jews during the 1880s. Jews in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe lived in constant fear of violence, theft, and ever harsher restrictions.

This spurred a mass emigration to freedom as the Jews sought to escape the dangers and persecution of Eastern Europe. Between 1881 and 1914, over 2 million Jews left Eastern Europe looking for a new home.

Many, in fact, intended to go to America; however, upon arrival in England, over 120,000 Jews settled and stayed. Once again, Spitalfields drew an incoming population. The Jews were attracted by the opportunity for cheap living, and by 1900, a huge percentage of the Spitalfields population was Jewish.

Unfortunately, the Jews did not receive the warm welcome that the Huguenots had enjoyed. Overcrowding was horrific as the beautiful Huguenot structures were subdivided to house the huge population. Sanitization was a nightmare, and living conditions (in many cases) were scarcely better than those the Jews had left behind.

The huge Jewish immigration caused some friction amongst locals. The Jews were accused of taking local jobs and aggravating the already appalling working conditions present in many of the local businesses. Because the Jews were willing to accept overcrowded conditions, rents in the area shot up, further irritating the local population. Because of the unrest, the first Aliens Act was put into effect, restricting immigration into the country.

Soon, however, the Jewish population began to thrive, making themselves a distinct and prominent presence in the East End. Their tight-knit communities allowed them to hold on to their cultural heritage, with Yiddish being predominantly used as a spoken and written language.

The Jewish population developed into a vibrant community, centered in the East End. Small synagogues popped up throughout the community, providing a focal point for the Jewish population. Kosher butchers and food providers found huge success with acceptable foods being in high-demand. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper was widely read and Jewish trade unions flourished.

In time, much of the Jewish population became integrated into London society. People spoke Yiddish less and less, religious rituals were less distinctive, and Jewish children were noted to be “almost indistinguishable” from English children.

In time, the Jews too, moved away from Spitalfields. Unlike the Huguenots, the Jews left little to mark their time in the East End. Though the Jewish East End shows little of its history, the Jewish legacy and heritage has carried on to new generations throughout the UK.

The Silk Weavers of Spitalfields

London played host to a substantial number of French Protestants throughout the sixteenth century. France – a staunchly Catholic country – heavily stigmatized Protestantism, making the country somewhat uncomfortable for deviants from the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until the 1680’s however, that the Huguenot migration began en masse.

Christ Church Spitalfields. Photograph taken b...
Christ Church Spitalfields. Category:Images of London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many years, the Edict of Nantes had granted the Protestants the freedom to worship as they chose in designated areas, providing a measure of safety. This marginal security came to an end with the Dragonnades, a policy introduced in 1681 by Louis XIV. Dragonnades were coercive tactics intended to make France increasingly uncomfortable for the Huguenots by forcing them to re-convert to Catholicism. Finally, in 1685, King Louis overturned the Edict of Nantes, resulting in heavy-handed laws and severe persecution of the Protestants.

Hundreds of thousands of Protestants were forced to flee the oppressive rule in France. Many found new homes in the Netherlands, others in America, and others still finding refuge near the Cape of Good Hope.

In keeping with the strong British anti-Catholic sentiment of the day, King Charles II flung open the doors of England, offering a place of refuge to the fleeing Huguenots. Thanks to widespread propaganda depicting the persecution inflicted on French Protestants, the refugees arrived to a warm welcome by the English people. In fact, they were the recipients of generous charitable support from the British monarchy throughout the end of the seventeenth century.

By 1710, between 40,000 and 50,000 refugees had made their way to the safety of England. Historians estimate that around half of that number settled in Spitalfields where housing was cheap and the London trade guilds held less economic power.

The Huguenots came from all walks of life, though many were intellectuals and highly skilled tradesmen with backgrounds in weaving, clock making, and financial services. Textile manufacturing, in fact, was the prevalent occupation amongst the refugees, and they found their services in high demand among the British upper class.

Thanks to the hard work and skill of the Huguenot weavers, the textile trade thrived, and Spitalfields soon became known as “Weaver Town.” The influx of silk and French styles had quite an impact on the fashions of the British upper class. Many workshops were opened, and their owners soon became extremely wealthy with many hundreds of employees. The wealthy Huguenots built large, distinctive houses in Spitalfields – many of which still remain today.

The Huguenot Churches were a binding quality in the community, providing both a connecting point for the immigrants, as well as a support system for the poor and new arrivals. Two churches in particular became very well-established. A very strict, Calvinist church thrived on Threadneedle Street in the City, while a more Anglicized worship took place at the Savoy in the West End. These two churches became focal points for the many refugees, and led to the development of two distinct communities.

Due to the high concentration of French immigrants, they managed to retain much of their distinct culture and language for several generations. Their high fashion and language set them apart somewhat from the general population, and over time they achieved a level of respectability – particularly in contrast to the squalor and immorality of many Londoners.

In time, however, the Huguenots gradually assimilated into British culture and society. The strict Calvinist Protestantism drifted gradually toward a more Anglicized form of worship, and the Huguenots eventually took on Anglicized surnames (though this was often due to English clerical error in record-keeping).

As Indian and Chinese silks became more readily available, the Spitalfields silk weaving went into decline. This seriously affected the community in Spitalfields, and though the industry struggled on, the 30,000 workers were reduced to starvation wages. The ebbing prosperity, along with the introduction of new machinery, led to violent clashes between factory owners and their workers.

By 1801, the “Spitalfields Acts” were passed in an attempt to improve wages and working conditions, and to protect the domestic market. Eventually, however, many Huguenots moved away from Spitalfields, settling in the suburbs.

The Huguenot impact on Spitalfields remains today though, with many French-sounding street names, and many well-preserved Huguenot houses. In fact, it is estimated that Huguenot blood still runs through a quarter of London’s population.


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