This week’s blog highlights a lesser known historic fact about London, regarding the ‘immigration’ of refugees/migrants/asylum seekers into the capital.
Now – most of us are fully aware of the arrival and mass integration of various nationalities and cultures throughout the past couple of centuries – where London itself, and particularly the ‘east-end’, has witnessed numerous influxes, such as the Irish, Jews and the Bengali’s.
However – what a lot of people don’t necessarily appreciate is that, before all that happened – there was previous huge wave of immigration from a particular nationality – that, like so many other arrivals from other countries, helped form London’s history.
So -the this blog is all about:- “The ‘Huguenots’ of Spitalfields” – England’s very first refugees, and London’s very first experience of mass immigration.
London has always been a very cosmopolitan city, mainly because of its historic vast docklands, which for centuries, attracted people from all over the world – many of whom, decided to stay and make this country their home.
However – others arrive here and remain here, as a result of persecution in their homeland – and the ‘Huguenots’ are one such example of that sort of situation.
So what is a Huguenot??
Huguenots were French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who followed the teachings of theologian John Calvin.
John Calvin’s approach to religion and worship, appealed to the educated French, and as a result, its followers included some of the brightest and most elite members of Catholic-dominated France, as well as prominent tradesmen and military officers. – and because these followers held some of the highest and most influential positions in French society – their religious beliefs and practices were initially tolerated by the French monarchy.
French ‘Calvinists’ adopted their “Huguenot” name in around 1560 – but the first bespoke Huguenot designated church was actually created five years earlier in a private home in Paris.
The origins of the actual term ‘Huguenot’ is not known, but it is believed to have evolved from combining phrases in German and Flemish that described their practice of home worship.
By 1562, there were 2 million Huguenots in France with more than 2,000 churches – and at that time an official ‘law’ was passed that allowed Huguenots the right to practice their religion – but with certain conditions attached to the ‘deal’. Huguenots were not permitted to practice their religion within towns or at night – and in an effort to put a lid on any potential fears of rebellion, they were not allowed to be armed.
However – tensions between the Huguenots and the majority French Catholics, was always lingering there in the background of everyday life – and this came to a head in1562, when 300 Huguenots holding religious services in a barn outside the French town wall of Vassy – were attacked by troops under the command of Francis, Duke of Guise. The incident resulted in the death of more than 60 Huguenots and over 100 wounded during what became known as ‘The Massacre of Vassy’.
Similar incidents occurred, and the rules & regulations that had been granted to the Huguenots were all removed.
Fearing for their lives, thousands of Huguenots avoided persecution/execution by fleeing France – leaving all their accumulated wealth and businesses behind.
The British were not friendly with King Louis XIV of France, and the Huguenots were welcomed here.
Historic records show that between 1670 and 1710, over 50,000 Huguenots had fled to Britain, and at least 50% of them, ended up on the streets of London – and most of them ended up in the Spitalfields district.
It is because of the Huguenots that the word ‘Refugee’ was introduced into the English language – its origins being from the French word ‘refugie’–given to describe the mass migration of the religiously persecuted ‘Huguenots‘.
The majority of the French working population were farmers and farm labouers – but the Huguenots had a completely different skill set. They were good at intricate stuff like weaving, making jewellery, weaving silks and other materials – they were also good at business administration.
The Huguenots ended up in Spitalfields, because there was plenty of affordable rooms available, as the district wasn’t the best of places to live, and no one else really wanted to actually ‘live’ there – but rooms to rent were cheap – and there was plenty of food going spare, as Spitalfields was home to a thriving fruit & veg market.
Generally speaking, the Huguenot refugees were well received by Londoners and Brits in general – as we, as a nation, couldn’t stand the French.
The Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Brick Lane districts of London’s east-end were always rag-trade areas, even as far back as the 1600 & 1700’s – so the arrival of the Huguenot refugees and their intricate weaving and lace making skills, only helped to enhance the business output of the area even more – particularly in respect of silk weaving. The introduction of more varied ands cheaper silks helped the Huguenots embed their business acumen into ‘commercial’ London.
Because there were now Huguenots spread out all over the place, many of London’s church’s had to adapt their services to accommodate Huguenot methods of worship – which technically, wasn’t too far of the Christian ‘Church of England’ doctrines – in fact, some church services were even conducted in French.
The biggest Huguenot specific church was opened in 1794, and was located on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane.
This church is STILL in situ to this very day. Following the eventual departure of the Huguenots from the Spitalfields area, the church became a Synagogue to accommodate the next influx of refugees from the mid 1800’s right up until the fall out of WW2– the Jews. – and when the Jews moved out of the area, and when the Bengali’s arrived throughout the late 60’s and 70’s, the old original Huguenot church, became a Mosque – which it still is to this very day.
High up on the Fournier Street side of the building, you can still see the original ‘Huguenot’ clock on display up near the roof.
The success of the Huguenots silk weaving businesses throughout the Spitalfields district, led to the area being known as ‘Weaver Town’.
As the Spitalfields Huguenots became wealthier, they started to build bigger and better houses throughout the area – and most of these houses are STILL in situ to this very day.
These new Huguenot houses were all built to a specific design – with large windows on the upper floors and attics, to let as much daylight in as possible, so that the silk weaver employees – who often lived in the same property as their employers – could work away for as long as possible on the strength of daylight.
Spitalfields streets such as:- Princelet Street – Fournier Street – Wilkes Street – Fleur-de-lis Street – Ligonies Street – Calvin Street – Artillery Lane – Spital Square – Folgate Street – are all ‘Huguenot’ streets – all with their iconic 3 or 4 storey terraced houses, elaborate front doors, large windows and ornate ironworks – which are now part of a huge designated preservation/conservation area.
Within these streets are many ‘Huguenot’ historic landmarks can still be seen – including:-
*huge weaver’s ‘spools’ attached to exterior walls of some houses
*door knockers in the shape of a weaver’s hand, showing fine lace cuffs
*large upstairs ‘windows’ and attic ‘windows’
*coal-hole covers depicting Huguenot weaver’s scissors – & Huguenot produced military uniforms.
*Drainpipe guttering – engraved with installation dates
Also – what a lot of Londoner’s don’t realise, is that they are probably descendants of original Huguenot immigrants, as a number of English surnames today, originate from Huguenot surnames, which have been ‘tweaked’ throughout the past few centuries – for example:-
*Andrieu = Andrews
*Boulonger = Baker
*Barbier = Barber
*Delacroix = Cross
*Reynard = Fox /
*LeClerf = Hart / LeBlanc = White
A number today’s celebs, are Huguenot descendants – such as:- Nigel Farage / Eddie Izzard / Simon LeBon / Jon Pertwee (the late Dr. Who) / Prince William+Prince Harry – plus many more.
So – that’s the ‘Huguenots of Spitalfields’ for you – and that’s what London Shoes quest was all about – to track down this entire ‘estate’ of beautifully preserved mid to late 1700’s built streets & houses, in the old Spitalfields district of London, just across the road from Bishopsgate.
These magnificent buildings are now all protected as they should be – for current and future generations to admire and enjoy.
Hope you enjoyed this blog and found its topic interesting.
See below the full gallery of photographs taken to support this ‘Huguenots of Spitalfields’ blog