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Time when England said ‘welcome’

12 June 2015

The term 'refugee' was first applied to the Huguenots. Anne J. Kershen tells the story of their arrival in London


Refuge: La Neuve Église in Spitalfields, east London, now a mosque

Refuge: La Neuve Église in Spitalfields, east London, now a mosque

ON THE corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, in Spitalfields, east London, stands a 90-foot-high, stainless steel, illuminated minaret. It stands immediately in front of a substantial 18th-century building, the Jamme Masjid: the Brick Lane mosque.

This building was erected in 1743 as La Neuve Église, a chapel for the burgeoning Huguenot community driven from France by religious persecution. By the late 19th century, it had become the Machzike Hadath, the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, in 1976, it was bought by Bangladeshi migrants, who transformed it into the Jamme Masjid. The minaret was erected in 2009.

The building is an emblem of Spitalfield's rich history as a magnet for migrant communities, and their desire to establish their own places of worship. This 200-acre area has been a first place of settlement for incomers to the capital for centuries.

The Huguenots were the earliest incomers to make their own religious imprint on the area, and they established a pattern for later migrants. They set up homes, businesses, and a communal network, establishing Calvinist churches and chapels at the eastern edge of London in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.


THE Huguenots were, in fact, responsible for the term "refugee". It first appeared in the English language in 1685 as an Anglicised version of réfugié, which was used specifically to refer to Huguenots who had escaped from France. Believing in an all-embracing Calvinist "discipline of life", they suffered persecution in France, most notably in the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572).

Restrictions eased after the signing of the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which gave the Huguenots limited freedom of worship. But this period of toleration was short-lived, and their right to worship was outlawed by the French Roman Catholic monarch and government in 1688, after a period of increasing persecution. Not only was the practice of Calvinism again prohibited: it also became a crime for Calvinists to leave the country.

Despite the dangers, and the necessity of leaving their property behind them, from 1687 onwards a steady trickle of Huguenot immigrants became a flood. King James II's Declaration of Indulgence, which granted broad religious freedom, was a significant attraction. Although they had been excluded from public office in France, their commercial, industrial, and financial skills were highly valued. Over a period of 50 years, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 arrived in England. At least 20,000 settled in Spitalfields.

The first French church in London had been founded in 1550 by prescient young French Calvinists who were putting down roots across the Channel. The nascent French community took over the lease of the church of St Anthony's Hospital, in Threadneedle Street, in the City of London - a building that, in medieval times, had been a synagogue.

In the same year, a Calvinist church, the Savoy Consistory - "The Strangers Church" - was founded in Soho. This served Calvinists from the Lowlands, Germany, and France. Many of the Huguenots living in Soho preferred to attend Threadneedle Street, however, where the services were in French. By 1687, the church was unable to accommodate the crush created by the new incomers.

Unsurprisingly for immigrants whose departure had been a direct result of their religious steadfastness, the Huguenots lost no time in setting up churches and temples where they lived: in Spitalfields.

In 1688, L'Hôpital was opened in Black Eagle Street, as an extension to the church in Threadneedle Street, almost a mile away. L'Hôpital was in the heart of the new community, and served as a chapel of ease for those who could not, or would not, travel to Threadneedle Street.


UNLIKE future Jewish and Muslim arrivals, who are required to worship several times a day, the Huguenots had no need to establish places of worship close to their homes and work; none the less, this was a definite preference. By 1700, there were nine Calvinist churches or chapels within a small radius in the centre of Spitalfields, indicating just how densely clustered the Huguenot refugees were.

This is also a clue to their likely occupations. More affluent new arrivals, such as shopkeepers, goldsmiths, and military officers put down roots to the west of London. But silk weavers, and those in need of charity - labelled as "humble occupants" - settled to the east.

The eastern edge of the City of London was doubly attractive for certain Huguenots. First, it was the site of an emerging if basic silk-weaving industry. The new arrivals recognised the economic potential that their technically more advanced skills offered in order to develop the trade.

Second, the French church was the source of charity for the most indigent incomers. It was the centre for the distribution of the Royal Bounty, set up by the co-regents William and Mary, as well as monies collected from sympathetic English citizens - Samuel Pepys, for instance - and the more affluent Huguenots.

What developed was a well organised nexus of community, with the church in Threadneedle Street at its heart. The church maintained almshouses, and rooms for the storage of clothes and other items, and additionally provided the services of teachers, a doctor, and a surgeon. The church elders also oversaw the distribution of funds to the "deserving" poor.


