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The Huguenots in Britain
– their Cultural Heritage

Reflections on the Special Interest Day
led by Sue Jackson
on November 8th 2014

Our day began with coffee and followed with our first lecture, when Sue Jackson explained who the Huguenots were, why they came to Britain and the breadth of their cultural heritage.

The Huguenots were French Protestants who fled their country in large numbers during the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis XIV, when they were forbidden to practise their religion or leave the country.  Of the 50,000 who fled to Britain, some 25,000 settled in London.  They came from all walks of life and many settled in the Spitalfields area of London where food and housing were cheaper, and there was more freedom from the economic controls of the guilds.  Some also settled in the Soho area.  They were skilled silk weavers, goldsmiths and clockmakers and soon began to have a major influence on these crafts and industries, particularly on the silk weaving industry in Spitalfields.

Coffee Jug, Paul de Lamerie, London, 1738
silver - Cincinnati Art Museum

With illustrations, Sue showed us the silverwork of Paul de Lamerie and Samuel Courtauld, who introduced more ornate designs, and the work of Daniel Marot, an architect and designer who produced designs for the gardens at Hampton Court for William III, decorative and inlaid furniture, as well as the coach now used by the Speaker of the House of Commons.  There were watch and clockmakers such as Daniel Grignion, gunsmiths, ceramicists, decorative ironworkers, sculptors, scientists, and oculists such as Peter Dollond, of the firm that became Dollond and Aitchison.  Other Huguenots became founder members of the Bank of England.  In all, it was a fascinating and detailed lecture.

Following a break for coffee and some excellent homemade biscuits, Sue’s second lecture explored the silk weaving industry in Spitalfields, where many of the Huguenots had settled.  She explained how the master-weavers took the orders and passed the work on to journeymen weavers who tended to work in the Bethnal Green area.  French silk designs were stylised and much sought after, but later British designers, such as Anna Maria Garthwaite in Princelet Street, developed more naturalistic designs.  Mantua dresses allowed the silk designs to be shown to their full advantage and Spitalfield silks became extremely popular, not only in Britain but in America too.  Sue also showed us photographs of the weavers’ houses in Spitalfields, and described how they were constructed and decorated.  She then went on to tell us about the recession of the silk weaving industry in the 19th century which led to the downturn and dereliction of the area.

Mantua, 1740-1745, embroidered silk - Victoria & Albert Museum

After two very interesting lectures it was time for lunch and the Special Events Committee provided us with a delicious Ploughman’s Lunch with wine and soft drinks followed by delectable desserts, which few could resist!  Our thanks go to all those who were involved in preparing such a wonderful lunch!

Sue’s final lecture of the day looked at the effect the Huguenots had on the social revolution, the elegance of the Georgian period and the introduction of tea, coffee and chocolate.  We learnt about the development of coffee houses from the first coffee house in Cornhill, the production and design of coffee pots, the importation of chocolate from Central America and how it superseded coffee in popularity as a drink.  Tea came from China and was so expensive it became a status symbol to have your portrait painted drinking tea!  Tea parties became popular, cakes and sandwiches were introduced and ultimately, by the early 19th century, tea rooms developed such as Selfridges Roof garden and Lyons tea shops.

A 17th Century Coffee House

What an interesting day and full of fascinating information!  Sue Jackson specialises in the cultural heritage of the Huguenots and proved an excellent lecturer.  Our thanks go to Liz and Gwen who set up the whole day, and everyone else involved, from the technical support to the team who produced the lovely homemade biscuits and lunch!

Mary Briggs

Related Links for further reading (open in new windows):

Sue Jackson's website
The Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland
Huguenots of Spitalfields
Silk-weaving (British History Online)
A Dress of Spitalfields Silk
Dennis Severs’ House

London Blue Badge Guide and Lecturer, Sue Jackson