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The French Hospital in England: Its Huguenot History and Collection.

The French Hospital In England: Its Huguenot History and Collection

Tessa Murdoch and Randolph Vigne

Cambridge: John Adamson, 2009

ISBN 978 0952432272, 128pp, h/b, 30 [pounds sterling]

The French Hospital in England, affectionately known as 'La Providence' is the remarkable story of the founding and continuance of one of the earliest health and welfare institutions set up in England. The French Hospital was established with an initial endowment in 1708, and this publication is intended to mark that Tercentenary. After many hardships and persecutions, French Protestants--Huguenots--finally left France in their thousands following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, to seek religious freedom. Of the quarter of a million or so who rushed to leave France, some 40% of the fugitives came to Britain and the Netherlands, bringing with them the description refugies. They also brought with them highly developed craft skills, considerable mercantile experience and an abundance of artistic ability. The Huguenots showed a marked sense of loyalty to their adopted country and as well as their wealth creating skills, they served with valour in all ranks of the armed services. Thus it was that the French Hospital served the needs of Huguenots who were not only frail and those sick in mind and body, but also those wounded in the service of England and no longer able to earn a living. A responsibility one might add which is still maintained with temporary accommodation now being made available to soldiers who have served in the current theatres of war.

When the Tercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was marked by an exhibition in 1985, it carried the title 'The Quiet Conquest'. An apt phrase because it hints at the many ways in which British life was enhanced by the seamless way in which Huguenots quietly integrated into and formed a part of English history. Thus the Huguenots, broadly speaking, seemed to avoid the full weight of suspicion and jealousies often harboured by indigenous populations for immigrants.

The French Hospital has occupied four different sites over three centuries and through the generosity of benefactors and the diligence of generations of administrators, has collected an important historic archive and a fine collection of silver, paintings and artefacts. The real joy of this book is the way in which the authors, both distinguished experts in the field of Huguenot history and directors of the French Hospital, have used the Hospital's archive to such good effect. The description of the various collections reflects their considerable expertise and enthusiasm, whilst their treatment of the personae dramatis provides a more human dimension. From the enlightened philanthropist founders and directors to the elderly woman patient in the 18th Century who collected and stored half a hundredweight of coal under her bed.

The tenacity of purpose in the direction and management of the French Hospital is well covered by the chapter on the 700 or so directors who have served during the last 300 years. In some cases directors were also involved in the management of similar early institutions such as the Foundlings' Hospital and the London Hospital. The early directors were a fascinating assortment of Huguenot professionals, craftsmen and artists whose commitment and philanthropy sometimes continued for generations within the same family. Their armorial shields on which there is a most interesting commentary testify to the venerability of their origins. There is a splendid illuminated family tree showing 'The Huguenot Ancestry of the Royal Highnesses the Prince William and the Prince Henry from the Royal and Noble Houses of France and their related families'.

The subject of Huguenot heraldry associated with the Hospital is extended to 18th- and 19th-century bookplates, many belonging to directors. The designs reflect their happy enthusiasm for adopting the 'English style'.

Irene Scoulandi, a very long serving honorary editor of the Huguenot Society and a past editor of the British Archaeological Association, once commented that 'Huguenot history' was one thing, but greater importance lay in the history of the Huguenots as part of English history. The process of reappraising and re-integrating the Huguenot refugees into the mainstream of British history has been further helped by this excellent book.

Andrew Gillett is Clerk to The Worshipful Company of Founders (and a descendant of clock-making Huguenots)
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Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gillet, Andrew
Publication:Art and Christianity
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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