CELEBRATING YOUR PROJECTS
Alan Crosby takes a look at a major new museum and heritage project in Kent that celebrates the Huguenots
Alan looks at a major new museum in Kent that celebrates the Huguenots
The Derek Jacobi episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, which was broadcast in August, highlighted the significance of Huguenot ancestry as well as the migration of Protestants from France and the Low Countries to Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The name probably derives from the 16th-century Flemish term ‘huis genooten’, which means ‘housemates’ and refers to the fact that these early Protestants met secretly in people’s houses.
Many people are proud to claim descent from Huguenot forebears and these refugees had a powerful and long-lasting influence upon many towns and villages in eastern and southern England especially. They were likely to be educated, skilled and with entrepreneurial and business talents, ideally suited to the developing textile industries and other commercial activities.
Now the Huguenots and their world are the subject of a major new museum and heritage project at Rochester in Kent, a city that has close connections with the Huguenot homelands through its river trade.
The £1.5 million museum, which has recently opened with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, tells the story of the people who fled religious persecution three centuries ago, and explains about their crafts and trades, skills, and cultural and intellectual activities. It was established as a trust and registered charity in 2014.
The drive for the founding of the museum came from its sister charity, the French Hospital, which provides care through sheltered accommodation for descendants of Huguenots. This organisation was founded back in 1718, when it was granted a royal charter by George I to provide support and assistance to poor refugee Huguenots.
The hospital was based in London, first in Finsbury and later at Victoria Park in Hackney. However, in 1965 it moved to Rochester and took over Theobalds Square, a group of Georgian townhouses just off the High Street of the historic town, not far from the cathedral.
Renamed La Providence, it is now a peaceful and elegant 18th-century quadrangle with 60 flats, a common room, offices and attractive gardens. Since 1718, at every meeting of the court or board of governors and directors of the charity, a prayer has been offered: “Bénis cette maison, que ta Providence a préparée pour nos affligés” – (“Bless this habitation, which Thy good Providence hath prepared for those among us who are in distress”). This reminds us of the founding mission of the charity, to help desperate refugees fleeing from possible death and certain destitution at home.
During the three centuries following its foundation, the French Hospital built up a major collection of paintings and portraits, artefacts and archive material relating to the charity itself and, more widely, to the Huguenots and their story. The aim of the museum project was to present and display this material, to explain the “hidden history” of the people concerned, and to encourage further research and exploration of Huguenot ancestry. This will help to build up a more rounded and complete picture of a comparatively little-known aspect of 18thand 19th-century Britain.
It’s housed on the upper floors of the historic building that also accommodates the Medway Visitor Information Centre and art gallery. The archive collection is being catalogued and the artefacts are already comprehensively listed and can be viewed online.
Visitors are welcome, not only to tour the museum but also to undertake family and local history research using the museum’s collections, while there is a varied and lively programme of events, talks and lectures, workshops and educational activities for all ages.
It’s great to see this new resource, which is bound to be of real interest to anyone with Huguenot ancestry. Take a trip to delightful Rochester and see for yourself!
The Huguenots had a long-lasting influence upon towns and villages in Eastern and southern England
The e £1 £1.5 5 million Huguenot Museum is packed
with a wide range of fascinating artefacts