Huguenot refugees landing at Dover, from the bicentenary commemorative issue of The Graphic, 1885. Huguenot Library
Founded in 1885, the year of the bicentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenot Society of London was the brainchild of several directors of the French Hospital, which at that time was flourishing in its second home at Victoria Park, Hackney. Chief among its founders was a civil engineer of Waldensian descent, Arthur Giraud Browning, 1835-1907. Browning worked tirelessly for the Huguenot cause, serving not only as the Hospital’s Honorary Secretary for 23 years, but subsequently as its Deputy Governor, 1898-1907. He agreed to act as the new Society’s interim Honorary Secretary when the proposed candidate withdrew, handing over once it was securely set up and becoming a Vice-President at that point, and later the Society’s fourth President, 1902-1905. It was thanks to Browning’s energy and vision, and to the channels of communication he had set up with similar societies abroad, that the Huguenot Society had come into existence in the first place, and it was he who encouraged Council members to donate books and manuscripts to form a library for the new body. In January 1900 the Huguenot Society Library was to merge with the French Hospital Library, which Browning had nurtured since 1876, thus forming the jointly-owned Huguenot Library.
Like Browning, the other founding fathers were men of distinction, some Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, and all enthusiastic about the new project. They were becoming aware of the need to collect and transcribe archives which were not easily accessible, whether it was Huguenot church registers and consistory minutes, returns of strangers, naturalisation records, wills, or individual personal histories; most of them, at Browning’s suggestion, were in fact already engaged in researching their own pedigrees, with the help of the famous Huguenot genealogist Sir Henry Wagner, also a French Hospital director and a co-founder of the London Society.
As their first President they chose Sir Henry Austen Layard, 1817-1894, a recent director of La Providence, as the Hospital was known. A renowned archaeologist, art historian, politician and diplomat, Layard was perhaps best known as the excavator of Nimrud, and of Nineveh, where he had uncovered a large proportion of the known Assyrian palace reliefs in the 1840s, and in 1851, the cuneiform clay tablet library of Ashurbanipal, the object of a British Museum exhibition in 2019. Born in Paris to a family of Huguenot descent and brought up in Italy, a former ambassador to the Sublime Porte and an accomplished linguist, Henry Layard was ideally suited to take on the interchange with Protestant societies in Europe, America, and South Africa which was to characterise the early years of the Huguenot Society of London. Some of these societies had been established for a number of years, and led the way in collecting and indexing relevant material, whether related to the Huguenot diaspora or to the history of France’s persecuted Huguenot minority.
The inaugural meeting of the new Huguenot Society of London took place on 15 April 1885 at the Criterion Hotel, Piccadilly, and the minutes of this first meeting were read and confirmed a month later, on 13 May, again at the Criterion, where meetings, followed by dinner, were to take place for some years. At that second meeting, chaired by Vice-President Colonel Sir Edmund F. Du Cane, since Layard was in residence at his palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, the Society's Council elected as Honorary Fellows the Presidents and principal officers of the French Protestant, Walloon or Huguenot societies of France, Holland, America, and South Africa, as well as several Huguenot scholars and the French-speaking Pastor of the refugee church which met, and still meets, within the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
The President of the French Society, La Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (SHPF), based in Paris, was Baron Fernand de Schickler, 1835-1909, a banker and a historian, who had played an influential role in the creation of its London counterpart. Descended from a family of bankers of Hungarian origin, who for religious reasons had long lived in exile, in Bâle, Mulhouse, and Berlin, Schickler - like Layard - was born in Paris, where the dynasty had finally settled. Elected President of the SHPF in 1865, thirteen years after its creation, he continued in post until his death in 1909, holding in addition numerous other positions within the French Protestant movement, particularly within the sphere of Protestant education. He was a great benefactor to the SHPF, endowing it with its present premises on the Left Bank in Paris where he founded the Society’s magnificent library, recently restored and modernised, yet retaining its original design and character.
At the London Society’s November 1885 meeting, where ten women were among the proposed new members, a detailed report was read on the bicentenary commemorations, held the previous month at St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green and at La Providence in Hackney, and attended by 400 people. At the same meeting, a vote of thanks was proposed to Monsieur le Baron de Schickler for the valuable paper he had contributed to the evening’s proceedings, namely an overview of the churches of the Refuge in England, which prefigured his three-volume work, Histoire des Eglises du Refuge en Angleterre, which would be published in 1892. Indeed, Schickler was a frequent visitor during this period, consulting Henry Wagner, and researching his subject at the library of the French Protestant Church of London at St Martin le Grand in the City, before its installation in 1893 at Soho Square.
Schickler and Layard formed a close bond, and at the next Society meeting, in January 1886, Layard announced that the SHPF, through its President, had cordially invited all Fellows to consult its ‘extensive and valuable library’, which Schickler advised was due to leave his home at the Place Vendôme on 1st February for new premises at the Rue des Saints-Pères, where it would be open four days a week, instead of one. The following year, in March 1887, Layard reported that having stopped over in Paris on his way back from Italy, he had been shown over the SHPF Library by the learned librarian and editor of the Société’s journal, Nathanaël Weiss, an Honorary Fellow of the London Society, and that ‘nothing could exceed the kindness and courtesy with which I was received by the Baron.’ Layard also attended a SHPF meeting in Rouen that year, with Schickler returning the compliment by joining the London Society’s first summer conference, held in Canterbury and Sandwich in July 1887.
Alongside these fruitful exchanges, the London Society’s transcription work had started in earnest, with the first Quarto Series volume on the Walloon Church of Norwich being produced in 1888 by William J.C. Moens, who was to serve as President of the Society, 1898-1902, and the sixth volume, Layard’s transcription of the despatches of the Venetian Ambassadors at the Court of France, 1560-63, appearing in 1891, barely three years later. It was Moens who had read the very first paper to the Society in May 1885, at the request of Arthur Giraud Browning, extensively listing the extant manuscripts and calling for devotees of Huguenot history to transcribe, arrange and index the registers and other documents, so ‘that the newly founded Huguenot Society of London may take its place with honour beside the similar societies of France and Holland’ – La Commission pour l’Histoire des Eglises Wallonnes, by dint of hard work, having set up a card index of the members of the 54 French Walloon churches in the Netherlands.
Work has since continued steadily, with Quarto Series volume no. 64 now in hand, 136 years of Journals, and many supplementary publications. Much of the published output is now available online as a membership benefit, and the Society, now the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland, has continued to grow, its numbers having been greatly swelled in 1985 by its tercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes programme: as Henry Layard made clear in March 1887, it is not necessary to be of Huguenot descent to become a member, and all those interested in Huguenot research and fellowship are welcome. Links with our 20 corresponding societies worldwide are maintained partly through international meetings and conferences, partly through the exchange of journals. The SHPF, our sister society in Paris, 33 years our senior, admirably continues to produce four a year.
Minutes of Council meetings in Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, Vol. I, no. 1, 1885; no. 2, January 1886; no. 3, March 1886; no. 4, May 1886; Vol II, no. 1, November 1886 - May 1888; Vol III, no. 1, 1888-91.
J. Tsushima, ‘The Founding Fathers’, Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, Vol. XXIV, no. 3, pp. 177-88.
The above articles have been digitized and are available to Huguenot Society members via the members' page of the website.
La Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français https://www.shpf.f
For a list of the Wagner Pedigree files available at the Huguenot Library, click here