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So Long, Huguenots Of Spitalfields

November 13, 2021
by the gentle author

A few places are available for my last-ever course HOW TO WRITE A BLOG THAT PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ on November 20th & 21st. This is your final chance to come to Spitalfields and spend a weekend with me in an eighteenth century weaver’s house in Fournier St, enjoy delicious lunches from Leila’s Cafe, eat cakes baked to historic recipes by Townhouse and learn how to write your own blog. Email spitalfieldslife@gmail.com to book a place.

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After more than ten years, the cultural organisation devoted to the Huguenots of Spitalfields is closing down. This unexpected imaginative flourishing was the brainchild of the estimable Charlie De Wet, who worked voluntarily for a decade, inspiring us with stories of this first wave of immigrants and, by doing so, transformed our perceptions of the Huguenots’ contribution to our society.

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.

I set out in search of any visual evidence that remains of the many thousands who once passed through these narrow streets and Dr Robin Gwynn, author of The Huguenots of London, explained to me how they came to be 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

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Barbara Elsmore permalink
    November 13, 2021

    Good luck to all of you attending the last blog writing course. You will have a fabulous life changing experience, just as I did around seven years ago now.

  2. November 13, 2021

    As an Huguenot descendant … it’s sad they are shutting up shop.
    My family didn’t leave Bethnal Green until about 1905 ….

  3. Georgina Briody permalink
    November 13, 2021

    I was sad to hear this news. When I discovered the Huguenots of Spitalfields it opened up a whole new world to me and, through Charlie and her City Guides, I found out so much about my Huguenot family that lived in Spitalfields and surrounding area.

    Will miss you all.

  4. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 13, 2021

    Thank you GA. I am always interested and amused to read accounts of Huguenots in Spitalfields as Huguenots were settled in London long before 1700 and French would have been spoken in the street in Wandsworth from before 1573 when French Protestant refugees first erected a chapel there. The date is clearly recorded on the building which still stands today and there is a French Protestant burying ground there which became known as Mount Nod. My family of Tiro/Tyroes are recorded in Wandsworth in the 16th century and those French Protestants were responsible for the development of the borough which is why their crest now forms part of the Borough Crest.

    I began to write a history of my French ancestors many years ago for my Tearoe cousin in Canada, Tearoe being an Anglicised version of the French name Tiro/Tyroe. That name first appears in England in the mid 16th century and the parents of my William, John and Elizabeth Tiro probably arrived here circa 1540 as refugees and those refugees were, of course, Huguenots. William became a felt maker in Southwark and I have a copy of his will in which his name is spelt in nine different ways !! That will was written in 1620 but the will of William’s brother John, a ctizen and draper of London, was written in 1603 and it tells us that he lived in Wandsworth and was a very prosperous man

    Early French refugees arrived in southern England in.the mid 16th century, some settled in St Katharines (by the Tower) and they were mostly hatters and felt makers but they soon relocated to Southwark and Wandsworth, as mine did, although John Tiro/Tyroe is also recorded as owning property in Farringdon Ward for which he paid £5 in 1576 and £7 in 1582, a small fortune then.
    [London Subsidy Rolls]

    I think there are so many misconceptions about Huguenot refugees in England and whilst I am very interested in the Spitalfields residents, ( I have De la Mares there as one married a Tearoe ) I do think the record needs to be set straight and French would have been spoken in the streets throughout southern England from well before 1700 as Huguenots were not all silk weavers in Spitalfields. One of mine became Clerk of the Works for Inigo Jones at the Queen’s House Greenwich and he married the daughter of the man responsible for glass in all the royal buildings. That man received one of the paintings that had belonged to Charles I as payment after Charles was beheaded, and that painting now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Researching our families can lead to all sorts of fascinating history, I thoroughly recommend it as it helps us to discover the truth about the past, such as the story of the Huguenots.!!

  5. Cherub permalink
    November 13, 2021

    Very sad to read of this, the Huguenots are a fascinating story. I remember the BBC screening a documentary many, many years ago called Who Were The Huguenots? which was very interesting. As was actor Derek Jacobi’s Huguenot discover of his background on Who Do You Think You Are.

  6. November 13, 2021

    Saddened to hear of the closure. The organisation has contributed invaluable knowledge to the history of these people and the area.
    Another fascinating article. My Spitalfields ancestors were Dutch Jews who arrived from Amsterdam sometime around the mid 1860s. Their first child was born at Leman Street in 1866. They were poor cigar makers. Beyond census evidence, I haven’t found out much about them.

  7. juliet shipman permalink
    November 13, 2021

    It is so sad to learn of the Huguenot Society’s demise. I loved their program of walks, talks and fascinating events. It is indeed a sad sad loss. I do hope the events can be continued elsewhere under another organisation’s wing.

  8. Linda Granfield permalink
    November 13, 2021

    Dear GA–I’m sorry to read that there will no longer be “How To Write A Blog…” courses. Sometimes, living in Toronto, Canada has its downsides–I couldn’t join you in a classroom and always hoped I would be able to, until the pandemic hit.

    That said, would you consider recording your last session and making it available (for a fee, of course) for virtual attendance any time, anywhere, around the world?

    Future students, like myself, will miss the lovely lunch, etc, but we will have the opportunity to make our writing as informative and entertaining as yours. Please consider this request, and enjoy next week’s last meeting.

  9. November 13, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the review of the Huguenot settlement in Spitalsfields and for the great pics of their legacy in London that remain to this day. Tres interesting.

    Pauline, merci for sharing that account of your Huguenot ancestors – good work!

  10. paul loften permalink
    November 13, 2021

    “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. ” So they ended up in Spitalfields which was a haven of refuge not only for them but their descendants.
    My father once told me that far back in our family history his ancestors came from Spain. All they had to do was renounce their Jewish faith to prevent being tortured and attend a church . Somehow they ended up in Poland or Russia I don’t know how because the family name changed so many times its impossible for me to track the journey. Then from there came to Spitalfields which was a haven of refuge not only for them but their descendants.

    I wonder if you could award a special honour to a location for its service to humanity ?

  11. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 13, 2021

    Thank you to Helen Breen. There is so much fascinating history regarding all the French and Flemish people who took refuge here and I enjoy the research so much. I am glad that you read my account which is just a small sample of all that I have learnt.

    Merci a vous !

  12. Elizabeth Olson permalink
    November 13, 2021

    Bonjour GA: Yes! It would indeed be wonderful to have a recording of your blog course and I would gladly pay. I too had always thought I would be able to attend by now. But alas, we are stuck on Vancouver Island and armchair travelling, although London double-deckers do pass by in front of our home on a regular basis.

  13. Suzanne permalink
    November 14, 2021

    Oh this is not the news I wanted to hear GA. How very sad. It seems the world is changing at a much quicker pace.

  14. November 14, 2021

    Like others, I’m so saddened by the closure of Huguenots of Spitalfields. My debt to Charlie de Wet is incredible: she made all the events such fun.

    I hope the website will remain accessible; it’s such a great resource, and so much beautiful work has gone in to it.

    Devastated.

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