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18 June 2014
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Immigration and Emigration
The world in a city

The Huguenots

The position of Protestants in France - a Catholic country - was always precarious in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Although they were tolerated for much of the latter, in 1685, King Louis IX revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted Protestants the freedom to worship in specified areas.

Fournier Street
Fournier Street was named after George Fournier, a man of Huguenot extraction.
© www. sublimephotography.
Stigmatized by oppressive laws and facing severe persecution, many Huguenots (Protestants) fled France. In 1681, Charles II of England offered sanctuary to the Huguenots, and from 1670 to 1710, between 40,000 and 50,000 Huguenots from all walks of life sought refuge in England. Historians estimate around half of these moved to London - many settling in Spitalfields, where food and housing were cheaper, and there was more freedom from the economic controls of the guilds. By 1700 there were nine Huguenot churches in Spitalfields, where in 1685 there had been none.

'Weaver town'

The Huguenots had a huge impact on Spitalfields, particularly its economy. There had always been a silk industry of sorts in the area, but with the diligence and skills of the Huguenots this industry thrived, and Spitalfields became 'weaver town'.

The increase in the availability of silk affected British upper class fashions, as new styles became popular incorporating more of the readily available material. The wealthier Huguenots built large houses in Spitalfields, both for their families and for the weavers they employed. These houses, which still remain, are extremely distinctive, with enlarged windows in the attic to let in the maximum light for the weavers.

Industrious and unassuming, the Huguenots were generally well received - especially considering their numbers. Sympathy was extended to them as sufferers for the Protestant cause, although there was hostility on occasion, often motivated by fears that the French were depriving Londoners of work. One priest, Dr Welton, called them the 'offal of the earth'!


Brick Lane mosque
The mosque on Brick Lane was formerly both a Huguenot chapel and a Jewish synagogue.
© www. sublimephotography.
At first the Huguenots kept their own distinct identity, speaking in French and defending their religious congregations. As with many immigrant groups, the Huguenot churches were a connecting thread within the new community, providing welfare to the poor and support to new arrivals. Over time, however, the Huguenots assimilated into English society. There was a drift towards the Anglican Church, and names were anglicized - Ferret became Ferry, and Fouache became Fash - often due to mistakes made by English clerks!

With time the silk industry began to decline, and the Huguenots started to move out of the city, settling in the suburbs - a route which later immigrant groups were also to follow.

But traces of the Huguenots's stay are still visible in Spitalfields, despite succeeding waves of immigration. There are French-sounding street names, and the elegant Huguenot houses are well preserved. And it has been estimated that even today a quarter of London's population still has some Huguenot blood!

But what happened next to the chapel on the corner of Brick Lane?

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