French Connection

When the Huguenots fled France in the 17th century many ended up in England, and their craftsmanship helped Clerkenwell become the centre of clockmaking.

Charlie Turpie, principal archivist at London Metropolitan Archives, explores the local history of the original refugees. In the late 1680s, as today, London attracted many immigrants. These were Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing religious persecution and were the original refugees (the word first appears in the 1680s from the old French refugié, one who has taken shelter). The Huguenots were welcomed by the government for their craft skills and lived reasonably amiably in London, where residual anti-Catholic feeling generated sympathy for the Huguenots’ sufferings.

Clerkenwell has only recently been noted as one of the London Huguenot areas. As there were no Huguenot churches here, perhaps researchers were not prompted to look. There are no visible traces of the many men, women and children who lived in Clerkenwell but if you know where to search, they start to appear as an important element of Clerkenwell’s history. Huguenots established the French Protestant Hospital, known as La Providence, in Finsbury in 1718 to look after those who had fallen on hard times. Designed by Jacob Gibbs, it may well be the first voluntary hospital in London and cared for the poor and infirm of Huguenot origin. Though the hospital moved in 1865 to Hackney, the building survived until the 1960s. St Luke’s Primary School is now on the Bath Street site and bears a commemorative plaque.

We can detect that Isaac Basire, of Huguenot origin, lived and worked in St John’s Gate because of the publication lines on his prints. He specialised in cartography, engraving several notable maps including John Rocque’s 1749 map of London (Rocque was also of Huguenot origin). Basire married Sarah Flavill on 24 August 1728 at St John, Clerkenwell, (registers held at LMA) and they had three children who followed in their father’s footsteps as printmakers, founding a printmaking dynasty. He was buried on 27 August,1768 at the church of St John, Clerkenwell.

Since the beginning of the 18th century, Clerkenwell has been the great centre of the working members of the clock and watchmaking trade. Many streets were almost wholly occupied by workmen engaged in the various subdivisions of the trade, such as escapement maker, engine

Above: In “Four Times of the Day” (1738), Clerkenwell-born Hogarth depicts London’s Huguenots on the right, contrasting their fashionability with the slovenly locals on the left turner, springer, secret springer and fi nisher. Huguenot craftsmanship contributed to the success of the trade here.

In the narrow streets of Clerkenwell, with workshops full of flammable goods, fire was an ever-present danger. Perhaps as their ancestors had been forced to leave their goods and money behind in France, Huguenot craftsmen were especially willing to insure themselves against risk. Searching Sun fire insurance policy registers (also kept at LMA) reveals craftsmen with French names in many streets. With workshops full of flammable goods, fire was an ever-present danger.

Arthur Houle, of 15 Brayne’s Row (now Exmouth Market) was a silver chaser, who engraved on silver, including watchcases; he insured himself against fire in 1818. John Anthony Deschamps of 9 Howard’s Place, Bowling Green Lane was an engine turner, who took out a policy in 1814. Abraham Decombe, also an engine turner, insured his various addresses in Percival Street against fire in 1828 onwards.

In Rosoman Street we find Lewis Furneaux, a watchmaker, at number 32 in 1792, and Robert Chassereau along the street in number 10 in 1799, also making watches. Here we have to talk about names and spelling. Historical sources show that spelling was a weakness. Both Furneaux and Chassereau were insured at Rosamond Street – the clerk evidently preferred that version of the name, not caring that the street honoured Thomas Rosoman who rebuilt Sadler’s Wells. French names often give us a clue as to the existence of Londoners of Huguenot origins but they can be misleading. The surname Bois may survive, or it may be translated into Wood or anglicised into Boys, for example. Later French immigrants may not have been Huguenots at all.

Our last Huguenot did not insure with the Sun (though his son Hollingworth did). Colonel Francis Magniac lived in St John’s Square and three of his children were baptised at St John, Clerkenwell between 1788 and 1798. He made clocks and watches and ingenious automata, which were exported to Canton in China (his sons Charles and Hollingworth went to China to carry on the trade) where the mechanical toys, known in pidgin English as ‘singsongs’ were popular.

Above: View of the French Hospital, Bath Street (engraving circa 1750) Right: The J Smith & Sons clock on Goswell Road

His house in St John’s Square was also his factory and it is believed to be the site of J Smith & Sons clock factory, famous for the clock on the triangle at the Angel end of Goswell Road. The St John’s Square building is now the Zetter Townhouse.

And that military rank: Colonel Magniac? Magniac was made a fi rst lieutenant in the Clerkenwell Volunteers’ Association in 1798 and continued to serve and be promoted eventually to colonel. These associations of volunteers prepared to do military service to defend their homes sprang up across London (and the rest of the country) responding to the very real threat of invasion by… the French! The Huguenots had assimilated and many, like Magniac, had become more English than the English.

The original archives are available to read at London Metropolitan Archives with a History Card obtainable free of charge. The LMA is also pleased to help with enquiries about family history and records of visitors’ houses, streets and their local area.

Open Mon- Thurs and one Saturday each month, 40 Northampton Road, EC1R 0HB city of