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Duration 52:34

Tracing Huguenot ancestors

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, many thousands of refugees fled from religious persecution in the Low Countries and France. These refugees left descendants in Britain and many people have family stories of Huguenot descent. This talk will help you find out if you too have an asylum seeker in your own family tree.

Dr Kathleen Chater has been tracing her own family history for over 30 years. She has taught genealogy and has written books and articles on the subject, including Tracing Your Huguenot Ancestors and Tracing Your Family Tree in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Kathy is a member of the Huguenot Society.


I suppose what we really need to do is start off by defining ‘What is a Huguenot?’ Now, strictly speaking, Huguenots were French Protestant refugees who left France under Louis XIV. This was mainly after about 1680. However, they left for reasons of religious persecution. We don’t include among the Huguenots people who left France because of the French Revolution (they were political refugees), so it’s quite a narrow description, definition. However, when the Huguenot Society was formed in the 19th century they decided to include in their remit to do research as well on previous religious emigrants who were driven out of their countries because of their Protestantism. This included the Walloons from French speaking Flanders, the Dutch from the Netherlands in the 16th century and also earlier waves of Huguenot, of French people fleeing from France, especially the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew of 1572, but there were people coming at other times and from other places.

So we could start by having a look at Protestantism, the reason for all this. The two main players if you like, especially in terms of Huguenots, were Martin Luther who kicked off the whole thing. He was a Roman Catholic monk who, in 1517, nailed his 95 Theses to reform the Roman Catholic Church onto the church door at Wittenberg. He wasn’t the only person, if you like; there had been a long, long period of people being unhappy about the way the Roman Catholic Church was being run, about the corruption that had crept into it and also, because there was a fair element of political protest in this, the way that the rulers of various countries used religion in order to sort of shore up their position and the abuses that they were committing politically.

For us, looking at the French Huguenots, Jean Calvin is the other major player. He was a French theologian and he advocated a much more extreme, radical form of Protestantism than Martin Luther. Martin Luther kept the Bishops, the Archbishops, the hierarchy of the Church. Calvin and his various associates and followers had a much more, what we would call fundamentalist approach. They said that the churches should be run only by an elected body. Each church should have its own elected body: the elders. So they didn’t have bishops, they didn’t have a hierarchy. As I say, he is particularly important but there were all sorts of other theologians in Protestantism all over Europe.

If we look at Protestantism in England, it started in 1534 with Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, where he declared himself head of the Church in England. He didn’t actually really necessarily want Protestantism; certainly not the extreme form of it. What he wanted to do was marry Anne Boleyn. He wanted to get rid of Catherine of Aragon who could have no more children after her daughter Princess Mary, and various other children died. So in many ways it was, declaring himself Head of a Church of England, a political move. However, there were people who genuinely wanted religious reform in England.

In 1547 Henry’s son Edward VI came to the throne. He had been brought up by more extreme Protestants and was very, very keen on the more radical forms. In 1550, because there were already refugees coming in from parts of Europe, because England was a Protestant country, Edward VI gave a Charter to these various French and Dutch communities and he established churches in London, Canterbury, Norwich and Southampton. They were the first ones.

In 1553, however, Mary I, his elder sister came to the throne. She was a very, very strong Catholic and she married Philip II of Spain. So they tried to restore Catholicism here. Those of you who’ve read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs will know the effects of things like that…And so at this point a lot of people went back to where they’d come from. It might be pretty bad there but it was bad in England as well and at least they spoke the language when they went home. So people were going backwards and forwards.

Then again, in 1558, Elizabeth I came to the throne and she restored Protestantism. Since then, England has been a Church of England, an Anglican country. It’s the established church so it is part of the Government. It didn’t look like it at the time of course, but from 1558 onwards England has been broadly speaking an Anglican, a Protestant country so various people have come here over the years.

