What Contributions Have Huguenot People Made to the East End?

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18/05/20 Cultural Studies Reference this

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What Contributions Have Huguenot People Made to the East End

The history of the East End is inextricably tied to London as a whole. The East End berthed ships bringing in trade and wealth. Cultural and diverse East London has consistently been known for its abundance of cultures and has served as a ‘microcosm’ of this polyglot society[1], welcoming and housing successive influxes of immigrants enabling London to grow. It has been the source of entertainment venues for both the privileged societies and the local neighbourhood and was where business and commerce came together. Some immigrants came seeking land and riches, some against their will, as oppressed people or servants. Others sought life-changing opportunities and chose to seek asylum as economic migrants or refugees fleeing hardship, destitution, and religious or political persecution. This paper examines the circumstances of one of those migrant communities, Huguenots’, and will analyse how they came to be in East London, their integration into the community, and the contributions they immediately made to the economic success of East London. Additionally, it will acknowledge some of the Huguenots lasting legacies.

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The Huguenots were Calvinists, a part of Protestantism that follows the forms of Christian practice set by John Calvin. The Protestants circumstances in France, a Catholic nation were continually perilous throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Despite the fact they were tolerated, in 1685, King Louis IX revoked the Edict of Nantes,[2] which had allowed Protestants the freedom to worship in specified areas.  Huguenot researcher Henri Justel spoke of the intolerance of Louis XIV as ‘Our extirpation is decreed’.[3] Oppressed and confronting severe persecution, many fled France, however, In 1681, Charles II of England offered asylum to them, and between 1670 and 1710, some 40,000-50,000 Huguenots originating from varying backgrounds sought refuge in England. Historians have assessed that over half came to London and, considerably more settled in the East End as the cost of living was more desirable, and as it was outside the city they had freedom from the economic controls of the guilds.[4]

After the Great Fire, London was encountering rapid change and transformation. People chose to live in rural areas which were more affordable. However, it was the French Calvinist Huguenots who assumed a significant role in developing the area from one of semi-rural to a densely built and highly populated merchants’ quarter.[5] Huguenots received charitable assistance from churches, the government, and philanthropy drives, one of which assessed that by December 1687 13,050 Huguenots had settled in the capital, the greater part of  which were in Spitalfields.[6]

The Huguenots hugely affected Spitalfields, especially its economy. They were proficient in fine metalwork and engraving, and some also brought with them significant knowledge and experience from France’s main clock and watchmaking centres. Moreover, many set up businesses as silk weavers, creating an industry surviving until the early 1900s. There had consistently been a silk industry of sorts in the area, but with the skills and aptitude of the Huguenots this industry flourished, and Spitalfields became known as ‘weaver town’.[7] The increase in the accessibility of silk influenced British upper-class fashions, as new styles became popular incorporating more of the readily available material, however, during this era Huguenots knew the English had an insatiable appetite, for top notch silks, at the same time, there was no ready supply as the English based Industry could not manufacture more complex fabrics required for those sought after dresses, waistcoats and coats[8] Moreover, while there was demand, the supply was made prohibitively expensive through import taxes, so Huguenots were undeniably best placed to give the English what they wanted and at costs which undercut the French, and with deliveries unaffected by weather civil unrest or military intervention.[9] Huguenots constructed tall terraced houses which still survive in the area, and which housed the looms that delivered flawless, inventive designed silks for the stylish inhabitants of London.

