Little did I realise, as I settled down to read Huguenot Heritage*, by Robin Gwynn, a book recommended to me by Dr Tessa Murdoch, that it would change the next few years of my life! Enthralled and captivated by the Huguenots’ courage and commitment to their faith, I knew by the end of the first chapter that I had to do something. By the time I had turned the last page of Robin’s authoritative book, the Huguenots of Spitalfields charity was taking shape, and plans for a Thanksgiving Service at Christ Church in Spitalfields, a Huguenot Festival and The Big Weave were underway. Since then, all our efforts – through walks and talks, and educational and heritage programmes – have been directed towards highlighting the contribution these quite extraordinary people made to this country.
It was your enthusiasm, encouragement and financial support that made it all possible. First, there was the Huguenot Festival in 2013, then Huguenot Threads in 2014, and Huguenot Summer in 2015 (with 135 events from Plymouth, via Exeter, Bristol, Taunton, Winchester, Colchester and other towns to Norwich). This was to support the opening of the first Huguenot Museum in this country in May and the Duke of Buccleuch’s fascinating exhibition at the end of the summer. Curated by Paul Boucher, it highlighted the Huguenot contribution to Boughton House. Then came the 2016 Huguenot Festival, and in 2018 the Huguenot Month Festival, with 44 events, which was sponsored by the City of London Corporation. This wasn’t planned to be a month, but it was the speakers’ availability that dictated the length. What generous speakers we have had! Sharing their knowledge and explaining their work, well over 100 academic and specialists have inspired us and increased our knowledge. A list of their names will soon be on our website. Throughout these years, it has been Nick Bodger and his team at the City of London Corporation who have so enthusiastically supported our activities.
Skills of the Huguenots
Organising the Skills of the Huguenots Day nearly finished us but it was very rewarding to see the breadth of the Huguenot artisan influence being appreciated by so many people. It was a nightmare to organise, but with help from Dr Rebecca Coll, Elizabeth Winder, and our team of volunteers, it was probably one of the most worthwhile initiatives we have staged. Participants were able to make their own plant dyes; learn a few French words; discover how clocks work; join in a dance workshop; design, embroider and weave Huguenot images; create historical collages and most popular of all, Professor Ted (Professor Edward Vallance) was on hand to talk about Huguenot soldiers, guns and enemies. Tim Kidd drew the crowds by talking about money with the Bank of Chocolate. Other activities included, how to read a map, science tricks, maths made fun, how to make a Huguenot Cross, and the story of the courageous Portal Boys told by a storyteller, captivated all – and that’s only some of the things we did!
Your funds made the impossible happen. The profits from the first Huguenot Festival paid for the Huguenot Plaque, designed by Paul Bommer in 2014, which now enhances the outside wall of Hanbury Hall, thanks to the support and agreement of the Revd. Andy Rider, then Rector of Christ Church.
With the help of volunteers, including Joy Halligan. Carole Boniface and Fay Cattini, we staged the Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival in 2017, together with our friends Rose Edmunds and Rachel Lichtenstein at the Sandys Row Synagogue, Ansar Anwar and Julie Begum from the Swahinata Trust, and our adviser on ethnic matters, Dr Dan DeHanas of King’s College, London. We participated in the Festival of Freedoms, the Bastille Day Festival in Borough Market, the Soho and Canterbury Festivals, Heritage Day at La Providence in Rochester, ‘On the Streets’ at the London Metropolitan Archive, several of the City of London Corporation’s Festivals – Fantastic Feats, Women in the City – and, oh, so much more…
With the aim of raising awareness of the Huguenots in the High Street, we approached Daunt Books in Cheapside to feature a display of books related to the Huguenot story; we had French Language Taster Sessions at the Bishopsgate Institute, and at Portcullis House in Westminster, with the Revd. Rose Hudson-Wilkins, Dominic Grieve MP, Stephen Pound MP, Dr Tessa Murdoch and Professor Tariq Modood from the University of Bristol – a panel discussion on the theme Is Religious Tolerance the Best that Can Be? Now how did that happen?
We even approached Ace Cultural Tours to include an eight-day tour in France, with the theme Huguenots of the Cevennes: Remembering the French Wars of Religion, hosted by the historian Lionel Laborie. They did their part, but sadly we were not able to attract enough people at our end to support this endeavour.
The Thanksgiving Service
Those of you who were present on that memorable April day in 2013 will recall the Thanksgiving Service at Christ Church, attended by the past Lord Mayor, Sir Michael Bear, and Lady Bear (thoughtfully wearing her distinctive Spitalfields silk brooch). There were prayers read by Ministers of the Swiss, German and Scottish churches in London, and Jolyon Tibbetts, then Upper Bailiff of the Worshipful Company of Weavers (who had generously sponsored The Big Weave in Spitalfields Market), read A Dress of Spitalfields Silk by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life. The Dean of Rochester read the first chapter of Dr Robin Gwynn’s Huguenot Heritage book, which had been the motivation for all that we have undertaken, Patrick Streeter, then Chairman of the Spitalfields Trust, read a lesson and Giles De La Mare read a poem by his grandfather, Walter.