The first immigrants though, as I say, the first wave of religious asylum seekers, came from the Netherlands. The Low Countries, I suppose I should say more precisely, because it’s not today’s Netherlands. It’s a different sort of area. They were literally speaking the Low Countries and there were lots of small states within there: Luxembourg was part of it and things like that. Now the Netherlands were ruled by the Spanish Hapsburgs who were connected by marriage to the Hapsburgs who ran the Holy Roman Empire. They were very, very strong Catholics. Philip II, Mary I’s husband, put the Duke of Alva in charge of the Netherlands and he really, really persecuted the Protestants. He brought in the Inquisition – you know, the Spanish Inquisition, torturing people until they converted and then, for the sake of their souls, usually burning them. Then the Netherlands rebelled against this and finally they established the United Provinces, effectively today’s Netherlands, the sort of Northern part of this. Although they were still ruled by the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire until into the 18th or I think it was the early 19th century, they effectively had won the right to have their own religion which was Protestantism. So that’s the Netherlands.

The first group of immigrants, asylum seekers, came in in the 16th century and then by 1606, 1609 when they effectively won their independence, that particular wave ceased. [Shows image on screen] This is the church that they were…Their Charter in the City of London. It’s called the Dutch Church in Austin Friars. This is a modern building. It was bombed during the Second World War and rebuilt but it is still a Dutch Church. They use it for visitors and things like that. For the Dutch people working in London they have the service there and also the Huguenot Society often meets there and has conferences there. They’ve got very, very good facilities.

I mentioned the French a bit earlier. In 1535 an edict in France called for the extermination of Protestantism. And so they started to come over in small waves but it was the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew in 1572 that really kick started quite a big wave of French immigrants. It appears that the Massacre itself was just…originally the aim was just to get rid of a few prominent and troublesome Protestants like. However, it got completely out of hand and over several months something like 10,000 people were killed all over France and obviously those who could, fled. This was actually in the middle of the French Wars of Religion.

Protestantism set off Wars of Religion all over Europe. Not in England, surprisingly, we got away quite lightly one way and another. There were people executed and things like that but there was no full scale war as there was for example in France. They started in about 1562 the French Wars of Religion. It wasn’t until…So if we look at the clues to Huguenot ancestry, the dates. Some early migrants from France, I’m saying 1572 but they did start to drift in a bit earlier than that.

1598 was when the French Wars of Religion ended with the Edict of Nantes. There were outbreaks of local troubles for quite some time after. The Edict of Nantes was introduced by Henri IV of Navarre. He had been a Protestant and when it came up to be his turn to be King of France (they were getting through Kings at an amazing rate there)…they said ‘Well yes, you can be King but you’re going to have to convert to Catholicism.’ ‘Fine,’ said Henri ‘Paris is worth a Mass.’ He was always sympathetic to the Protestants, he protected them he introduced the Edict of Nantes which gave them toleration.

So you may find, if you’re looking at Huguenot ancestry – we always forget the Dutch as well as religious refugees but your early migrants, up to about 1600, if somebody just suddenly pops up from there it’s worth considering.

The major influx of Huguenots, however, came from the 1680s to 1720 and I’ll talk a bit more about why that is later. Effectively the influx had finished, the emigration, by the middle of the 18th century, by about 1750. There were some little local outbreaks in the 1750s, in the south the Cévennes and the Dauphiné area which were mountainous areas where the last fighters had taken refuge. Effectively, if your ancestor comes from France after 1750: not a Huguenot, not a religious refugee. An economic refugee, perhaps.

You get all these family stories. A friend of mine had this wonderful romantic story about how his ancestors were Huguenots, they had escaped…Well anyway, when he looked into it, he found that his ancestor was a French sailor who had deserted his ship [laughter]. So on that, they had built this wonderful romantic but completely untrue story.

So, as I say, the major influx came from France in the 1680s and this was because of the dragonnades. Up to 1681, Louis XIV had been chipping away at the provisions of the Edict of Nantes. He was increasingly finding reasons for Huguenots not to be allowed to do this, not to be allowed to do that, they couldn’t have meetings. This was just gradually chipped away but then in 1681 he decided to introduce the dragonnades – dragoon soldiers, who are armed cavalry soldiers, were billeted on Huguenots who had to support them out of their own resources. They were also encouraged to behave cruelly. There’s a story of a pregnant woman held in front of a fire until she fainted.

