As a prelude to the Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival which opens next week, Contributing Photographer Lucinda Douglas-Menzies (who is of Huguenot descent) accompanied me on a visit to the French Hospital in Rochester which has offered accommodation for Huguenots since 1718.
La Providence, Rochester
“An interesting community of Huguenot refugees had its centre in Spitalfields. Their forebears had come over from France in the years following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They had become naturalized in England yet their descendants still formed a foreign community – a closed society with the intelligence that accompanies the easy use of two languages, along with the piety of a persecuted race and with the frugal wealth of Frenchmen who are, or have been, dependent upon their own exertions for a living.” – from ‘Time and Chance. The Story of Arthur Evans and his forebears’ by Joan Evans, Lucinda Douglas-Menzies’ great-great-aunt.
“I am descended from Rev Francois Guillaume Durand who married Anne de Brueys de Fontcourverte. He was captured by soldiers and imprisoned in the castle in Sommieres with other pastors, but he managed to escape and lived in the woods where his parishioners brought him food and clothing. Eventually he left to Savoy and helped raise two Huguenot regiments to fight for William III, and he became the first pastor of the Walloon Church in Nijmegen – but his wife, Anne, was captured and put in a convent and died there, and his three children were seized by Jesuits and brought up as Roman Catholic. He made a bargain with God that if he got out of France alive, he’d devote his sons to the church and subsequently his grandson became a clergymen. Eventually, he came to England and was the first pastor at the Dutch Church in Norwich and then in Canterbury.
It was my grandmother, Helen Durand who was the Huguenot and I was brought up on it. I thought I had better put my name down for the French Hospital, so I sent an enquiry and got a reply back within half an hour saying we’ve got a flat for you. I was a Public Relations practitioner in race relations for a long time and I learnt that knowing your roots is quite important. My husband was from Jamaica and was very proud of his background. I teach journalism and publishing, and I edit the quarterly magazine ‘Rotary in London.’”
Jack Minett & Poppy
“I’m seventy-five, I haven’t got my teeth in and I’m not going to put them in because I am an old fellow. I’ve always known I was a Huguenot, but I didn’t know what it meant. My Huguenot ancestry was researched by my aunt – I believe there were two brothers who came over as refugees before all the chopping went on. One went to Gloucestershire and became a farmer, and the other was a doctor who set up a clinic in Camberwell.
My grandfather was a butcher in Forest Hill and I was born in Peckham. I’ve been very poorly and they sent me home to die – that was seventeen years ago when I came here to the Hospital with my wife Maureen, and I am still alive! I have two sons and a grandson, so the name continues. The founder of the Huguenot Society was a Minett and Charles Dickens has a Dr Manet in ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ And you’ve got to realise that Poppy, my little dog, is now a Huguenot too.”
“Chaundy is the family name and it goes back twelve generations to a small village called Chauny, north of Paris – a little before the Huguenots. They are recorded in the parish records of Ascott-under-Wychwood in 1548, but my branch ends with me because I have no children and my brother died in the war. He was shot down in the North Sea when he was nineteen. I have no relations. I am eighty-six years old and I have been here twenty-four years.
I was a secretary and I passed my insurance exams but I was a bit early – I realise I was forty years too soon when I see what girls are able to do now, in those days we were just secretaries. I was born in Glasgow but my father was a Londoner and, when I bought a house in Wembley in my early thirties, both my parents came to join me and they stayed for thirty years. Both of them lived into their nineties and my father lived to be ninety-eight. When I he died, I applied to come and live here. I have had two brain operations and survived them. I always say I am a refugee from the Glasgow rain.”
“My great-grandmother was Eleanor Grimmo of Spitalfields. Her great-grandfather was Peter Grimmo, a weaver, who in 1839 was living at 4 Fort St, Old Artillery Ground, Spitalfields. By January 1869, his son Peter was living at 10, Turville St, Church St (now Redchurch St), Shoreditch, when he married Mary Fulseer of Bethnal Green – and in July of that year, Mary gave birth to my great-grandmother Eleanor. She told me that her father Peter Grimmo was a seal fur dyer who invented the Silver Fox Fur. My grandmother spoke French and German and was an interpreter in the First World War. We weren’t a highly educated family, so we were amazed at this but her mother was also fluent in French and her grandparents were wholly French, so it all ties in.
I’m sixty-nine and I’m on my own these days. I was a primary school teacher for forty-two years and I retired four years ago. I’ve always known we had French relatives, but it has only been in the past ten years that my daughter has been researching the family ancestry and that’s how we found out about this place.”
