huguenot group landing
Huguenot group landing

The Huguenots of Dartmouth

By Dr. Charity Scott Stokes

On 5 November 1688, William of Orange, later to become King William III of England, landed at Brixham. He came ashore from the ship Brill with approximately 11,000 foot and 4,000 cavalry troops, proclaiming ‘the liberties of England and the Protestant religion’. Surely many Dartmothians will have crossed the river and climbed the hill to witness the arrival of the fleet in Torbay! Daniel Defoe, reporting several decades later on his visit to Dartmouth, wrote:

I suppose I need not mention that they had from the hilly part of this town, and especially from the hills opposite to it, the noble prospect, and at that time particularly delightful, of the Prince of Orange’s fleet when he came to that coast, and as they entered into Tor Bay to land – the Prince and his army being in a fleet of about 600 sail of transport ships, besides 50 sail of men-of-war of the line, all which with a fair wind and fine weather, came to an anchor there at once.

William’s army included several regiments entirely made up of Huguenots – French Protestants, who had fled to the Low Countries and Switzerland in the wake of intense persecution in the late sixteenth century, and in the decades that followed, and especially during renewed persecution under Louis XIV in the latter part of the seventeenth century. These troops did not linger in Torbay. From Brixham, William and his army made their way to Exeter, and then to London.

Yet there were other Huguenot refugees who had already found a new home in the Devon ports, in Dartmouth as well as in Exeter, Plymouth and neighbouringStonehouse, Barnstaple, and Bideford; and there were more to come. A very useful article published in 1985 in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, to which the present account is much indebted, estimates that in 1729 there were between 150 and 210 Huguenots living in Dartmouth (Grant & Gwynn, p. 171).

French seafarers, merchants and adventurers had been familiar with the Devon ports for centuries, just as the Devon mariners were familiar with the Channel Islands and the continental seaboard. Many of the Huguenots who sought refuge in Devon came from La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay and the surrounding area, while others came from inland regions such as the Cévennes. French names in Devon records do not always indicate Huguenot origin; some are of Norman origin, and go back to the time of William the Conqueror. An early anonymous life of Dartmouth’s distinguished citizen John Flavel, for instance, tells us that ‘Those of the name of Flavel derive their pedigree from one who was the third great officer that came over with William the Conqueror’ (Life of the late Rev. Mr. John Flavel, minister of Dartmouth). The Prideaux family, well represented in Dartmouth and Kingsbridge for several centuries, had also been in Devon since the Middle Ages.

Yet those French names which appear in Devon for the first time in the seventeenth century are likely to be Huguenot. The Dittishamparish register for 10/1624 records a Tozer marriage; the name seems to be derived from an earlier Touzeau (Lart, p. 289). The marriage register of St Saviour’s Church records the marriage of John Fougeron and Susanna Aurieau in March 1695/96 (the new year began on 25 March until 1752). Sometimes the records helpfully include the designation ‘French’. St Saviour’sregister records the marriages on two consecutive days in 1696 of ‘John Minniger& Mary Renoil FRENCH’ (28 Sept 1696) and ‘Moses Renoil& Anne Mauber FRENCH’ (29 Sept 1696).

One significant arrival of a boatload of Huguenot refugees in Dartmouth may well have been unintentional. An often-quoted article from the newspaper Currant Examiner of September, 1681, rather suggests that the refugees were actually heading for Plymouth:

Plymouth Septem. 6. This day came in hither a small bark from Rochel, with thirty nine poor Protestants, who are fled for their Religion: They report that five or six Boats more full of these poor distressed Creatures parted from those parts at the same time; and we hear that one of them is already put into Dartmouth.

As is well known to local people, King Charles II had visited Dartmouth in 1671, and was received in a wealthy merchant’s housein the Butterwalk,in what is now the King’s Room in Dartmouth Museum. Less widely known is the king’s support for Huguenot refugees. He gave them the same privileges as native-born Protestants, and gave orders for the Royal Bounty of 1681 which provided poor relief, subsidies and pensions. There are records of the Dartmouth Huguenot congregation benefiting from the Royal Bounty and other national sources, in 1688 (£25), 1707, 1728, 1729 and 1737. The borough of Dartmouth followed suit. The borough accounts of 1686–87, and the Dartmouth mayoralty account of 1687, attest charitable donations to poor French Protestants on several occasions during that year: the borough of Dartmouth ‘gave to 4 pore frenshprodenstants 2s–0d’; ‘gave 4 frensh men 1s–6d’; ‘gave 6 frensh men 1s’; ‘gave to frensh men that lostether ships at Consalet 1s’; ‘gave 7 frensh men 3s–6d’. Some wealthy individuals remembered the Huguenot poor in their wills, and such bequests were not restricted to the immediate area. In his will dated 3 October, 1713, John Seale of Dartmouth, who had family connections with Jersey, included bequests to the poor of the French Church in Threadneedle Street, London, the foremost Huguenot church in the capital (DHRG archive no. 100180).

Although there was a high incidence of poverty among the newcomers in the port towns, yet some of them prospered, and in Dartmouth there were Huguenot masters and owners of ships, and merchants, and at least one tailor. There were also physicians, and ministers of religion. Four vessels registered as ‘foreign built made free,’ and therefore licensed to trade from Dartmouth, were the Judith (master René Fleurisson), the Elizabeth (master Jean Chevallière), the Non Pareil(master James Monbeuil) and the Jane (master Peter Peraud or Paireau). There is no record of René Fleurissonafter the years 1686–88, when he was active in trade in Dartmouth, but Daniel Fleurisson, a doctor, was probably a relative; he leased a property and settled in Southtown, and was buriedat St Saviour’s in 1741. The marriage of James Monbeuil to Martha Tourtelat in St Petrox Church is recorded in the parish register in 1705. By 1737 the widow Paireau was receiving 16s every six months from the Royal Bounty. Another mariner’s widow was Esther Bossis, originally from Mornac, who was classified as ‘bourgeois’; she received a pension of £7.16s from 1728, for herself and an epileptic daughter. In 1748 the burial is recorded of a Bernard Devessel, tailor (Grant & Gwynn, 176–7, 182.)

The most prosperous Huguenot merchant seems to have been Clement Paillet, whose wife and child were buried at St Saviour’s in the 1690s. A lease of 1715 mentions Townstall property in the possession of another merchant who may have been a Huguenot, Peter Chaille. In 1767 there is a lease between the feoffees of St Petrox and Jane Gentet, daughter of James Gentet of Brixham, surgeon, who was the son of William Gentet, also a doctor (DHRG archive no. 102986). William Gentet had been a refugee from Louis XIV in 1688, and his burial is recorded in the St Petrox register in 1729. In 1783 a lease is granted to Peter Tessier, mariner, of premises in Southtown formerly in the possession of John Pillar Junior, then of his son Richard Pillar. The name Pillar, prominent in Dartmouth since the eighteenth century, may well be derived from Pilier or Pellier, both well-known Huguenot names.

With regard to their religious beliefs and practices, the Huguenots were faced with a dilemma in their Protestant host countries: should they conform to the established religion, and align themselves in England with the Anglican Church, or should they throw in their lot with the nonconformist Dissenters, such as John Flavel? The Dartmouth Huguenots had a conforming minister named André de Santé from Poitou, probably as early as 1687, and they used St Saviour’s church. Yet, as Daniel Defoe (himself a Dissenter) observed on his visit several decades later, nonconformity was strong in Dartmouth. Dartmouth was one of only three towns in which nonconformist Huguenot congregations survived in southern England into the eighteenth century, the other two being Plymouth and Exeter. The remaining twelve congregations, in the south-west and the south-east, conformed to the Anglican Church, perhaps with a certain amount of pressure from the government and, in the south-east, from the see of Canterbury (I. Scouloudi, pp. 248–249).

The Huguenot congregation in Dartmouth fell out with their conforming minister, and he was replaced by the nonconformist Jean Pentecost in 1691.Pentecost’s successor was probably also nonconformist, but the minister Jacques Durand, who arrived in Dartmouth in 1710, accepted re-ordination within the Anglican Church the following year. William Prichard, the Anglican incumbent of Townstall and Dartmouth, wrote a letter to the bishop of Exeter with a request for Durand’s re-ordination, stressing the need for it:

For I am credibly inform’d, My Lord, there have been several attempts made, to hinder Him, if possible, from this good design of coming over to our church & that some of his Congregacion will forsake him purely upon this account.

Both Prichard and Durand wrote declarations of conformity and obedience to the Anglican Church in 1711, in Latin and English.

For a time there may have been two Huguenot congregations in the town, with two ministers, one conformist and the other nonconformist. There is a record of the nonconformist congregation meeting in St Petrox parish in 1726, and the burial register for 1734 records the burial of a French minister ‘Andria Mershondy’ (= André Majendie). This nonconformist congregation,proving the strongerof the two,lasted until the mid-eighteenth century. The last pastor was Jean Maillard, who was in post in 1737, and was described as very old and poor in 1748(Grant & Gwynn, pp. 167–168). Nevertheless, he received a license for the marriage of his daughter Jeanne in Dartmouth in this same year, 1748. The license was passed on to him by one Fauriet, minister at Stonehouse (Bracken, p. 173).

By the mid-eighteenth century it seems that the Huguenots, now in their third generation as ‘Devonians’ even if they had not left France until the late seventeenth century, had merged, by and large, with the other inhabitants of the town. Yet some of their descendants are still recognizable by name, for instance in the Tozer family, prominent in Plymouth and the South Hams –not least, in Dartmouth!

May 2014

Dr. Charity Scott Stokes, M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.), and life member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, is a retired university lecturer in medieval English and education studies. She is also a freelance editor and translator (from German into English). She moved to Dartmouth in retirement, and is a member of the Dartmouth History Research Group.

Sources and references

Dartmouth History Research Group, website

Devon Record Office DD 63616 Dartmouth mayoralty accounts, 1687
DRO Basket D/17/22 Petition from Dartmouth Huguenot congregation
DRO Dioc/CC/181/136Letter to the Bishop of Exeter from William Prichard, 1711
DRO Chanter 155 Declarations of conformity and obedience to Anglican Church, 1708–1711

C.W. Bracken, “The Huguenots of Devon”, Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science Literature and the Arts, vol. 66 (1934), 163–179
D. Defoe, A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, 1724
R. Freeman, Dartmouth and its Neighbours: A History of the Port and its People (1990), 113–14
A. Grant & R. Gwynn, “The Huguenots of Devon”, Trans. Devon. Ass. Advmt. Sci., vol. 117 (1985), 161–194
C.E. Lart, “The Huguenot Settlements and Churches in the West of England”, Huguenot Society’s Proceedings, vol. 7 (1901–04), 286–298
I. Scouloudi, “The Huguenot Congregation at Plymouth”, Huguenot Society’s Proceedings, vol. 20 (1958–64), 248–249

Scroll to Top