It was actually this that triggered the really major, major exodus from France, the dragonnades. Whole villages would convert at the sight of armed soldiers coming in, or at least they would pretend to convert. They lay low and then in 1685 the Edict of Nantes was abolished. So after that it was only possible to have Catholic services. Lots of Protestant refugees were waiting to leave. They couldn’t get away immediately and so they pretended to conform. You can find them; I’ve looked for my own ancestors in the local church records, going to Catholic churches, apparently conforming but biding their time until they could escape.

So that’s one of the possible Huguenot ancestry…Your ancestor turning up at a very significant time, a date which…If you find an ancestor suddenly appearing, they could have come into London for example, or one of these places for all sorts of reasons. This is a good thing to think about, the date, when did this happen?

The next thing to think about are the names. Now again, Dutch surnames are very, very similar. Dutch and English are similar languages; they come from the same family group. Veld means field and Crockett is spelt like that by the Dutch [onscreen] but of course the English clerk writing it down would write it C-R-O-C-K-E-T-T and that would look perfectly English to anybody reading that. Veld again might well be transcribed as Field. You can imagine your average English clerk, a bit bored, a bit fed up, a Dutchman turns up and says ‘My name is Veld’ and the chap thinks ‘He’s got a cold’ and writes it down as Field.

French surnames: now obviously those are much more easy to recognise. I’ve got ancestors called Deschamps, Montaillet, Renier; all those are obviously French. However, they could be corrupted. Duquesne is written like that but it’s actually said ‘Dukane’ so it becomes Dukane or Kane. So the Du or the Le or something is quite often dropped. Bruneau, for example, became Brown. I personally think the family just got fed up with correcting people, ‘No, it’s not Brown, it’s Bruneau’ and they just gave in. Sometimes it’s a straight translation.

I’ve done some work on a family called Dubois. At the beginning of the 19th century, well the French have mainly been at war with the English for centuries but from the 1790s onwards, from the Revolutionary Wars and then the Napoleonic Wars, England was at war with France. The English were very suspicious of the French. They didn’t like them, they attacked them in the street and they thought they might be spies. At this point a fair number of Huguenots changed their name to something that sounded English. Some of them are straight translations like this family I was looking at who were called Dubois; they just translated it as Wood. So you may find the same people, with the same sort of information, in some records they’re Dubois, in some records they’re Wood and that is a really, really significant clue.

The third clue, of course, is where your ancestor pops up. London did have the biggest congregation, the biggest population, simply because most people do turn up in the capital city. The east, Spitalfields, was the big area there and it’s the one that everybody thinks of, but there was a fair sized community in the west in Soho. They were very much in this area. They were artisans, they were craftsmen, silversmiths: Paul de Lamerie, people like that. There were wig makers, all the people dealing with the court at Saint James.

In the city, again, another substantial community: these were merchants and it astonishes me how many Huguenots got out with serious amounts of money. The Bank of England, many of the people who started that, contributed money to start it, a really significant proportion were Huguenots. They stayed in touch, they stayed dealing with France as well because let’s not let war and religious things get in the way of making serious money.

There were other communities: one at Greenwich. Luckily the ones at Greenwich, although the records haven’t survived, they did have pretty well all their services repeated in the Anglican parish church because that was, therefore, a legal record. You knew that…Anglican registers, because it was an established church, were accepted in courts of law. So this is actually quite true, a lot of the Huguenots in the Greenwich community seemed to have been quite prosperous. Therefore, they wanted to ensure that there could be no problems so they got pretty well all their ceremonies repeated in the local parish church.

Not sure what happened about Chelsea. There were two congregations in Chelsea; we only know that, I think, from maps and a couple of casual mentions. The records of the Chelsea communities haven’t survived but again, we hope that…Some of them we know use the local parish church.

So places are a definite thing. This is the French church [shows images]; it’s the last surviving French Protestant church in London. It’s in Soho Square. This is the old Threadneedle Street church which was the big church, it was the mother church. Although it was a nonconformist church (they didn’t conform to the Church of England, they didn’t have bishops, they had the fundamentalist nonconformist beliefs). This church kind of was the mother church of all the British churches. It was the one that everybody turned to for authority. It was one of the first ones that was established under Henry VI in 1550 [Does she mean Edward VI? Henry VI wasn’t on the throne in 1550 and earlier she mentioned Edward VI introducing the Charter]. They still have services there; it’s still a big thing for the French community in London. They’ve got a copy of Edward VI’s Charter hanging there so you can see it there.

