When I was a young thing, my maternal grandmother would tell me the family tales. “We’re descended from Huguenots, you know”, she’d say proudly.
Fast-forward too many years, and you’ll find me delving into the ancestry of the Matons – my grandparents’ family surname. “Hmm, it does rather sound like a Frenchified name”, I thought.
However, after a few month’s research, all ideas of an exotic French Connection disappeared. The Matons, it transpired, were common English yeomen, plodding across muddy Wiltshire fields forever, or at least back to the earliest church records. So much for the wishful thinking of old grandmothers, I scoffed.
Digging at the roots
Another year on though, I’d become more practised at digging in the roots of the family tree. And there I found them! Mathurin Gastineau, Phillipe Laurent, Jeanne Chaboussant – an entire tribe of French folk. These were my grandmother’s own many-times great grandparents. Huguenots who had fled France, and settled in London in the 1700s.
That discovery taught me a valuable lesson or two. First, avoid stomping doggedly down a path without considering the alternatives. And second, listen more respectfully to what old people tell you. Sometimes they do know what they’re talking about.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Huguenots in my family tree, really. They’d settled in London in such great numbers that genealogists expect anyone with London-based ancestors to unearth a Huguenot or two. Finding them got me thinking about possible parallels with current day refugees.
Why did those historic refugees come? How did those new arrivals integrate? What’s their legacy, three hundred or so years later?
So, here’s a little bit of refugee history. Incidentally, we get the word refugee from the Huguenots. It’s the French word for someone seeking a refuge. Because that’s what the Huguenots were doing. They weren’t economic migrants – they were fleeing religious persecution.
Saint Bartholomew’s Day
Huguenots were protestants living in Catholic France. They rubbed along uneasily with the majority Catholic population, until an event called the Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre in 1572, when anti-protestant rioting resulted in many thousands of deaths. Thankfully, things settled down a few years later, with the Edict of Nantes, which granted religious freedom in France.
But events took a turn for the worse in the 1680s when Louis XIV sent fierce troops – Les Dragonnades – to suppress the Huguenots and forcibly convert them to catholicism. And worse, he then reversed the Edict of Nantes. Things became ever more dangerous for the French protestants. So, many fled to more friendly protestant countries, including England.
It’s reckoned that around 50,000 refugees made the journey from France to England, principally to London.
Many settled in the East London area of Spitalfields. Why? Three main reasons. First, one of the main French protestant churches in London was already well established, in Threadneedle Street, a short walk away. (I found records of my Huguenot family’s baptisms in that Threadneedle church – all recorded in French!). Church life was important to them – after all, they had left everything they had built up in France, because of their religious beliefs.
And second, they spotted a business opportunity. As you’ll no doubt know, many Huguenots worked in the silk industry. Not so well known, Spitalfields had long been established as a centre for weavers, long before the Huguenots arrived. Originally it was a centre for wool weaving, but later for silk, especially silk ribbons, an essential of cutting-edge Stuart fashion.
But, there was a skills shortage for the production of the wider swathes of patterned silk fabric needed to make costumes. The Huguenots identified the gap in the market, and moved into Spitalfields – where the weaving industry connections were already there, but where their specialist skills and knowledge paid a premium.
And the third cause? – there was a business reason that those entrepreneur weavers had set up shop in Spitalfields. Being just beyond the city walls, they escaped the grip of the restrictive closed shop legislation laid down by the City of London Guilds.
So, did these new arrivals assimilate and adopt a mantle of Englishness? Probably not for the first couple of generations. Contemporary reports commented -rather scathingly – that there were so many Huguenots in Spitalfields, that French was the most common language heard on the streets.
When researching the births, marriages and deaths of my own tribe of Huguenots, I’ve had to stretch my school French to the limit. The ministers of the Huguenot churches had no intention of recording events in English! It took a while to blend in – it always takes a while.
So, the new arrivals didn’t immediately assimilate, but they did thrive. Their skills in the silk trade fuelled the insatiable demand from the English market – the Georgians loved conspicuous consumption in all forms. So, the patterned and embossed silks, made through the skills of the newly arrived immigrants, flooded local markets.
Terrier to Terry
But subtle changes in names in the registers help tell the story of a gradual assimilation into Englishness. My ancestor Peter – originally Pierre – Terrier is recorded later in his life as Peter Terry. Marie Gastinau has become Mary by the time she marries. And in the family tree of a very patriotic English friend – a fellow Londoner who’s not too fond of the French, I found Pierre Alliaume, whose granddaughter was baptised as…the very English-sounding, Eliza Holyome.
The Spitalfields Huguenot weavers grew rich, or at least those at the top of the tree did, helped by a market which was artificially skewed in their favour. Wars with the French had closed down the imports of cheaper silk goods from the Continent. And then an Act of Parliament – “The Spitalfields Act” of 1773, came along, designed to protect the lucrative silk industry. It fixed wages at an artificially high level within the boundaries of Spitalfields, to keep workers on-side, and imposed tariffs on foreign imports. So far, so good, what could possibly go wrong?