The sermon from our Patron, the Right Revd and Right Hon. Richard Chartres, was unforgettable and, thanks to the determination of Peter Duval, Governor of La Providence, the service concluded with a thunderingly joyous rendition of À Toi La Gloire, sung in French. Afterwards, children from what was then Sir John Cass School, dressed in period costumes (mostly made by their teacher, Pauline Lucas), offered guests beer and wedges of cheese.
You have flooded us with information about the Huguenots that has fascinated you, and these snippets of information we have shared in over thirty Newsletters; these are read by nearly 4000 people from all over the world. Our volunteer researchers, Linda Fair, Jane Garnier, Paul le Bon and Charles Baker, added to our list of profiles of famous Huguenots – to date 75 can be found on our website; Diane Watts researched the list of 50 Huguenot Heroes for the schools’ programme; Elizabeth Watson saved my bacon when, at very short notice, BBC Television wanted to film children weaving for their major series Civilisations: Our First Refugees; Brenda Allenby hand knitted items for the Portal Boys role-playing project; Susan Whitehead and Jan Dewhurst sorted out everything, including our postcards, and Tom Taylor, Katy Michael, Sarah Finch and Lynda Finn have helped us with proof reading. So many people have contributed in so many ways.
You have kept our team of eight Huguenot Heritage guides busy, both in sunshine and teeming rain. Should you wish to book a walk in the future with our wonderful guides – Tim Kidd, Neil Spencer, Hugh Dennis, Paul Baker, Kate Boyle, John Halligan, Guy Rowston, David Evans and Julia Kuznecow – you can find their emails on the website. Spitalfields Life has recently launched a walk in historic Spitalfields too.
Disappointments and gains
Some of our activities didn‘t go to plan. We tried to get museums to add the word ‘Huguenot’ to their relevant displays, e.g. to change Paul de Lamarie’s title from ‘French Silversmith’ to ‘Huguenot Silversmith’. The results were disappointing, but we hope that we chivvied the museums to include reference to the Huguenots on their websites. The music critic, Michael White, introduced Mayerbeer’s opera, Les Huguenots, and gained our respect for coping with the surprisingly loud rumbling noise of the District Line in the underground cinema at the Water Poet, marring the exquisite voice of Joan Sutherland. The Right Revd Dr Graham Tomlin, now Bishop of Kensington, gave the first Calvin Lecture – a second one was planned for 2020, along with 53 other events. Sadly all these things were cancelled due to lockdown but encouragingly over 1360 of you have added your details to the Huguenot Names section on the website.
Press cuttings have mounted up. We have appeared on Radio Four’s Sunday programme with Trevor Barnes, we have undertaken radio and newspaper interviews, and entertained local radio and the foreign press. The Gentle Author has always supported our endeavours and his articles in Spitalfields Life will have reached an audience that we could never have dreamt of. Type in ‘Huguenot’ in the search box on his blog and you will find over 75 captivating stories about Huguenot people and culture, past and present. But there was once a piece of coverage that was quite jaw-dropping: it stopped me in my tracks when, as I walked onto a platform at Oxford Circus underground, I encountered a huge lit-up advertisement promoting The Big Weave. No wonder 5000 people attended!
One article that produced good results was a Social History Curator Group article. From this, with Muriel Spalding’s energies and commitment, we started Huguenot Traces, a database of Huguenot artefacts, street names, buildings and objects around the country. We are heartbroken that now, this would-be incredibly valuable record has only scratched the surface of the immense Huguenot legacy in this country.
Our work has been truly varied. We have participated in the Tower Hamlets Silk River Project and Art Summer School. Freddie Matthews made it possible to give a Gallery Tour at the British Museum and a lecture by Sir Mark Jones on the Coins of Louis X1V drew a record audience. The last of our Annual V&A Huguenot Lectures took place this month, focusing on Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolutionand delivered by Hanne Faurby. (If you missed it, the exhibition is on at the V&A until May 2022).
Small 18th century houses in London is a passion of Peter Gillery and soon became ours. With his support and that of the Spitalfields Trust, we highlighted the very few journey weavers’ houses left in Spitalfields
This resulted in both a talk and an article in the prestigious journal, The Georgian and a schools module entitled The Journeymen’s Story. Working with the Gentle Author, the East End Preservation Society and Spitalfields Trust, we played our part to stop 3 & 5 Club Row, two of the few remaining journey weavers houses from being demolished, as well as objecting to many inappropriate planning applications over the years. Some of our efforts have been rewarded with Tower Hamlets erecting a street sign in a walk way known for many years as Nantes Passage.
The Royal College of Art, the CASS School of Design, Architecture and Textiles and the University of Westminster are three fashion colleges with whom we have worked. CASS produced Fabric in the City, an exhibition with leading contemporary designers including a seminar and a diploma show with the creative works of students displayed at Église Protestant Church in Soho Square thanks to Gina Pearce. Ike Rust at Westminster University produced a student initiative featuring menswear inspired by the designs, colours and shapes from the 18th century Huguenot world and, further afield, we have conducted our Silks Satin Muslin and Rags walks to countless fashion students and designers – many from America.