Other church buildings remain. This one is the old Church of the Artillery which was the big church in Spitalfields [shows an image]. It was called that because this is the building in Artillery Row but as you see it’s been converted into offices. Just round the corner, at the top of Brick Lane, is L’Eglise Neuve which has had a really interesting career. It started out as a French Protestant church, a nonconformist one; all the Spitalfields churches were nonconformist. It became a synagogue and it’s now, today, a mosque. So it’s had a chequered career.

The ones in Soho, the West of London, some were nonconformist; some conformed to the Church of England. This is the last gasp of the…This is the Leicester Fields church [shows an image]. It’s now a Congregational Chapel. It has been rebuilt and made slightly smaller. The French congregation was larger, so in fact it’s slightly smaller when it was rebuilt.

If you walk round Spitalfields and look at the houses, you can see the attics, they’re a really, really notable feature of the weavers’ houses in there. They have these big windows in the attics, high up, so that they could work for longer hours. They would have the last of the light; they could go on weaving there. But as you see, I took this picture because I quite liked it [shows an image], it became a paper bag manufactory, it’s been closed down now. It was empty when I took this photo. I suspect it may be one of those that will be bought up and restored because this is something that quite a lot of people are trying to do in the area: to restore the houses to how they were.

The next area, outside London, there were various settlements in the West Country, quite a few: Bristol, Exeter, Barnstaple, Plymouth. Only Bristol and the Plymouth records survive. There were a lot of other smaller ones in Devon as well, again, we don’t have their records, we don’t know what happened to the congregations there. Essex and East Anglia; Canvey Island, no records of that at all. Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Thorpe-le-Soken and Thorney…

Now, Thorney we know was set up by a Dutch chap who was draining the Fens up there. Now this again is the Dutch link. I suspect that the ones on Canvey Island were doing that as well, we don’t know exactly – that’s just my supposition. Strictly speaking those are economic migrants. They came here to work, they were recruited for a specific purpose because it was something that they had done in the Low Countries. Technically they aren’t Huguenots but we’ve welcomed them into the Huguenot Society, we’ve got their registers and they were nonconformists, they were Protestants.

In Kent, Canterbury was one of the very early churches: Dover, Maidstone, Rye, Sandwich. The one in Southampton, that was one of the original ones set up under Henry VI [again, Edward VI?] by Charter. It later…That congregation almost disappeared and the church was only kept going until the second wave of migrants by sailors coming in from the Channel Islands.

Now the Channel Islands: there was a fair sized number of Huguenots who went there but of course the Channel Islands already spoke French and were fairly sympathetic to nonconformity. So we don’t have separate churches for the Huguenots in the Channel Islands, they just disappear, they merge into the local population who, as I say, were by and large all French speaking anyway.

This is the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral which was where the Huguenot congregation met [shows an image]. They still have a service there in French, I think it’s weekly. I know it might have changed to monthly but I’m pretty certain it’s weekly. They still have a service there and it was in the crypt. I’ve chosen this particular engraving of it because it was done by a chap called John le Keux who was the descendent of one of the very early families that settled there. They were weavers originally, they wove wool when they started out, because of course Canterbury, Kent, all the sheep, it was a big wool town. The weavers who came in there originally wove wool.

Peter le Keux was, I think, John le Keux’s father, but anyway Peter le Keux moved up to London and became very important in the Weavers’ Company in the city. His son, as I say, became an engraver and he’s quite collectable now so if you see these they’re worth snapping up. It’s quite interesting to see how a lot of them remained within the craftsman, artisan theme, doing things with their hands.

These are the weavers’ houses in Canterbury [shows an image]. Not as high as the attic ones in London of course, because it wasn’t so built up but you can still see these very, very big windows and they’re on the River Stour. You need water to work in textiles and fabrics. But anyway that’s the weavers’ houses in Canterbury.

Now, outside England there were other communities – at least one in Scotland. We’ve got very, very little information about there. There’s an area called Picardy Place in Edinburgh where…there were supposed to be some weavers’ cottages there, the inhabitants came in there, they say.

In Ireland there were four Protestant churches in Dublin. The earliest one there was…the refugees started to come in there from 1680, there wasn’t an earlier wave of migrants into Ireland. Then there was Portarlington.

