Skip to content

Huguenot Summer

April 28, 2015
by the gentle author

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’ into the English language. Inspired by the forthcoming Huguenot Summer which runs from May to September, 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

You may also like to take a look at

Huguenot Portraits

Stanley Rondeau, Huguenot

Remembering Jean Rondeau the Huguenot

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Sharon O'Connor permalink
    April 28, 2015

    Sheer bliss to read this blog each morning with a cup of tea. The French graffiti ‘n’est-ce pas’ found in Elder St can be translated today as ‘Innit’!

  2. April 28, 2015

    Another excellent, fascinating post. Thank you

  3. Lesley Russell permalink
    April 28, 2015

    Today’s post brought back our very special 2014 Christmas staying at the Town House in Fournier Street. My Huguenot ancestors lived mostly in Blackfriars, around the Threadneedle Street church and in the parish of St Dionis Backchurch – all just a short walk from our Fournier St front door, how often did we walk in their footsteps during that week? Can’t wait to repeat the week, a “Huguenot Summer” sounds just perfect.

  4. April 28, 2015

    Wonderful photos, and it is always good to see how well kept the buildings are these days. Valerie

  5. April 28, 2015

    I believe that Huguenot refugees came to England long before this as well, my Tearoe ancestors, whose name is spelt phonetically in various ways Tiro/Tyro/Tyroe etc., must have come in one of the first waves during the reign of Elizabeth I and these early settlers, who were mainly weavers, lived near the Tower of London and in Southwark. There are many records of these first refugees so it is always somewhat misleading just to associate Huguenot refugees with the Edict of Nantes, the earlier families who came here to escape persecution were also Huguenots. Mine actually can be found in |Southwark where they were felt makers, many others were hat makers.


  6. April 28, 2015

    Great post as always Dear GA, I love the sundial on Fournier street and the reels hanging above street level in fact I have many photos of them myself from my various walks around these historic streets. Thank you….

  7. SBW permalink
    April 29, 2015

    Dearest GA, thank you for this excellent post, (as always) and the wonderful photographs. I thought you might be interested in a little booklet I have recently managed to acquire and read, called ‘Huguenots in Rye and Winchelsea’ by Jo Kirkham (ISBN 1 870600). It is a history of those who managed to escape persecution in their Huguenot homelands to find safety within the walls of the ancient Cinque Port towns of Rye and Winchelsea – which became their refuge. It has many wonderful illustrations and an excellent bibliography for further reading.

    Thank you again and have a wonderful blossom-filled week. s

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS