John ‘The Sexton’ Rondeau 1706-1790, 3 Wood Street/4 Wilkes Street
Jean Rondeau the elder was a serge weaver born in 1666 in Paris into a family that had been involved in weaving for three generations. Escaping persecution for his Protestant faith, he came to London in the mid-17th century and settled in Brick Lane, fathering twelve children. The Rondeau’s were one of the oldest families in Spitalfields. Weaving had taken place in this area outside the City walls since 1640. However, the main influx of Huguenot silk weavers came later, in the 1680’s, when English masters welcomed cheap, skilled labourers during the dominance of French fashion, which depended on pattern rather than cut. Jean Rondeau went on to great success as a weaver in London and in 1723 he built a fine house, number 3 Wood Street (4 Wilkes St). John could not write and signed his will with an X before he died in 1740.
Jean’s son John Rondeau the younger, born 1706 in Brick Lane became a master silk weaver and in 1741 he commissioned textile designs from Anna Maria Garthwaite, the famous designer of Spitalfields silks.
As a measure of John the younger’s status at this time, in 1745 he sent 47 of his employees to join the fight against Bonnie Prince Charlie.
In 1749 he married Margaret Roberts, a widow, in a clandestine marriage at or near the Fleet Prison. “Clandestine” marriages were those that had an element of secrecy to them: perhaps they took place away from a home parish (John’s parish was Christ Church Spitalfields), and without either Banns or marriage licence. They went on to have several children.
However, the weaving industry changed in the mid18th century, partly because the most successful masters tended to leave for the land or liberal professions, being replaced by humbler journeymen, usually Englishmen. By 1788 there was said to be not one silk master or manufacturer resident in Bethnal Green, the remaining journeymen weavers working in their own homes.
It is thought that John the younger went from living in the largest house in Wilkes Street to being flung into debtors’ prison. He was forced to seek work as a Sexton at Christ Church in 1761 until his death in 1790, when he was buried in the crypt in a lead coffin labelled “John Rondeau, Sexton of this Parish,”
His remains were exhumed at the end of the twentieth century and transported to the Natural History Museum for study. His descendants are still connected with Christ Church to this day.
No 3 Wood Street ( 4 Wilkes St) later became a Protestant Dissenting School Following the dispersal of the Huguenots, waves of other immigrants each added their influence to Spitalfields. Notably Irish, Jewish and, most recently, Bengali.