Now, the British Government encouraged Huguenots to go to Ireland from about 1680 onwards. This was partly because they were Protestants: to establish them in a Roman Catholic country in the hope that it would eventually convert them, but also because they wanted them to develop the Irish linen industry. There was a small linen industry there already but the Huguenots were very important in developing that and, as we all know, it became very, very successful.

The settlement of Portarlington is quite interesting because it’s the only one in the British Isles that was built specifically for Huguenots. It was actually built for them in 1692. The majority of the people who went there were veterans from William III’s army, Dutch William who came over in 1688 to take the crown with this wife Mary. He fought the Battle of the Boyne. And let me just add as a footnote here: he fought the Battle of the Boyne with the Pope’s blessing. People don’t like this but it’s actually true. He won and the veterans from his army were rewarded. Many of them were Dutch Protestants. There were lots of Huguenots as well, who really, really wanted to fight the French as well but you don’t get the choice in the Army, you do what you’re told.

Also, Portarlington was supplemented by…there’s a very, very large number of refugees who had gone to Switzerland but Switzerland was just swamped, it couldn’t cope. Neuchâtel: there were literally thousands of people flooding into there. They couldn’t cope so a fair number of them actually came to the British Isles and went to Portarlington. The registers have been published and also the veterans’ pensions book so that’s another possibility.

So here are some of the indications for tracing Huguenot ancestry: the date, the name and the place where your ancestor came. There were no communities in Wales. And there were no communities in either the Midlands or the North. Any individuals who went there would be in the standard genealogical sources but it’s very, very unlikely that an individual family would have gone there or by themselves. They would initially have come to the established settlements because they had access to all sorts of help there, and money. So they would have come in the first place to them. Later on, yes, a few do go to the Midlands: I’m thinking of a family that went up there to set up a business, but not the first generation. So the place is quite important, to think about where your ancestor suddenly appeared.

So how do you find out more? The major sources, of course, are the church records. As I’ve indicated not all of them have survived but church registers of baptisms and marriages…Most churches did not have burial grounds. I think only Portarlington and a couple of the Dublin churches did. Canterbury noted deaths and burials; some of them did, but they didn’t have their own burial grounds. Most of them are therefore buried in their local parish church and this is where you will find burials of people with very odd names sometimes. English clerks had some trouble with them.

The Acts of the Consistory are another great source of information. Those churches…It’s sort of the equivalent of the vestry in the Anglican Church. It was…the church authorities gathered to make all sorts of decisions about money, about paying relief for their poor, but what they mainly did there was they enquired into the morals and the conduct of the church. There’s a great one where the Acts of the Consistory were having a discussion about whether doctors should be paid or not. And suddenly this chap popped up accused of getting engaged to two girls at the same time. This tripped on for a few meetings; one of the girls said ‘Well, I don’t want to marry him anyway now.’ He wound up having to make a public confession of his transgression of the rules in front of the whole congregation. So that does give you quite a lot of additional information.

Surviving registers have been published by the Huguenot Society in the books. This HSQS is ‘Huguenot Society Quarto Series’. This is a big series: there’s over 50, I think maybe up to 60 books now, of various kinds of things connected with the Huguenots in Britain. The registers have been published and they are all on CD-ROM. You can search them by name, you can search them by subject, by place; it’s a really good facility.

However, the Dutch churches in London and Norwich have not yet been transcribed. Both of them are in London Metropolitan Archives. The Dutch Church, Austin Friars, there’s been filmed and is there. Nor are there also…There have been a couple of Victorian publications about lists of church members and things like that. However, the Dutch church in Norwich, I don’t think has ever been transcribed or ever been used but the original of it is in London Metropolitan Archives so worth thinking about.

Other church records: some have been published, like some Acts of the Consistory have been published, I think Threadneedle Street at various periods has been, but not all of them. Others are still in the Huguenot Library which is here temporarily. It’s part of University College libraries’ special collections and because they’re moving the special collection around from its old home (I’m not quite certain where it’s going to, nobody knows yet) it’s temporarily at The National Archives here and it’s two days a week. So you can access the records two days a week here.

