Alan Crosby takes a look at a ma­jor new mu­seum and her­itage pro­ject in Kent that cel­e­brates the Huguenots

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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