“My ancestor Noe Oblein came to London in 1753. He was was weaver in Shoreditch and he married Marie Dupre at St Matthew’s Bethnal Green in 1774. My father did the family research and everyone called Oblein is a relative. There are about five hundred alive. We are in contact with others all over the world, in Australia and in Rochester in America – where they have reunions every year. My father went to one and I’d like to go.
I was firefighter in Deptford for thirteen years. We came here last August, it’s brilliant – they look after you so well. I was born in Deptford and lived in Plumstead and Chatham. We sold our house and we always said how nice it was here. I shall never forget how I felt when I first walked through the gates. On Friday and Saturday nights, it’s a riot out in the High St but it’s always peaceful in here.”
“It was my husband, Ray, that wanted to come here – he was the one with the Huguenot connection. I was a teacher and he was a dental hygienist, one of the first men to do that. We met in church and we were married in Gillingham United Reform Church in 1970.
I came here in 2007, we had planned to come here together. Five years earlier, we had moved to North Lincolnshire because we wanted to live in a small village and we had a lovely home. Then we decided it was time we put our names down here, but unfortunately he developed a brain tumour as we were in the process of moving and he died so I came here on my own. It can be lonely, but I spend a lot of time at Rochester Cathedral, working in the shop and the welcome desk, so I have got to know a lot of people that way.”
“My Huguenot ancestor was Joseph Poitier who came from Lot to Bethnal Green in 1749, I think he was a carpenter. I’ve always known this since I was small because my father always said we were French, but he couldn’t remember how. So after I retired and I lost my wife, I decided to find out and I built up the family tree. Joseph’s son, George Poitier, was baptised in St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, in 1768.
During the war, when was five, I was evacuated to my grandparents in Eastbourne and the Huguenot Society paid for my education until I left school in Forest Gate at aged fifteen. I studied book-keeping and shorthand typing but never touched it from the day I left school. I started off as an office boy at Arnett & Co (cargo superintendents at Fenchurch St in the City) from 1949-50, then I became accounts clerk at Reliance Telephones in WC2 from 1950-56, I worked for the Cleveland Petroleum Co in Euston from 1956-58, then I was a despatch clerk at Silcock & Colling Ltd, Ford’s delivery agent in Dagenham from 1958-72 and finally I moved to Basildon where I worked for Standard telephone & cables from 1973-1977 and Morse Controls Ltd from 1977 -1997. I took early retirement to care for my wife until she passed away on April 3rd 2001 and then I had heart attack on the morning of April 4th. They said it was caused by stress. I came to live here in the French Hospital in August 2008.”
“The Huguenot was my grandfather, his name was Ravine. The family were based in Canterbury around the Via St Gregory. I’ve only traced them back as far as 1721 but when I pack up my job, I’m going to find out more. It wasn’t until my father died and my brother was chopping wood and breaking coal in Felstead in Essex and I was trying to bring my mother here, that I got to know the Steward. He said, ‘You’ve got to be a Huguenot,’ so I said, ‘We are!’
I was in my forties and she was in her seventies, and she moved in here in 1983 and she was here for fourteen and a half years. I came in August 2005. I teach T’ai Chi and I do a weekly session with ten regular students. One is ninety-seven and she can stand on one leg. I didn’t start until I was sixty and I’ve been doing it fourteen and a half years, and it’s made all the difference to my fitness and balance.”
“I’m ninety-one. I came here with my husband, Bill, thirty-three years ago because he wanted to get out of London. If he was here he could explain the Huguenot connection, but he died twelve years ago. I was born in Bermondsey and lived all my life in Bermondsey. I worked for twenty years for the gas board. I have one son and one grandson. I’ve never been back to Bermondsey.”
“My Huguenot ancestor, Alexander Bearnville de Blois, came in 1685 and settled in Spitalfields. I found out when my great-aunt found pieces of parchment in the attic and that was our family tree. I was the ‘baby’ when I moved into the French Hospital fifteen years ago. My grandmother and my great uncle lived here in the Hospital, so I’ve been visiting since I was seventeen. I was born in Rochester and I have lived most of my life in Rochester, and my son lives here as well. I love being here, I’ve always wanted to live here – it’s like a village.”
Jon Corrigan, Master Steward
Huguenot garden at the French Hospital in Rochester.
Weathervane of Elijah fed by the ravens in the wilderness, emblematic of ‘La Providence’ – the name of the Hospital.
Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
You may also like to read about