The archives of the French Church in Soho Square, that still has a fair number of the original records, not just from the Threadneedle Street Church but from some of the others as well.

There’s a couple of guides: the Huguenot Society has published various catalogues of things and where they are. The church records, themselves, as I mentioned the registers, the Acts of the Consistory and there are also specific things to do with Protestantism itself.

Temoignage is a witness statement, it was a sort of certificate that you were supposed to get from your previous congregation when you turned up at a new church, testifying that you were a good Protestant and you were a member of the church. Now obviously, in the circumstances in which many escaped, there was no way you could get your piece of paper and bring it with you although a surprising number did. So what you then did was you got someone to vouch for you: either someone who knew you or the authorities would question you to make sure that your beliefs were suitably orthodox.

Adjuration: as I mentioned before, people had to conform to Catholicism before they could escape. Many of them took a long time to get out. And so they would attend churches or services, or they would pretend to be Catholics and they then had to abjure this religion formally in front of the local congregations. So there are records of adjurations.

There’s a really great one (this appears in the Acts of the Consistory) this chap turns up and he was brought before the authorities because he had got a passport stating that he was a good Catholic so that he could go home to France for somebody’s funeral. When he was at the funeral he had taken part in the service and had taken communion. And the authorities were absolutely appalled by this, they thought it was terrible. But they didn’t excommunicate him as they could have done, they just required him to abjure this. You think it must have been someone terribly, terribly important for him to take that kind of risk. Going back to France after 1685, as a Protestant, he could have been put in the galleys, he could have been executed, he could have had all sorts of things done to him. So that must have been a very important funeral.

Reconnaissance:…recognition of fault in attending a Catholic service and again these are very, very useful because all of these places mention where the ancestors came from. If you bring your Temoignage from a church in Normandy then you know that’s where you ancestors came from. You can start looking there. If the abjuration shows that you attended a service in a place, very likely that was the family home and the reconnaissance, the recognition, of your fault in attending services. So these are very, very well worth investigating.

There are other, specific sources as well. Charities: the Huguenots set up a huge number of charities, well a comparatively large number of charities. About 50,000 came to England altogether. They set up a fair number and people went on giving them bequests. As I said, there were lots of surprisingly rich merchants.

The French Hospital is the major one. That was set up in the early 18th century although a place was used a bit earlier but it was built in the early 18th century and that was both for the sick and the old who could no longer work. All the entries relating to it up to 1957, because it was still going, are published by the Huguenot Society and they have the original records in the library so you can consult them and they’re also on CD-ROM.

The Coqueau charity which is published with the French Hospital records; a woman called Esther Coqueau set up a charity for ten poor women, either unmarried or widows, single women, and it paid out a certain amount of money. When one of them died, someone else took her place. So the records of that are very, very useful as well.

There were charities in Norwich, one which still survives and which is administered by, I think, the local council there.

Apprenticeships: the Huguenots also paid the premiums for poor children of Huguenot descent to be apprenticed. There are a fair number of those and a Mounier Apprenticeship Scheme was set up by a chap called Etienne Mounier. But there were various other ones, quite a few of them. Again, they still sort of survive. You can apply to them; they, kind of, approve of people doing, if you like, traditional Huguenot skills. They will do things like buy tools for example for a goldsmith rather than…because you don’t pay premiums for apprenticeship any longer.

La Soupe lasted for a few years. That was in Spitalfields at a particularly badly time for the weaving industry there. It’s called La Soupe it was actually called the House of Charity but it was called La Soupe because they doled out food. They didn’t give you money they gave you soup and bread and meat. The records of that, again, will indicate where you ancestors were living and their occupation, the number of children in the family; lots and lots of useful information there.

The Royal Bounty was set up in 1686. It was primarily concerned with giving money to clergymen, to French ministers. However, they did at different times just give money to refugees generally. It lasted until 1876 when the Government said ‘No, frankly, all these foreigners, they need to go to their local parishes just like everybody else.’ So it was wound up in 1876.

There were also French schools and there are…educational grants now for people of Huguenot descent. So it’s very, very well worth investigating. There were two French schools: one in Spitalfields and one in Westminster. The lists of all the pupils have been published in the Huguenot Society’s Proceedings which is the journal that they bring out [Huguenot Society Journal, formerly Proceedings of the Huguenot Society].

