Changing London

From persecution to new lives in England: Stories of Huguenot migration

An abandoned terraced house in south London seems a fitting setting for such dark a story. Amongst the peeling walls and bare floorboards of this crumbling Peckham property, unfolds the tragic events of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 when Catholic mobs attacked protestants, known as Huguenots, in France.

Estimates for the number of people killed in the violence across the country five centuries ago range between 10,000 and 70,000, but this play – Til We Meet In England – focuses on the story of one family, the Tricastins. The small audience (maximum capacity 22) follows the nine-strong cast around the various open rooms of the house in Copeland Road to watch the tearful drama unfold.

Copeland Road

It is an immersive experience with characters launching into conversations with visitors from the moment they enter the ‘theatre’. “Do you like writing letters?,” I was asked as I milled around waiting for the first act to start. Later audience members were recruited to help pack suitcases with treasured possessions as the family fled and were part of the crowd at a courtroom trial.

Refugees

The Edict of Nantes signed in April 1598 granted Huguenots considerable rights. But in 1685 the Edict was revoked and protestantism became illegal in France. Churches were burned down and Huguenots fled the country in fear of their lives.

Some 50,000 came over the Channel to England as refugees, the first time this term had been used (the English word ‘refugee’ derives from the French ‘refugie’ – ‘gone in search of refuge’). An exhibition currently on at the Migration Museum in Lambeth includes the events of 1685 as one of the ‘Seven migration moments that changed Britain’.

The Huguenots made a massive contribution to English society. “France’s loss was England gain: it acquired a new generation of merchants, financiers, scientists, artists and artisans,” notes the exhibition. According to author Robert Winder, writing in his book Bloody Foreigners, they “possessed exactly what the country needed: the know-how to transform an agricultural economy into an industrial one.”

Over the years Huguenots would establish and expand businesses, like Dollonds which grew from one shop in the Strand in 1750 to be a major chain and is now part of Boots. They shared their valuable mercantile experience and provided capital for the new Bank of England. Many industries were transformed thanks to contributions made by the Huguenots, ranging from clockmaking to paper, but particularly textiles. In 1640 the latter represented 80% of England’s exports, but they helped grow this trade even further.

Textile workers

Many Huguenots settled on the banks of the river Wandle, in places like Putney and Wandsworth. In the early 18th century around a quarter of the population in this area, which became celebrated for its coloured fabrics, was French and contained institutions such a French cemetery and school. In the City, names like Threadneedle Street provide a reminder that textile workers once lived here.

But perhaps the most best-known place to consider the Huegonots in London is in Spitalfields, where 18th century terraced houses were built with large attic windows so master weaves had plenty of light to practice their trade on the top floor. Nine Protestant churches, including the L’Eglise Neuve (which became a Jewish synagogue and is now a mosque) were built in the area, providing considerable support for new arrivals.

While many in London were friendly to the Huguenot arrivals, some also felt threatened by them. “The French were mocked for the easiest reasons: the food they ate at their wooden shoes; or, alternatively for their airs and graces,” wrote Winder. “They were regarded as either foppish dandies or leprous scarecrows. The Huguenots colonised the poorer areas of town, and were promptly accused of the being the cause of poverty. There was hot talk about ‘the devilish invention’ of looms, which were feared by English weavers as threats to their livelihood.” After years of looms being smashed, in 1773 the weavers obtained Parliamentary privileges in return for agreeing employment conditions and rates.

Given the important role London played re-housing Huguenots its fitting that Til We Meet In England is being performed here. The play started life as a piece called The Massacre, written in 1792 during the time of the French Revolution, but it was not published until 1833 and first performed much later. It has a new title as it has been adapted for the modern age. And the original playwright, Elizabeth Inchbald, even appears in the production (she was the character who asked if I liked writing when I arrived).

Lost Text / Found Space’s current production deals with the events of the 16th century, but seen through the lens of the French Revolution, while also incorporating the experiences of modern-day refugees. It is 70-minutes of immersive theatre that should definitely be experienced. Once you’ve seen play head to Spitalfields and to the Museum of Migration to discover what happened next in this important migration story.

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