How privileged we have been to hold events in such memorable places. Standing where Anna Maria Garthwaite painted her floral designs, tiptoeing behind the Revd. Andy Rider into the unseen depths of Christ Church to see Huguenot vaults by torchlight, gazing at the sumptuous Livery Hall at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, kneeling to pray in the pews of Prince Edward’s Chantry at Canterbury Cathedral where those early Huguenots would have attended.
Tramping across the grass to read the inscriptions on the tombs in Mount Nod cemetery and pausing in awe at the astounding magnificence of Boughton House. At the Rye Museum Jo Kirkham handed us the Communion Cup, Beatrice Behlen of the Museum of London showed us the silk dresses and patterns in the Archives and, to top it all, Julius Walters gave us the privilege of touching the ivory silk taffeta woven for Princess Diana’s wedding dress at Stephen Walters in Sudbury.
The Meet the Huguenots junior educational programme has been an utter delight – particularly in Tower Hamlets where so many of the children are refugees. From using cocoon and measuring lengths of silk to help with numeracy, Amazing Adjectives to describe multi-coloured silk swatches of material; plotting the Huguenot emigration routes using flags of Europe for geography studies, life cycle of the silk worm in science classes and so much more. We also played boules, (definitely never played by the Huguenots!), munched through trays of croissants at break time and even Morning Registration was taken in French. Some schools worked with us over the years for a Huguenot Day, some on a Huguenot Week or for different sessions in the then named Sir John Cass School, Thomas Buxton, St Anne’s, Osmani, St Matthias, Lansbury Lawrence, Canon Barnett, Christ Church, Hague, Elizabeth Selby, Shapla, Virginia Road and Kings Hill with Paul Baker, Elizabeth Watson, Dr Rebecca Coll, the oh so patient volunteers, Kimberly and Brenda. We are grateful to Dr Debbie Challis who designed the programme.
We didn’t always stay in Spitalfields – Day visits to Norwich, Rye, Canterbury, Whitchurch and Macclesfield Silk Mills, Boughton House, Rochester, Fan Museum in Greenwich, Soho, Wandsworth, Marylebone, Braintree and Clerkenwell to see the artisans at work at the Goldsmith’s Centre, Sudbury Silk Festival attended by 4000 people, Tea & Talks at the TownHouse in Fournier Street – who can forget the good times we had together in Fiona Atkin’s 18th century café enjoying her home-cooked lemon drizzle cake.
We never managed to get Huguenot Whispers off the ground (Oral History); we tried but failed to persuade Brussels to agree to a National Huguenot Day; we failed to get a Town Link between Spitalfields, Lyons and Sudbury; the proposed Huguenot Towns Festival with Rye, Canterbury and Norwich is but a dream; a secondary schools project never saw the light of day. Then there was the proposed Huguenots: Then and Now at the National Portrait Gallery; Perspectives – a lunchtime panel discussions on topics that would have concerned the Huguenots; faith, apprenticeships, assimilating the refugees, supporting skills etc. When we heard that weavers would have worked at their looms to the songs of canaries, we approached The Canary Club with a view to relocating their annual show to Spitalfields – perhaps it is time for us to shut down!
Our greatest disappointment was that we failed to inspire the relevant authorities to award Robin Gywnn a national honour in recognition of his life’s work ensuring that the history of the Huguenots takes its rightful place in the history of this country.
Whatever funds remain in the charity’s bank account we plan to donate to the Rye Museums Association, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, Sudbury Heritage Centre and the Library in the French Protestant Church, Soho. The modest archive material we have collected over the years has been warmly accepted by Stefan Dickens at the Bishopsgate Institute.
The names of all the people who have contributed, encouraged or inspired us may not be written here but are genuinely not forgotten – by donation, practical help, emotional support, shared interests or just purchasing our post cards– we remember you and are grateful to you all.
On a personal note, we thank our trustees and advisers; we thank Elizabeth Randall who generously shared so much of her knowledge and whom, for many years, was editor of the prestigious Huguenot Society Journal. We also thank past and current Huguenot Society Presidents Tony Wilson and Barbara Julien, Roberto Campana of the London Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and Marenka Gabelar for her Red Dress photograph.
On the home front, we thank Tim Vaughan our ever-patient IT man; our hero Webmaster Philip Butler, long-time supporters Gina and Michael Briody and unforgettably, the team that delivered our programme of activities: Jenny Atkins, Adrienne Slater, Sally Medcalf, Dr Rebecca Coll, Rachel Jamieson and Maréa Maloney – it has been a real joy to work with you all.
And to you, dear Supporters, who made the whole journey possible – a heartfelt thank you.
Charlie de Wet
Chair, Huguenots of Spitalfields
* Huguenot Heritage The history and contribution of the Huguenots in Britain published by Sussex Academic Press