So those are the ways of finding out more about your ancestors.

Let me just show you this is the French Hospital [shows an image]. It was rebuilt. It overlooks Victoria Park, by Hackney, and you can see that is a really substantial building. That was built…ironically, you can’t see it on the signed board there, it became a Roman Catholic school [laughter]. That just sold it to them. That was it in Victorian times. Here’s the sitting room; the men and women have separate sitting rooms [shows an image]. As you see, it was very, very well furnished. A Victorian charity commission looking at how the poor were looked after came along and said very sniffily ‘It’s much too good for the poor, you know.’

This is it today [shows an image]. It’s a square [Theobald Square] in Rochester in Kent. The French Hospital relocated to Horsham during the [Second World] war, stayed there for a bit. And then after the war they decided, instead of returning to Hackney, to buy property in a square in Rochester, in Kent. It’s called La Providence. The square is called that because that was what the inmates originally called the French Hospital. La Providence meaning God’s protective care. That’s what it’s called today and if you can prove your Huguenot ancestry you may be able to move into a flat there too.

There were other specifically Huguenot things. Friendly Societies, for example, there were a number of Huguenot Friendly Societies. Most of them were regional. The Society of Lintot which was the Society of High and Low Normandy, the Society of Saintonge and Angoumois, the Parisians, the 43:29 unknown, all sorts of Friendly Societies.

This chap Bitoux, he got…The receipts are in the records of the Society of Saintonge and he got handouts from them for quite a long time, so he must have been ill for a bit. Actually I really need to check whether he later went into the French Hospital. As you see Chauvet’s Fund, people left money to them for charitable purposes as well. Here’s the apprenticeship register. This is apprenticeships under the will of Stephen Mounier. And as you see, the apprentice Clements, Griffiths, (what’s that) Stringer, Hedger. By now this is the 19th century. Those are all English names. The families have integrated, they have intermarried, they have lost if you like the Huguenot solidarity but they’ve kept the memory of it and they know where to go if they need help because of Huguenot ancestry. I think there’s only a couple there: Varden, Debord, Plange are the only ones that appear to have retained the Huguenot names.

So when you’re looking at apprenticeships and things like that…Occupations. Merchants, I mentioned those, they are going to be in the City of London. They were also very heavily involved with luxury goods and services. Textiles: they started out as wool weavers and then became especially associated with silk weaving.

It doesn’t mean that if you have English ancestors that they didn’t do weaving as well. People assume ‘Because my ancestor lived in Spitalfields and he was a weaver he must have been a Huguenot.’ This isn’t true; a lot of people did weaving, it was a big, big British business.

Craftsmen: goldsmiths, silversmiths, furniture makers, architecture, garden design, wig-makers, clothing, shoes. The Huguenots, in these areas, had an enormous advantage because French was fashionable, French was chic. And so they had an advantage already because they were French and they knew what the fashions were. So, all those are occupations to have a think about.

This is John Dollond who started out life as a silk weaver in Spitalfields [shows an image] but he had an interest in lenses so he became a spectacle supplier, as his son did as well, to one of the Georges (I can’t remember which one). Then Dollond and Aitchison, of course, came from that. I used by buy my glasses there out of Huguenot solidarity [laughter] but they’ve now been taken over by Boots.

Joseph Bazalgette: of course the Bazalgette family had some significant influences on English society. This is Joseph Bazalgette’s memorial on the embankment [shows an image]. He built the sewer system in London. He built all the sewers and things like that. His, I don’t know whether it’s grandson or great-great grandson, but Peter Bazalgette worked in television. He brought us Big Brother, so he’s had a slightly different influence on English society.

[Louis-Francois] Francois Roubiliac, a sculptor, and Henley Hablot Browne [Hablot Knight Browne?] (Phiz) was a Dickens illustrator, of course, and he is from the Browne family that were originally Bruno. So he too came from a Huguenot background.

