Stanley Rondeau, Huguenot
If you visit Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields on any given Tuesday, you will find Stanley Rondeau – where he works unpaid one day each week, welcoming visitors and handing out guides to the building. The architecture is of such magnificence, arresting your attention, that you might not even notice this quietly spoken white-haired gentleman sitting behind a small table just to the right of the entrance, who comes here weekly on the train from Enfield. But if you are interested in local history, then Stanley is one of the most remarkable people you could hope to meet, because his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jean Rondeau was a Huguenot immigrant who came to Spitalfields in 1685.
“When visiting a friend in Suffolk in 1980, I was introduced to the local vicar who became curious about my name and asked me ‘Are you a Huguenot?’” explained Stanley with a quizzical grin.“I didn’t even know what he meant.” he added, revealing the origin of his life-changing discovery,” So I went to Workers’ Educational Association evening classes in Genealogy and that was how it started. I’ve been at it now for thirty years. My own family history came first, but when I learnt that Jean Rondeau’s son John Rondeau was Sexton of Christ Church, I got involved in Spitalfields. And now I come every Tuesday as a volunteer and I like being here in the same building where he was. They refer to me as ‘a piece of living history’, which is what I am really. Although I have never lived here, I feel I am so much part of the area.”
Jean Rondeau was a serge weaver born in 1666 in Paris into a family that had been involved in weaving for three generations. Escaping persecution for his Protestant faith, he came to London and settled in Brick Lane, fathering twelve children. Jean had such success as weaver in London that in 1723 he built a fine house, number four Wilkes St, in the style that remains familiar to this day in Spitalfields. It is a measure of Jean’s integration into British society that his name is to be discovered on a document of 1728 ensuring the building of Christ Church, alongside that of Edward Peck who laid the foundation stone. Peck is commemorated today by the elaborate marble monument next to the altar, where I took Stanley’s portrait which you can see above.
Jean’s son John Rondeau was a master silk weaver and in 1741 he commissioned textile designs from Anna Maria Garthwaite, the famous designer of Spitalfields silks, who lived at the corner of Princelet St adjoining Wilkes St. As a measure of John’s status, in 1745 he sent forty-seven of his employees to join the fight against Bonnie Prince Charlie. Appointed Sexton of the church in 1761 until his death in 1790, when he was buried in the crypt in a lead coffin labelled “John Rondeau, Sexton of this Parish,” his remains were exhumed at the end of twentieth century and transported to the Natural History Museum for study.
“Once I found that the crypt was cleared, I made an appointment at the Natural History Museum, where Dr Molleson showed his bones to me.” admitted Stanley, widening his eyes in wonder. “She told me he was eighty-five, a big fellow – a bit on the chubby side, yet with no curvature of the spine, which meant he stood upright. It was strange to be able to hold his bones, because I know so much about his history.”, Stanley told me in a whisper of amazement, as we sat together, alone in the vast empty church that would have been equally familiar to John the Sexton.
In 1936, a carpenter removing a window sill from an old warehouse in Cutler St that was being refurbished was surprised when a scrap of paper fell out. When unfolded, this long strip was revealed to be a ballad in support of the weavers, demanding an Act of Parliament to prevent the cheap imports that were destroying their industry. It was written by James Rondeau, the grandson of John the Sexton who was recorded in directories as doing business in Cutler St between 1809 and 1816. Bringing us two generations closer to the present day, James Rondeau author of the ballad was Stanley’s great-great-great-grandfather. It was three generations later, in 1882, that Stanley’s grandfather left Sclater St and the East End for good, moving to Edmonton when the railway opened. And subsequently Stanley grew up without any knowledge of Huguenots or the Spitalfields connection, until that chance meeting in 1980 leading to the discovery that he is an eighth generation British Huguenot.
“When I retired twelve years ago, it gave me a new purpose.” said Stanley, cradling the slender pamphlet he has written entitled, “The Rondeaus of Spitalfields.” “It’s a story that must not be forgotten because we were the originals, the first wave of immigrants that came to Spitalfields,” he declared. Turning the pages slowly, as he contemplated the sense of connection that the discovery of his ancestry has given him, he admitted, “It has made a big difference to my life, and when I walk around in Christ Church today I can imagine my ancestor John the Sexton walking about in here, and his father Jean who built the house in Wilkes St. I can see the same things he did, and when I am able to hear the great eighteenth century organ, once it is restored, I can know that my ancestor played it and heard the same sound.”
There is no such thing as an old family, just those whose histories are recorded. We all have ancestors – although few of us know who they were, or have undertaken the years of research Stanley Rondeau has done, bringing him into such vivid relationship with his ancestors. I think it has granted him an enviably broad sense of perspective, seeing himself against a wider timescale than his own life. History has become personal for Stanley Rondeau in Spitalfields.
The silk design at the top was commissioned from Anna Maria Garthwaite by Jean Rondeau in 1742. (5981.9A Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo courtesy of V&A images)
4 Wilkes St built by Jean Rondeau in 1723. Pictured here seen from Puma Court in the nineteen twenties, it was destroyed by a bomb in World War II and is today the site of Suskin’s Textiles.
The copy of James Rondeau’s song discovered under a window sill in Cutler St in 1936.
Stanley Rondeau standing in the churchyard near his home in Enfield, at the foot of the grave of John the Sexton’s son and grandson (the author of the song) both called James Rondeau, and who coincidentally also settled in Enfield.