You can’t buck the market
Well, as any banker or economist will confirm, you can’t buck the market. Free trade will win out. The master weavers grew exasperated at having to pay higher wages to their workers, cutting their profits. And so, they solved the problem – by moving their businesses outside the Spitalfields enclave. One by one, the Huguenot weaving companies moved out of Spitalfields and settled in areas where free trade – and lower costs and unpegged workers’ wages – ruled.
So, you find the great Huguenot weaving enterprises setting up shop in less restrictive areas outside London. Many weavers made the long journey north to Macclesfield, in Cheshire. It was already a silk town, famous for making silk buttons. But they’d fallen out of favour when horn buttons became more fashionable. So, the new skills and products of the Spitalfields arrivals were very welcome.
Paradise Mill in Macclesfield became a centre for silk fabric making, using the very latest cutting-edge technology from 1800s France – the Jacquard Loom. This semi-automated loom could weave the most intricate patterns on silk, using coded cards. Holes were made in the card to denote a stitch of a particular coloured silk at a specific spot. No hole meant no stitch.
What does that remind you of? Yes, of course, it’s the same principle of binary coding used in any computer system . Older readers might remember the IBM coded mainframe computer cards – you can buy vintage versions on Etsy for around a tenner. Spot the similarities. So, there’s nothing new under the sun, wouldn’t you agree?
As a brief diversion, here’s a question for you: what connection does this ad from the 1990s, voted the most iconic of all times, have with our Huguenot weavers? Some of you may recognise the contours of the Gossard Wonderbra, and remember the ad’s strap-line: “Hello Boys!”.
The Gossard brand, along with the lingerie brands of Aristoc and Pretty Polly, is owned by that textile, chemicals and aerospace giant…Courtaulds. And the Courtaulds were originally humble French refugees, who set up their weaving business in Spitalfields.
The Courtaulds joined the Huguenot flight from Spitalfields, setting up shop in a location not so far-flung as Macclesfield; they moved their business to Braintree in Essex. Business really took off in the 1820s, when their Braintree factories started making crêpe -a form of crimped silk gauze. By good fortune, black crêpe filled a growing gap in the clothing market for that most Victorian of pastimes – mourning the dead. The prosperity of the Courtaulds – and Braintree – was ensured. And the family were great philanthropists, building workers’ homes and hospitals, and even setting up creches for their employees.
A little further north from Braintree, on the Essex and Suffolk border, is the market town of Sudbury. A further contingent of the Huguenot diaspora from Spitalfields settled there, and established their silk-weaving enterprises. Again, French families, such as the Vanners and Humphries thrived, and business was good. Unlike many other Huguenot silk-weaving enclaves, who over time succumbed to cheaper foreign competition, silk weaving still continues in Sudbury with four companies with Huguenot roots still going.
Indeed, the queen’s coronation robes were made from Sudbury silk. The town even staged a Silk festival in 2019 – a planned an annual event, until Covid put paid to that idea for now.
Those French refugees didn’t confine themselves to the silk trade, of course. They were adept business folk and artisans, skilled in many other trades. Huguenot silversmiths helped establish the cutlery trade in Sheffield, and watchmakers, silversmiths and bookbinders set up businesses around Soho and Holborn in London. And they were good with money too – the first governor of the Bank of England was of Huguenot descent.
In more current times, what about Tony Cottee, West Ham and England footballer? Daphne du Maurier, author? Eddie Izzard? Keith Richards? Jon Pertwee? Simon le Bon? Reginald Bosanquet? All of Huguenot descent, and all carrying surnames of recognisable French origin. That’s not counting the many other Britons who might not carry a French surname, but still carry a few Huguenot genes.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Many of the weaving houses in Spitalfields are still there. You can recognise them by the massive windows – silk weaving was close-work, and you needed good light. The French heritage of the area is still visible in certain street names such as Fournier Street.
Paradise Mill is still up for visitors in Macclesfield – such a large roomy space, needed to host the massive Jacquard looms. And after a visit, the Silk Trader pub is still open for business.
Evidence of the Courtauld’s legacy is all around Braintree, including parks, gardens, old mills and workers’ cottages, the Town Hall. Also, there are plenty of historic weaving artefacts in the Braintree museum, once the school building built by the family.
And of course, there is the Courtauld Institute in London, set up by Samuel C, and housing a wonderful collection of, fittingly, French Impressionist paintings. The family also helped fund the Tate Gallery’s Impressionist collection.
The interesting thing to me is this: although inanimate things like buildings and looms and street names still help us identify the Huguenots and their heritage, their descendants are commonplace Brits. There’s no hint, and often no knowledge, of their exotic foreign origins, other than a few quirky surnames and a few grandmotherly memories. It’s a great story of how immigrants assimilate. Not immediately, but give it a few hundred years…
Post script: the painting below is by John Millais, another Briton of Huguenot descent. It depicts a Catholic girl with her Protestant lover on Saint Bartholomew’s day in 1572. She is begging him to wear a white ribbon – to denote that he is a Catholic, and he is gently refusing. What a poignant, romantic image!