A few other sources to have a look at. The Returns of Strangers [in the Metropolis], they’re all in The National Archives here, published by the Huguenot Society. The lay subsidies as well have been investigated. Those are largely Tudor and Stuart; they are pretty well all Tudor and Stuart Returns of Strangers, made partly because there was the usual thing about ‘We are being swamped by all these foreigners, they are all coming here, they eat funny food, they wear funny clothes and they’re after our women.’ So the Government did these to prove that there weren’t actually quite so many but also did them sometimes because they thought…they were worried about spies in time of warfare. So you can find those. The Huguenot Society has done them but has transcribed everybody. So if your ancestor appears in there they may not be Huguenots, they transcribed all of them. In Tudor and Stuart times, of course, Scots were foreigners as well so they’ve got the Scottish in there as foreigners in the Returns of Strangers.

Denizations and naturalisations: denization is the right to live in a country. Naturalisation gives you the full citizens’ rights. Those have been published, again taken from the records here from 1500 to 1800.

The livery companies of the City of London, some of their records have been published and some of them are still with the company and some of them are in the Guildhall Library. The Weavers’ Company records have been published by the Huguenot Society.

The other major source, of course, are wills. The PCC [Prerogative Court of Canterbury] wills…are online. What you do find here, very often as an indication of Huguenot ancestry is leaving money to a specific minister. Or, I’ve just looked at one where one of the trustees is a well known Huguenot so…or they leave a legacy to one of the Huguenot charities. So that’s quite a good thing.

Your ancestors who came to England from France might have stopped off in other places on the way. Some would go to the Netherlands because they were nearer, it was easier to escape there, or to Germany if you were on the border. To Switzerland, even to Denmark and a few went to Scandinavia, and then came on to England. So this gives you other sources of where to look for ancestors.

This is historical episodes of famous towns. This is the Huguenots being welcomed into Berlin [shows an image]. For some reason, it’s used to advertise what was effectively Bovril [laughter]. I don’t know why they make this connection but it was a big thing.

Then of course they went from Britain to the United States, to Canada, South Africa, Australia, all over the world. So you may have fairly far flung Huguenot relatives.

Finally, the Huguenot cross, a highly symbolic thing, you can get one of these if you have Huguenot ancestry. Well, you can buy one anyway. It’s based on the Order of the Holy Spirit which was set up by Henri IV of Navarre [or Henri III?], the guy who gave the toleration and Edict of Nantes. The fleur-de-lis of course symbolises France. There are twelve points: one, two, three, four…12 points, symbolising the 12 apostles. These are the four gospels and these are the eight Beatitudes. There’s also quite often a heart in the centre because that was the personal badge of Calvin. The dove symbolises the Holy Spirit and it could be replaced in times of trouble and persecution by a pearl for tears.

So I hope I’ve given you an idea of some of the possibilities for finding Huguenot ancestry. And I hope I’ve given you enough of an incentive by showing you what charities survived for you to take this seriously when you’re investigating your family history.

Thank you very much [applause].

Transcribed by Catherine Pritchard as part of a volunteer project, February 2015


  1. Anthea Ramsay says:

    I have also traced my Huguenot ancestors, the Le Plastriers, back to the early 14th century and have jut written a book about them, and Huguenots in general, and the persecution they suffered over the years until many escaped in 1685. If there is anything I can do to help others I am happy to do my best. My ancestors were goldsmiths in Rouen and I have a list of all goldsmiths who were registered in the 16th century as well as some of those who were persecuted in 1685.

    1. Linda Stewart Henley says:

      Hi Anthea, Congratulations on your book. A friend is helping to figure out my family’s ancestry. I have a grandfather, and several others before him, named Robert Kego. The families lived in Eaglesham, Scotland, and they were weavers. Family hearsay indicates that they were originally Huguenot refugees from France. There doesn’t seem to be much information about Huguenots who settled in Scotland. Do you have any information about that, or the name (which may have been Kaigo at some point)? Thank you for any help that you can give.

    2. Rosalba Boville says:

      We have traced our Boville/Bovill ancestors back to Henrici Bovill born in 1520 in Stirlingshire, Scotland. Is it still possible that he could have been a Huguenot?
      Thank you.
      R. Boville

      1. Liz Bryant (Admin) says:

        Hi Rosalba and Linda,

        Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, we can’t answer research requests on Archives Media Player. However, if you go to our ‘contact us’ page at you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts by email or live chat.

        Best of luck with your research.

        Kind regards,


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