Huguenot Heritage 1685-1985
In 1982 Madame de Margerie, on a visit to Jersey with her husband the French ambassador, suggested that La Société Jersiaise should take part in the events being prepared to commemorate the tercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in October 1685.
We knew that many islanders were of Huguenot descent, some like the de Fayes and Voisins happily still with us, others like Joseph Sinel and Emile Guiton revered as former stalwarts of La Société. We were aware of silversmiths such as Amiraux. But families in flight take little with them and we wondered whether we could possibly find enough three-dimensional material to mount an exhibition.
However, as time and research went on, we realised the immense debt owed by Jersey to these refugies de religion and their descendants - church and state, art and architecture, medicine, education, commerce, the press - no sphere of island life was without some trace of their influence. Many had married into island families. Some, for example the Gossets and Hemerys, had carried their name from Jersey to positions of high office in England. Gradually, with help from many quarters, including the Huguenot Society of London, we were able to assemble a small exhibition of documents, portraits, silver and artefacts commemorating the great exodus from the Low Countries and France which so enriched the Protestant world and not least the Channel Islands.
We were fortunate in our lecturers: Doctor Robin Gwynn of Massey University, New Zealand, on sabbatical leave to direct the national commemoration of the Huguenot contribution to British life, and Monsieur Jean Bauberot of the Sorbonne, President du Centre Protestant d'Etudes et de Documentation. He had been invited to Jersey by Les Amities Franco-Britanniques, who joined us at Société to hear his talk on the Revocation as seen through French eyes then and now. These two lectures set the picture of Calvinist Jersey against a wider canvas and, indeed, revealed that our contribution was by no means unimportant or insular.
Jersey, we learnt, was often a staging point on the way to England, Ireland or the New World. In 1985 the island was celebrating forty years of freedom following the Liberation. Stories of evacuation, escape by sea, deportation, helped us to recreate the circumstances of those earlier migrations. Escape routes, safe houses, trusted guides, information by word of mouth or on scraps of paper led to La Rochelle or Granville, recognised ports of escape. Two stories came to light.
Two escape stories
Louis Moquet recounted his experiences to his grand-daughter, Marie Chevalier, before he died in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. Marie's son wrote them down. Her grandson, Frederick Ollivier, is still remembered by an older generation; a modern link with earlier history.
A native of Poitou, Moquet was forced to wander from place to place to avoid his enemies: 'The persecutions in France against the French Protestants constrained him to fly for refuge to the island of Jersey. Having been married by a Protestant minister, he was in danger of being sent to the galleys for life. His wife was taken from him and placed in a convent, where she remained eighteen months. Whilst there she gave birth to a child who died soon after. One of the nuns, moved with compassion, promised to help her to escape, provided she would not discover it.
Mrs Moquet made this known to her husband in Jersey who went over to Granville. With the assistance of friends she escaped in the night and, having joined her husband, went over with him to Jersey. Louis prospered and was appointed 'distributor of the Royal Bounty to Protestant refugees'.
Another escape was recorded in 1853 in Household Words, a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens.
Farmer Lefebvre lived in Normandy on a small, self-sufficient estate producing honey, vegetables, poultry and livestock to feed his family; sheep, hemp and flax to provide wool, linen and fine thread to clothe them. On a rare visit to the market at Avranches to purchase a cow he learnt of the Revocation and its implications. His wife was an invalid unable to travel, but lest their infant daughter, Magdalen, be taken from them to a convent, they arranged for her to be sent to Jersey. Wrapped in a mattress half concealed in sackcloth and a load of straw, the child was taken by horse and cart to Granville and entrusted to the owner of a fishing smack with apples and pears for Jersey, where the orchard crops had failed.
With her went a trunk containing her unfinished trousseau begun at her birth by her mother and made with fine spun thread from home grown flax. Willing hands took her from Jersey to London to be brought up by maiden aunts. It was Magdalen's great-granddaughter who told the story to Dickens.
On 6 October 1985 a service of thanksgiving, sensitively prepared by the Reverend Michael Halliwell and partly in French, was held in Saint Brelade's Church. It was attended by island dignitaries and descendants of Huguenot families. The stirring singing of French hymns and the eloquence of Monsieur le Pasteur Jean-Marc Saint, Aumonier de la Marine Nationale, recalled the days when our forefathers listened to sermons by Calvinist ministers, many of them eminent scholars, who, banished from France, had found refuge in Jersey.
Doctor Gwynn reminded us that the Calvinist church in Jersey, first established under Elizabeth I, served as a model for later French churches set up in England by refugees. Two Jerseymen, Jean Durell and Richard Dumaresq, were ministers of the French Church of the Savoy in London.
I was fortunate to be in England for the Huguenot Heritage conference held at the Royal Society for visitors from many parts of the world, and to attend the service at St Paul's Cathedral and take part in some of the excursions arranged for Huguenot International Week. In Rochester we visited La Providence, a delightful square of sheltered housing for people of Huguenot descent - a successor to the original Hospital in City Road set up for their poorer brethren by Huguenots who had prospered in England. We encountered this Huguenot virtue of caring for the poor when latterly we were asked at Société to identify a charitable fund still functioning as late as 1940. A reference in La Chronique of December 1845 was signed by its treasurer, Pierre Pequin, a third generation Huguenot pleading for the poor:
- "On invite toutes les personnes charitables, qui eprouveni de la sympathie et de la compassion pour les indigens, a venir au secours d'un nombre considerable de pauvres familles qui sont plongees dans la plus extreme misere par suite de la cherte des denrees . . . Cette tle est surement assez riche pour soulager la detresse des pauvres.
These isolated references to Jersey's Huguenot past are part of a much longer story which I have not attempted to tell. It is well documented in the Library of Société. Doctor Gwynn's recent book, Huguenot Heritage, published by Routledge and Kegan Paul, gives an excellent overall picture of the Huguenot contribution to Britain, and later this year we hope to receive transcripts of the lectures given at the conference last September. For those seeking a subject for research there remains much to be discovered about the Huguenots in Jersey.
The Trustees of the French Protestant Church of London kindly donated a prize of £30 for the best school essay written on the Huguenots in the Channel Islands. This was awarded to Angela Cartwright of Hautlieu School. One entrant quoted from Samuel Smiles:
- "Although the refugees for the most part regarded the Channel Islands as merely temporary places of refuge ... a sufficient number remained to determine the Protestant character of the community and completely to transform the islands by their industry; since which time Jersey and Guernsey, from being among the most backward and miserable places on the face of the earth, have come to be recognised as among the most happy and prosperous".
Those who trace their ancestry to before the Reformation may well contest this statement, but there can be no doubt that Jersey has been greatly enriched by these 'strangers' who over many years have amply repaid the hospitality offered them by the island.
The organizers of Huguenot Heritage Year presented white mulberry trees to a number of places which had welcomed a sizeable Huguenot community. In Canterbury one was planted in the garden of the Guildhall near a Huguenot burial ground. In Rochester another stands in the 'Huguenot' garden at La Providence with a medlar tree and various herbs, all thought to have been introduced by the refugees. The tree given to Jersey was planted in the garden of the Museum at Pier Road by Jurat Max Lucas, descendant of a Huguenot from Normandy. This mulberry tree and the commemorative goblet acquired by Société for the Museum will serve to remind us of an important chapter in our island history.