IN RETURN, the church exercised stringent control over its congregants, and was said to intervene at every stage of refugee life. It is easy to imagine, then, that once migrants had settled, and were less in need, they might prefer a less intrusive place of worship - one which was beyond the shadow of the mother French church.

The nine new places of worship all lay to the north of Wentworth Street, and served silk-weavers living in the small, cheap houses that were built in the early 1680s. The south part of the area remained a "teasel ground" (teasels were used to raise the nap on woven cloth).

The location of the chapels, more modest places of worship, marks out the boundaries of the early Huguenot community, which appears to have been clustered to the west of Brick Lane, as the immigrants took up residence in new but poorly built properties.

Just one church lay to the north-east, on the very edge of Spitalfields. The Church of St Jean (or John) was the second Huguenot church to be established in the district. The church's register shows that the congregation was composed chiefly of "silk weavers . . . who hailed from Pays de Caux in Haute Normandie and from Picardy". The congregating of worshippers from the same village, town, or region, and/or employed in the same trade, was a characteristic of religious practice in Spitalfields.

The Huguenot silk-merchants and masters began to prosper in the early part of the 18th century. This meant that they could move into the fine new houses of the Wood Michell estate, constructed between 1718 and 1728 in Church (later Fournier) Street, Princes (later Princelet) Street, Hanbury Street, and Wood (later Wilkes) Street.

Ownership of a comfortable "middle-class" home was a religiously sanctioned ideal, as the Calvinists believed that a fine home was an outward expression of thanks to God for enabling them to acquire rewards for their honest and hard labour.


BY THE late 1730s, L'Hôpital was no longer large enough to contain the burgeoning community. In 1743, a building was opened that was on land purchased for £900 by David and Claude Bosanquet (members of the Threadneedle Street church). It would become the iconic centre of the immigrant religious presence in Spitafields.

Unlike the smaller Calvinist chapels in Spitalfields, La Neuve Église was a substantial building, measuring 86 by 60 feet. The exterior, with its tall arched window and triangular pediment, with a sundial in its tympanum, "was bold in scale and quietly dignified in expression". The interior, however, in keeping with Calvinist tradition, was austere.

Somewhat at odds with Calvinistic belief in sobriety and temperance was the use of the vaults below the church for the storage of beer for the local brewery, and the drunken and immoral behaviour of some members of its congregation.

Just a few decades later, change was in the wind. Refugees continued to arrive from France until about 1786, two years before the French Revolution. As the number of immigrants decreased, however, so the membership of the French churches in Spitalfields dwindled. La Patente closed in 1785, and L'Église de Artillerie Lane, in 1786. Other chapels fell on hard times.

At the same time, the more Anglicised and affluent members of Threadneedle Street and La Neuve Église were moving westward, or transferring their loyalty to the handsome, Hawksmoor-designed Anglican Christ Church, which stood at the other end of Church Street.

This may have signalled the abandonment of Calvinism in favour of a more relaxed form of Christian worship, or perhaps the outcome of intermarriage, Anglicisation, and upward economic mobility.


NOT all the Huguenot churches lost their religious function. In 1870, L'Église de Artillerie Lane was consecrated as the Sandys Row Synagogue, and remains one of the very few still functioning in today's East End. And, of course, the religious continuity is most clearly exhibited by the changing guise of what was La Neuve Église.

But this pattern of first-generation migrants' establishing places of worship as they put down roots is shifting. The churches and chapels, synagogues and chevrot (small-scale synagogues, often set up in back-rooms or workshops) played a vital part in the founding of the Huguenot and Eastern European Jewish communities of Spitalfields; but it is the second and third generation of Muslims which have been responsible for the increasing number of mosques in and around Spitalfields. There are now some 57 located within the east-London area.

In spite of arriving from different continents, with different creeds, at different times, across 350 years or so, the three migrant communities share more than their Spitalfields destination. All three followed monotheistic religions that look back to Abrahamic roots, and believed that God was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

All three religions insist on cer- tain moral and social, as well as religious, prescriptions, which formed an intrinsic part of the migrants' backgrounds. And all three have made an enduring imprint on the theological landscape of Spitalfields.


Dr Anne J. Kershen is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and an Honorary Senior Research Associate at University College, London. Her book London, the Promised Land Revisited: The migrant landscape in early 21st-century London will be published this autumn.

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