Rochester Visitor Centre and Art Gallery where the Huguenot Museum occupies the upper floors. Photo by B. Julien
Opened in 2015 by Princess Alexandra, in premises acquired by the French Hospital close to its sheltered accommodation facility in Rochester’s High Street, the Huguenot Museum was, and remains, the first and only museum of its kind in the United Kingdom. It tells the story of Britain’s first refugees, of the crafts and trades they brought with them, and documents their unique contribution to the development of skills in this country. It is estimated that around 50,000 Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in France came to settle in England from the sixteenth century to the early 1700s. A very large number came as a result of Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The edict, issued in 1598 by Louis’ grandfather, Henry IV, had, for 87 years, given French Protestants a degree of religious toleration in a mainly Catholic country, but its revocation was a royal licence to perpetrate violent persecution against them.
The Museum’s graphic displays and objects illustrate the persecution which began in earnest from the early 1680s, when regiments of unruly dragoons were billeted on Huguenot families to induce them to renounce their faith. The objects include a miniature bible which could be hidden in a woman’s chignon, as well as a much larger one which was baked in a loaf of bread to conceal it, since bibles written in the vernacular were forbidden. Yet they constituted a vital resource for Huguenot families to pass on the reformed faith to their children, and, in the process, to ensure their literacy. In fact, bible reading was an integral feature of Huguenot family life, and France’s Huguenot population was known for its high level of literacy at all levels of society.
Throughout France, on little or no pretext, Protestant places of worship, the temples, were razed to the ground after the Revocation, with some reduced to wasteland for pigs to scavenge on. Just outside Paris the large temple of Charenton, which could seat 4000 worshippers, suffered cruelly. Burnt down in 1623 during riots against "heretics" and rebuilt in 1624 with the permission of Louis XIII, it was demolished in 1685 on the order of his son, Louis XIV. The above image of its former splendour, an engraving displayed in the Museum, was created in 1708 as a meaningful memory for the friendly Society of Parisians, one of the first regional groups of refugees set up in London to create a solidarity fund for those members who had fallen on hard times.
The Museum also displays the rich collections of the French Hospital, many of which, particularly the examples of silverware, were created by Huguenot refugee artisans or their descendants. Displayed on the walls are a number of fine portraits of French Hospital Directors and others involved in linked Huguenot charities; some of these paintings have been recently restored. Early on in the Museum’s history, exhibitions were held on the craft of weaving, echoing the display of silks woven by former silk weavers among the French Hospital residents at its earlier home, in Victoria Park, Hackney.
Outreach activities at the Museum involving school groups were an early initiative, and these continue to take place in a dedicated teaching area, as do lectures, and launches of books on Huguenot themes in the modern lecture theatre. In the study room, family history research can be undertaken for visitors interested in their Huguenot descent, based on the publications of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and online resources.
The effects of the Covid pandemic on small museums have been well documented, and like many others the Huguenot Museum was forced to close its doors to visitors in the autumn of 2021. Now reopened, since August 2022, the Museum has recently launched a new programme of exhibitions, starting with Refugees! Huguenots and Ukrainians which runs from 19 June 2023 to 1 March 2024, the launch having coincided with Refugee Week 2023. Mindful in its displays and projects of the successive waves of refugees arriving on these shores, with this current exhibition the Museum continues its interaction with modern-day refugees by showcasing the work of two Ukrainian paintings conservators from Kyiv, who, thanks to generous donor funding in this country, have expertly cleaned and conserved two important portraits: those of Jean Jacob, 1708-1787, a former director of the Westminster French Protestant School, and Anne Courtauld, his second wife. Hence Jacob, a goldsmith from Metz in the east of France, married into the famous Courtauld family, originally refugees from the Ile d’Oleron off the west coast of France. Over the generations, the Huguenot Courtauld family was to make an enormous contribution to both the silversmithing and textile industries of this country.
A quilt produced by members of Medway’s Ukrainian community and their local supporters has been lent for the exhibition, each square recording either the maker’s area of origin in Ukraine or the place of settlement in Medway. An impressive number of Ukrainian nationals have found refuge with local families in the borough since the onset of war in their country in early 2022, and the opportunity to display the quilt, a symbol of the community's strength in adversity, was gratefully accepted.
Also featured in the exhibition is the account of the escape from France to Dover in 1686 of Isaac Minet, on loan from the Huguenot Library. One of many seventeenth century Huguenot refugees to come to this country, Isaac crossed clandestinely from Calais with his mother and other members of his family in a rowing boat, sent over from Dover by his brother Stephen. He and his mother had been imprisoned in appalling conditions in Calais at the time of the Revocation, and, like many others, were forced to abjure their Protestant faith. After a time in London running a liquor shop with his brother Ambrose, in 1690 he joined his ailing brother Stephen in Dover, from where he later ran the Dover-Calais packet boat service. Records show that by 1721, Isaac owned four packet boats running between Dover, Calais and Boulogne. Later, naturalised and working with his Dutch nephew, Peter Fector, he also offered trading and banking facilities via the increasing use of bills of exchange, backed up by reserves of currency. Over time, the Minet-Fector bank would become well known in maritime circles.
The Huguenot Museum runs a Friends’ membership scheme which gives free entry and other benefits, and which is tailored for three categories of membership from junior to senior. Visitors from the capital are well served by a fast rail service from London St Pancras and London Victoria. Indeed, Rochester's railway station is but a stone’s throw from the Museum’s back entrance, as from the many other tourist attractions clustered around the pedestrianised High Street. These include the Norman castle on the east bank of the Medway, Rochester’s fine Cathedral and its museum in the crypt, Restoration House where Charles II stayed overnight in 1660 on his return to England as the country's monarch, and Eastgate House museum, where one can see in the grounds the Swiss chalet where Charles Dickens wrote several of his novels. Dickens, Kent's famous son, used the city of Rochester as a backdrop in several of his works, some of which were illustrated by an artist of Huguenot descent, Hablot Knight Browne, better known as Phiz. But that’s another story, and one which the Museum may tell in a future display.
T. Murdoch and R. Vigne, The French Hospital in England: Its Huguenot History and Collections (Cambridge, 2009).