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The Journey Of Martin Nadaud

May 21, 2020
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Historian Gillian Tindall sent me this account of the life of Martin Nadaud (1815-98), a refugee who came to London in the nineteenth century and worked as a stone mason to survive

The familiar beggars disappeared from the streets of London when the lockdown began, but here and there new homeless faces have taken their place. These men show no sign of alcohol or drug use and are overly grateful – in limited English – for the few coins that come their way. They are immigrants and refugees of uncertain status who did labouring or restaurant work in ordinary times but now have nothing.

Like plagues and wars, it has all happened before in London. One particular long-ago immigrant who struggled to survive on our streets is of special interest to me. He was a stone-mason by trade and his name was Martin Nadaud.

Born in the year of Waterloo in mountainous Central France, far from battles or political conflict, he walked to Paris with his father when he was fourteen. Away from home and learning a trade on the job, this clever boy studied in his own time to replace his regional dialect and taught himself to read and write. Through the turmoils and mini-revolutions of the eighteen-thirties and forties he grew interested in politics and human rights. By the time Emperor Louis-Napoleon (the nephew of the first Napoleon) took over in 1849, Nadaud was such a well-known figure that he was elected as the first working class member of Parliament in France.

Yet his triumph was short-lived. Within two years Louis-Napoleon revealed dictatorial tendencies and sought to rid himself of critics. Nadaud, along with many other left-wingers, was imprisoned and then banished. Where should he go but England, traditionally celebrated for not being a police state and welcoming refugees?

Nadaud took a paddle steamer to Wapping and stayed his first night in a house in Soho that had long been a shelter for French refugees. Next morning he and a compatriot walked to a huge, muddy site in the unbuilt wastes beyond Kings Cross, where the railway stations had yet to appear. There Nadaud got a job building the new Metropolitan Meat-Market.

It was a lonely life. He could not speak with any of his work mates, many of whom were wary of him. Most of the other French political refugees had private means. After that job came to an end Nadaud had to walk, cap-in-hand, to sites elsewhere. “Chance of a job, Master?” was the first English phrase he learnt. As with many highly qualified immigrants today – it was as if, on the way over the Channel, all his achievements and hard-won status of the last twenty years had vanished. In the depths of a bitter winter, when the Crimean War brought a slump in the building trade, he could not even afford coal for a fire to heat his rented room in Greenwich

I am happy to report that after enduring times so dire he passed over them in his memoir, Nadaud made good. An unnamed friend, who may have been Friedrich Engels, arranged a job for him near Manchester where mill-building was flourishing. There, for the first time, he encountered the source of Britain’s manufacturing prosperity.

Later, while lodging with the family of a carpenter in Wimbledon, he observed how well they lived by comparison with families in France of the same social level. “On Sunday, round the dinner table, it is more like being with a prosperous shop-keeper’s family than with a working class one.”

Development was booming in London in the mid-nineteenth century. The population of the capital increased sixfold during the century, making it the largest city in the world. While continental capitals were mostly still corseted within their ancient limits – and Paris was building a new defensive wall – London was already pursuing the suburban dream. The fields and market gardens of Kensington and Chelsea were disappearing under terraces of upmarket housing. Bayswater and Paddington were being colonised, and Camden Town was stretching greedy fingers out all the way towards Hampstead. The inauguration of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 – the world’s first Underground – opened more distant possibilities. Consequently, the British have been in thrall to the questionable fantasy of ‘living in the country’ while working in the town ever since.

Meanwhile in the older neighbours, enormous redevelopment was underway. Over the previous two hundred years, the surviving Tudor mansions of Bishopsgate and Clerkenwell, Holborn and Westminster, had been destroyed piecemeal. Protests against this vandalism by conservationists including William Morris and C.R. Ashbee lay in the future.

Yet it was not only precious relics of old London that were reduced to dust and smoke. The coherent Georgian urban landscape with its elegant terraces was being superseded by taller and larger housing blocks, usually of red brick in a pseudo-ecclesiastical style. There were also new mansions for the super rich, public institutions, hospitals, schools, model dwellings for the working classes, railway stations with towering hotels, new churches to replace old ones, Holborn Viaduct to cover the dirty Fleet River and, indeed, Barry & Pugin’s new Houses of Parliament.

All this, Nadaud tentatively admired. Eventually, he found more  congenial employment in one of the new Gothic school-buildings where he taught French to young gentlemen, concealing from them and his employer that he ever wielded a builder’s trowel. Nadaud remained grateful to England for giving him a new life, even if he had had to struggle for it.

On the Emperor’s downfall in 1870, Nadaud returned to his homeland. Acclaimed as a returning hero, he was given a job in the new administration. A respected but lonely figure, Nadaud lived for another twenty-eight years, writing his semi-fictional memoir and his account of the British working classes, which – perhaps unsurprisingly – proved not to be a big seller in France.

He spent his remaining years trying to persuade those in charge of Paris that they needed an Underground like London’s, although he did not live to see it built. Yet as the Métro began to be constructed in the year of his death, I like to think that he knew at the last that this particular dream would be fulfilled.

Leaving the village to walk in search of employment in the city

Masons at work

Hostel for for casual labourers

Wimbledon School where Nadaud taught

Martin Nadaud (1815-98)

Gillian Tindall’s book The Journey of Martin Nadaud: a life and turbulent times was first published in 1999 and copies can be found online. Her latest book The Pulse Glass & The Beat of Other Hearts is published by Chatto & Windus

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

Travelling Roads Through Time

Wenceslaus Hollar at Old St Paul’s

The Plagues of Old London

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

Gillian Tindall’s Wartime Memories

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

4 Responses leave one →
  1. May 21, 2020

    What a life. So many ups and downs. Glad he survived it all.

  2. Richard permalink
    May 22, 2020

    So many forgotten lives, but not this one.

  3. May 22, 2020

    Thanks for this post. One of my favourite books. Was horrified by the French inns he stayed at en route to Paris each year. Sheets not washed till spring. Horrific

  4. Stephen L’Normand permalink
    June 6, 2023

    I am a master stonemason originally from Old Street and Martin Nadaud is in my lineage of masters.

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