Remembering Jean Rondeau the Huguenot
Marney & Ian MacDonald
This weekend the Huguenots returned to Spitalfields – three hundred years after they originally came from France and Belgium fleeing religious persecution and bringing flair and sophistication to the textile industry that was to occupy this corner of London for subsequent centuries. The occasion of this recent gathering was the dedication of a plaque to Jean Rondeau, Master Silk Weaver and Sexton of Christ Church from 1761-1790, honouring all those Huguenot families who passed through Spitalfields so long ago.
Here you see Marney MacDonald from Montreal being photographed in Christ Church by her husband Ian in front of the new plaque to her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jean Rondeau – or, as he is known in the family, John the Sexton, to distinguish him from his father Jean Rondeau who came here from Paris in 1685. Naturally, it was necessary have a record of the proud event, because it was the culmination of a long journey from the day Marney picked up on her father’s research into her great grandmother Phoebe Rondeau (Jean’s granddaughter), begun more than forty years ago.
Through a chance meeting in Christ Church when she visited as a tourist in 1999, Marney learnt of the study being undertaken of the human remains exhumed from the crypt and she met Stanley Rondeau, a voluntary tour guide who is a fellow descendant of Jean Rondeau. They pooled researches into their forbears, even going to the Natural History Museum where John the Sexton’s bones are now preserved to examine the remains of their common ancestor. And together they have been responsible for initiating this new memorial.
On Sunday, around thirty guests gathered on the North staircase in a location that would have been familiar to John the Sexton, while Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church, undertook the dedication of the plaque and, although for the most part these people did not know each other, there was the affectionate intimate atmosphere of a family gathering in which no-one was a stranger to another. And in spite of the tenuous nature of the threads stretching across long periods of time which connect these people, there were visible shared qualities of visage, physique and colouration. “Being involved in finding ones antecedents is a fascinating process,” Marney confided to me in a quiet moment, speaking of a project that has occupied her for decades, “Something old in Canada might be two hundred years old but things here go back much further.”
Yet even though we were in the building that John the Sexton knew, he did seem very far away – until I joined the guests for a cup of tea afterwards and was introduced to so many of his relatives, especially seven week old Cassandra Stanley, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. Peacefully sleeping through the event, she was summoning her energies for a whole life ahead. Among the speeches and announcements, including a letter of greetings from the Queen, was an apology for absence from ninety-two year old Lynn Rondeau who wished it to be known that she was “proud to be a Rondeau.”
Marney showed me the album she has collected with copies of the documents relating to John the Sexton, an extraordinary paper trail which constitutes the evidence of her ancestor’s life – his name on the petition to parliament for Christ Church to be built, silk designs made for him by Anna Maria Garthwaite, his will and even the collection to raise a fund for his widow Margaret. The book is the result of detective work on Marney’s part. “How I wish I had the forethought to ask certain questions of my grandfather, that it has taken me a lifetime to answer.” she admitted in good humoured resignation as she closed the book.
Jean Rondeau was one of between twenty and twenty-five thousand Huguenots who came to Spitalfields, around half of the total of all those who came to make new lives in Britain. Although his story is documented and his descendants have traced the lineage, establishing the Rondeaus as one of Spitalfields’ oldest families, equally there exists all those other families that will never be traced and whose stories have faded forever into the ether. Yet the story of Jean Rondeau reminds us of the direct connection we share to forebears known and unknown, and of the common bonds of humanity that unite us all.
The Rondeaus gather in Christ Church where their ancestor was Sexton two hundred and fifty years ago.
Just seven weeks old, Cassandra Stanley (held by her great aunt Beryl Happe) is the youngest descendant of Jean Rondeau the Huguenot, her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who came to Spitalfields in 1685.
If you visit Christ Church on a Tuesday, when Stanley works there as a guide, he will show you the album collected by Marney MacDonald with all the documents and information about their common ancestor.
You may like to read my other stories about Stanley Rondeau