Although the vast majority worked from home there are records of weaving factories being established in Spitalfields in from the mid 18th century by affluent masters such as John Sabatier who had a warehouse at the end of Fournier Street and which contained 50 looms and later expanded to 100.[10] The master weavers had extraordinary financial power affecting the economy greatly. One Huguenot silk weaver was James Leman, a second-generation Huguenot émigré who curiously combined his skills as a designer with his role as a master weaver.[11] Leman was born in 1688 into a weaving family of Huguenot descent. He was apprentice to his father in 1702, and lived with his family in Spitalfields. He became a renowned figure in the textile community rising to second in command of the Weavers’ Company, the ancient guild that controlled the craft in the City of London. Huguenots believed wealth earned, with a good heart and honest toil was Godly, and that reasonable wealth earned through honest labour was not ostentatious.[12]

Enterprising and unassuming, the Huguenots were generally welcomed, particularly considering their numbers. Compassion was extended to them as sufferers for the Protestant cause, although there was hostility on occasion, often motivated by fears that the French were denying Londoners of work. One priest, Dr Welton, called them the ‘offal of the earth’.[13] Furthermore, the English silversmiths and goldsmiths additionally felt compromised and tested by the arrival of Huguenots who were profoundly gifted in this field. They feared they would undermine their English adversaries by charging less and accepting lower wages. A pamphlet poem, published in 1681 underlined this by saying ‘weavers all may curse their fates /Because the French work under rates’.[14]

Huguenots treasured their own cultural and religious heritage preserving their French traditions and language and protecting their religious congregations. Their churches were a binding quality in the community, providing a connecting point for the immigrants, and a supportive network for new arrivals. By 1700 there were at least nine Huguenot churches or ‘temples’ including one in Black Eagle Street and Spitalfields market.[15] Further temples were built including “L’Eglise Protestant” in Threadneedle Street in the City of London, which dealt with the first wave of refugees by building an annexe, “L’Eglise Neuve,” in Brick Lane on the corner of Fournier St. This opened in 1743, sixty years after a temporary wooden shack was first built there. There were at least nine other Huguenot Chapels in Spitalfields by then, whereas in 1685 there had been none. Yet they needed this huge church, it was an indicator of how large the French community was. The church was run by elders ensured the religious and the secular sides tied up so if you arrived at the church in Threadneedle St, they would send you over to Spitalfields and find you work. L’Eglise Neuve which still survives today, is architecturally significant, as the sundial within the Fournier street pediment is dated 1743 and inscribed with the adage ‘Umbra Sumas’ meaning ‘We are but Shadow’ a reminder that everything in the material world is transitory.[16] You could argue however, that Huguenots always knew they would only temporarily live there. Eventually, Huguenots integrated into English society and drifted towards the Anglican Church.

Among some of the most celebrated Huguenots was Philip Cazenove who went into partnership with his son and nephew which immediately rose to prominence because of its involvement in the financial side of the rail industry. Some of his success was also accredited to his association with the Rothschild banking family. The company acted as a broker for the development of numerous organisations and was directly involved with the creation of the Metropolitan District Railway Company, which built the London Underground.[17]

Pierre Harache, best known for his candlestick making was the first Huguenot goldsmith to be admitted to the Goldsmiths’ company in 1682. No foreign craftsmen had ever been invited and in 1574 the freedom of the Goldsmiths’ company was denied to all foreigners. Harache must have been significantly thought of as he was granted the Livery in 1687 and the freedom of the city which was only ever granted in special circumstances. His work was of such high calibre that it is alluded to today as having heralded a new era.[18]

Finally, Sir Robert Ladbroke was a prominent member of the Huguenot community in East London. He was a merchant banker in the City, Lord Mayor of London in 1747 and, from 1754, a Member of Parliament. Ladbroke was married to the daughter of John Peck, an influential dyer in the Spitalfields silk industry. A monument to Ladbroke, sculpted by John Flaxman RA and erected in 1794, sits on the north side of Christ Church in Spitalfields. He is displayed in his Lord Mayor’s robes.[19]

As Indian and Chinese silks became more readily available, Spitalfields silk weaving went into decline, which affected the community and although they struggled on, workers were reduced to starvation wages. The ebbing prosperity along with introduction of new machinery led to violent clashes. By 1801 the Spitalfields acts were passed in an attempt to improve wages and working conditions and to protect the domestic market,[20]however, the Huguenots eventually moved away from Spitalfields, settling in the suburbs, a route which later other immigrant groups were also to follow. 

