Archives insight: Refugee Week 2023 - Meet the Huguenots

Archives insight: Refugee Week 2023 - Meet the Huguenots

20 June 2023

For this year's 'Refugee Week' we're looking at the story of the Huguenots - French Protestants who took refuge in some of our towns and cities, including Plymouth, in the late 1600s. They brought a range of valuable skills with them and introduced the word ‘refugee’ into the English language.

The Édit De Nantes was a law passed on 13 April 1598 by Henry IV of France. It gave the Huguenots religious liberty and civil rights in a largely Catholic country, but it was not to last. A Plymouth news sheet dated 6 September 1681, contained a notice stating: ‘An open boat arrived here yesterday, in which were forty or fifty French protestants who reside outside Rochelle…….’

After King Louis XIV cancelled the Édit on 18 October 1685, more Huguenots fled. In France they were referred to as 'réfugié'. By 1692 there were Huguenot congregations in Plymouth and Stonehouse. On our 1778 map at the top of this page the ‘K’ in the centre marks the location of a French Protestant church.

There are conflicting reports about where Huguenot meetings took place. In the proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London (Vol XX No 2) a meeting house near ‘ffrankfort’ (Frankfort), Plymouth is recorded in 1689. Later, a rate book mentions a French Church in Upper Looe Street Ward near the Barbican. In his ‘A History of Plymouth and Her Neighbours’, historian C W Bracken mentions the congregation worshipping in the Black Friars (now the Plymouth Gin Distillery building).

Some also used St Andrew’s Church and this is reflected in one of the parish registers. The first child baptised from the Huguenot community there was James Chaille, son of James and Anna, on 27 October 1689. You can see this entry at the top of the second column in this image.

A1600s baptism register from St Andrews church in Plymouth showing French surnames

The baptisms cover the period 1689 to 1728 and feature a range of other French surnames. Surnames cam also still found locally in other registers including Touzeau (now Tozer), Vial, Conde, Cundy, Arnold and Lamoureux.

By the early 1760s, the Plymouth congregation disbanded and any remaining members joined the Batter Street Presbyterians. The Stonehouse congregation was dissolved in 1810. You cam search our online archives catalogue for more information about the archival records we hold.

The Huguenots were in large part artisans, craftspeople, merchants and professionals. Although they eventually ceased to stand out as foreign they made their presence felt in the arts, sciences and industry where they settled. If you’re interested in their story, there's a great deal of information available online, all of which reveals a fascinating tale and legacy in many parts of the UK and beyond.

With thanks to Deborah Lister, Archivist