The Huguenots of Spitalfields
The wooden spools that you see hanging in the streets of Spitalfields indicate houses where Huguenots once resided. These symbols were put there in 1985, commemorating the tercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes which brought the Huguenots to London and introduced the word ‘refugee’ to the English language. Inspired by the Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival, I set out in search of what other visual evidence remains of the many thousands that once passed through these narrow streets and Dr Robin Gwynn, author of The Huguenots of London, explained to me how they came here.
“Spitalfields was the most concentrated Huguenot settlement in England, there was nowhere else in 1700 where you would expect to hear French spoken in the street. If you compare Spitalfields with Westminster, it was the gentry that stayed in Westminster and the working folk who came to Spitalfields – there was a significant class difference. And whereas half the churches in Westminster followed the French style of worship, in Spitalfields they were not interested in holding services in English.
The Huguenots were religious refugees, all they needed to do to stop the persecution in France was to sign a piece of paper that acknowledged the errors of John Calvin and turn up at church each Sunday. Yet if they tried to leave they were subject to Draconian punishments. It was not a planned immigration, it was about getting out when you could. And, because their skills were in their hands, weavers could leave whereas those whose livelihood was tied up in property or land couldn’t go.
Those who left couldn’t choose where they were going, it was wherever the ship happened to be bound – whether Dover or Falmouth. Turning up on the South Coast, they would head for a place where there were other French people to gain employment. Many sought a place where they could set their conscience at rest, because they may have been forced to take communion in France and needed to atone.
The best-known church was “L’Eglise Protestant” in Threadneedle St in the City of London, it dealt with the first wave of refugees by building an annexe, “L’Eglise de l’Hôpital,” in Brick Lane on the corner of Fournier St. This opened in 1743, sixty years after a temporary wooden shack was first built there. There were at least nine other Huguenot Chapels in Spitalfields by then, yet they needed this huge church – it was an indicator of how large the French community was. I don’t think you could have built a French Church of that size anywhere else in Britain at that time.The church was run by elders who made sure the religious and the secular sides tied up so, if you arrived at the church in Threadneedle St, they would send you over to Spitalfields and find you work.
It was such a big migration, estimated now at between twenty to twenty-five thousand, that among the population in the South East more than 90% have Huguenot ancestors.“
Sundial in Fournier St recording the date of the building of the Huguenot Church.
Brick Lane Mosque was originally built in 1743 as a Huguenot Church, “L’Eglise de l’Hôpital,” replacing an earlier wooden chapel on the same site, and constructed with capacious vaults which could be rented out to brewers or vintners to subsidise running costs.
Water head from 1725 at 27 Fournier St with the initials of Pierre Bourdain, a wealthy Huguenot weaver who became Headborough and had the house built for him.
The Hanbury Hall in Hanbury St was built in 1719 as a Huguenot Church, standing back from the road behind a courtyard with a pump. The building was extended in 1864 and is now the church hall for Christ Church, Spitalfields.
Coat of arms in the Hanbury Hall dating from 1740, when “La Patente” Church moved into the building, signifying the patent originally granted by James II.
In Artillery Lane, one of London oldest shop fronts, occupied from 1720 by Nicholas Jourdain, Huguenot Silk Mercer and Director of the French Hospital.
Memorial in Christ Church.
Memorial in Christ Church.
At Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St.
Graffiti in French recently uncovered in a weavers’ loft in Elder St
Former Huguenot residence in Elder St.
The Fleur de Lis was adopted as the symbol of the Huguenots.
Sandys Row Synagogue was originally built by the Huguenots as “L’Eglise de l’Artillerie” in 1766.
Sandys Row Photograph copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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