Today the Huguenots legacy lives on and hints of their stay are still obvious in East London, regardless of succeeding waves of immigration. There are French-sounding street names, some of which were named after eminent master-weavers; Fournier Street; Leman Street; Fleur de Lis Street. To some degree misleadingly, Fashion Street which has nothing to do with the silk trade, but is a corruption of Fasson, the name of the area’s original developers.[21] The exquisite Huguenot houses are well preserved. Additionally, there are a further two physical examples both in the medical field and optometry. Among the Huguenots that fled to London were the Chamberlens. William Chamberlen a surgeon had four sons two of which mirrored his career and became surgeons who specialised in midwifery; however, it was the eldest Son whose invention of the forceps is almost identical to the Chamberlen forceps used today. Secondly, John Dollond, a son of a Huguenot refugee who at first followed in his father’s footsteps of Silk weaving and in his spare time among other interests studied anatomy. He inevitably abandoned silk-weaving to join his older son who had started a business as a maker of optical instruments, the business proceeded to become Dollond & Aitchison.

This paper has shown the Huguenot immigrants sought refuge in order to be free from persecution, and to practise their faith. They were admired for their skills and mostly accepted within the community.  They saw an opportunity in East London, and what drove them was the realisation that this flourishing industry of mainly silk-weaving was attracting more people to the area generating wealth, making East London a highly desirable area in which to live. In terms of religion and integration there was a coming together with many Huguenot congregations joining the Anglican system. Although their time within East End was temporary, they left a lasting legacy which future generations, including immigrants will appreciate for years to come.


[1] ‘Spitalfields History’ https://www.spitalfields.co.uk/spitalfields-history/ [accessed 17 October 2019].

[2] Christie Sample Wilson, Beyond Belief: Surviving the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France (Lehigh University Press, 2011).

[3] ‘The Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland’ https://www.huguenotsociety.org.uk/history.html [accessed 17 October 2019].

[4] ‘Immigration and Emigration The World in a City’ www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/immig_emig/england/london/article_1.shtml [accessed 17 October 2019

[5] Dan Cruikshank, “‘Distressed Strangers’”, in Spitalfields The History Of A Nation In A Handful Of Streets (Windmill Books), p. 146.

[6] William Page, The Victoria history of the county of Middlesex: Vol 2, pp. 132-137.

[7] ‘Immigration and Emigration The World in a City’ www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/immig_emig/england/london/article_1.shtml [accessed 17 October 2019]

[8] Cruikshank, ‘“Distressed Strangers”’, p. 148.

[9] Ibid., p. 148.

[10] F.H.W. Sheppard, ‘Spitalfields and Mile End New Town’, Survey of London XXVII (1958), pp.186, 217.

[11] ‘Introducing The Leman Album’  https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/caring-for-our-collections/introducing-the-leman-album [accessed 18 October 2019].

[12] Anne J. Kershen, Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1660-2000, (Routledge, 2005), p. 171.

[13] Ibid., p. 170.

[14] Ephraim Lipson, ‘Origin and Growth’ in The History of the Woollen and Worsted Industries (Hard Press Publishing, 2013).

[15] Robin D. Gwynn Huguenot Heritage: The History and Contribution of the Huguenots in Britain (Sussex Academic Press, 2000).

[16] Taken from Horace, Odes, Book IV, ode VII, line 16: pulvis et Umbra Sumus -we are but dust and shadow

[17] Huguenot exiles who founded swashbuckling city icon, Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/huguenot-exiles-wh-founded-swashbuckling-city-icon-18961.html [accessed 17 October 2019].

[18] Stephen T. Clarke, ‘Harache, Pierre’, Grove Art Online, https://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.000 [accessed 16 October].

[19] Sheppard, ‘Spitalfields and Mile End New Town’, p. 176

[20] Huguenot and French London https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Huguenot.jsp [Accessed 17 October 2019]

[21] The Street Names https://thestreetnames.com/tag/fashion-street/ [accessed 18 October 2019]

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