At a time when the nation's schools are closed due to the pandemic, except for disadvantaged children or those of key workers, we take a look at an educational institution set up in the 18th century to provide for disadvantaged children of Huguenot descent. The archives of this school, the French Protestant School of Westminster, are held at the Huguenot Library. The school was founded in 1747 by a group of wealthy Huguenots who became increasingly concerned about the fate of the Huguenot orphans sent to workhouses or growing up illiterate and without any form of education. The institution they planned to create would feed and clothe the children, teach them basic numerical skills, how to read and write in French and English, sing the Psalms, and provide them with a sound religious instruction. Furthermore, the girls would be taught to sew and knit their own clothes, as well as those of the boys. In order to attend the school one had to provide proof of either being a French Protestant or being a descendant of one. As a result, baptism certificates, parents’ marriage certificates and information on Huguenot descent are often available in the students’ files.
The institution occupied two houses in Windmill Street, near Tottenham Court Road, until 1846, when it moved to a newly built house in Plumtree Street, next to the French Savoy Church. The number of pupils in the school varied throughout the years, mainly depending on the sums that could be raised from the institution’s benefactors. Generally, about thirty students divided in equal numbers between boys and girls were admitted up to 1813. At this date, the financial difficulties that recurrently plagued the school from its creation, intensified. Therefore, the Directors decided to close the boys' section, sublet one of the houses occupied by the former students and dismiss the Master, whose services were no longer required. The change is illustrated in the surviving receipts, which went from depicting a boy and a girl wearing uniforms to two girls.
This drastic measure was just the last in a series of decisions aimed at reducing expenses, such as buying poorer quality bread and changing the girls' uniform from blue to a cheaper grey fabric. This was more hard-felt than would initially appear, as the institution was known in the Huguenot community as 'The Blue Coat School’.
The minutes shed light on some of the students’ misbehaviour, such as hitting one of the teachers, in 1783; burying letters in the fields instead of delivering them, in 1793, and climbing on the church’s roof next to the school, in 1868. In 1783, a number of boys managed to throw stones and break one of the neighbouring property’s windows, whilst the Directors were meeting and witnessed the entire scene. One wonders if the students were rather unlucky or very brazen! The entry in the minutes pictured below recalls the event, as well as the punishment imposed
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the institution had a good reputation and was well liked. It is indeed common to see several generations of the same family attending it.
The main aim of the school was to enable the children to become apprentices when they left at 14. This was achieved successfully and many of the boys were given apprenticeships in trades typical of the Huguenot community, such as tailors, cobblers, weavers, jewellers and watch makers. Many of the girls would, on the other hand, be placed in domestic service, or as lace-makers, menders and dressmakers.
The school finally closed in 1924, and was replaced in 1927 by the Westminster French Protestant School Foundation, a trust which provides help for pupils of Huguenot descent. http://www.wfpsf.org.uk/wfpsf.html
Further reading: Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, vol. 4, William Morris Beaufort, ‘Records of the French Protestant School, founded by Huguenot refugees, 1747’; vols 12 and 13, Susan Minet, ‘Ecole de Charité Française de Westminster’; vol 27, Keith Le May, 'The Westminster French Protestant Charity School: apprenticeships of former pupils, 1750-1815'. These articles have been digitized and are available to Huguenot Society members via the members' page of the website.