Our First Refugees
The Huguenots – as the newly arrived French Protestants were first named in sixteenth and seventeenth England – were this country’s first refugees – the name derived from the French word réfugié, meaning a person seeking refuge. Not until the nineteenth century can any other swell of refugees be said to compare remotely with the Huguenots.
This large refugee influx to our shores in the mid-seventeenth century was fleeing religious persecution by Louis XIV, culminating in the Revocation of (the previously tolerant) Edict of Nantes. They were now forbidden to leave France, with the introduction of harsh penalties – imprisonment, torture or death – if their religious adherence and reason for flight became known. Despite these threats, around 50,000 came to England. The majority arrived with nothing but their industry, talent and enterprise. The English prized French fashions and the more far-sighted welcomed the various new skills and techniques that the refugees brought with them – and their willingness to work hard.
Many of these settled in London – in Spitalfields, the City, Clerkenwell, Soho, Greenwich, Marylebone and Wandsworth – but others chose towns such as Canterbury, Colchester, Faversham, Norwich and Sudbury, where they could practice their faith in peace. They transformed the economies of the cities and towns to which they moved but it is unquestionably the financial and textile industries where the greatest Huguenot contribution was made.
There are other examples of Huguenot heritage around the country: there are memorials to the Huguenots in Westminster Abbey and Winchester Cathedral; paintings in Hampton Court; silks and ceramics at the V&A Museum; weavers’ homes in Canterbury, Norwich and Sudbury; gunpowder works in Faversham; the Guildhall Clock in Winchester, made by Huguenot clockmaker David Compigne; and Dyrham Park, a splendid baroque country mansion in South Gloucestershire, was part-designed by a Huguenot architect, Samuel Hauduroy.
Other French institutions followed. Between the 1680s and 1710 a series of Friendly Societies was founded, almost all with a French regional basis: the Societe des Enfants de Nimes, the Society of Dauphine, the Norman Friendly Society etc. Soon more broadly based French institutions joined them, like the Maisons de Charité, created for the relief of the poor in the east and west London suburbs of Spitalfields and Soho. La Providence, the French Protestant Hospital, was founded in 1718 and still exists today, located at Rochester, in the form of flatlets for the elderly.