History of The French Hospital
"Bénis cette maison, que ta Providence a préparée pour nos affligés"
This plea lies at the heart of the prayer which has opened every meeting of the Court of The French Hospital since September 1718. In translation it reads 'Bless this habitation, which Thy good Providence hath prepared for those among us who are in distress'; both its meaning and the continuity of its use perhaps symbolise most effectively the long and fascinating history here condensed into a few paragraphs.
France's persecution of her Protestant people, or Huguenots as they came to be called, brought the first refugees to England in the mid 16th century. The Edict of Nantes of 1598 allowed them tolerance and they were left in comparative peace by Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin; however, this was but the lull before the storm, for Mazarin's death in 1661 marked the beginning of Louis XIV's plan for the cruel and systematic elimination of the French Protestants. The King's Revocation of the Edict in 1685 was the climax of his campaign of persecution, and for the Huguenots, escape to a Protestant country was their only hope. In the end, as is well known, France's loss was Britain's gain, for these Huguenots were the possessors of highly-developed skills in finance, industry and the arts, particularly metal working and textile manufacture, and they were to make a major contribution to the rise of Britain's industry and trade. But, of course, there would be some who would not succeed, for whom the terrors left behind and the flight to life in a strange land would be too much, and it was for these people that The French Hospital was founded.
The Huguenots were sympathetically received in an England that was seeking her own Protestant affirmation, which was to be marked by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Charles II had ordered funds for the refugees to be collected in every parish, and it was William III's Queen Mary who founded the Royal Bounty for refugees' aid. The fund was administered as part of a self-help scheme by the Huguenot community, whereby those already established here helped to find homes and work for the new arrivals and cared for the old and sick. In 1708, Jacques de Gastigny, a gentleman of kind heart, sometime Master of the Buckhounds to William III, left £1000 in his Will to be of benefit to the refugees he had seen in pitiable conditions at the old Pest House 'in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate'. It was his executor and friend, the Rev. Philippe Ménard, a Minister at St James's Chapel Royal, who worked to bring these wishes and means to a beneficial end with the building of the first Hospital and its incorporation by a Royal Charter from George I in 1718.
The first French Hospital, Bath St, Finsbury
The First Hospital
The first La Providence, as it soon became affectionately known, was in Bath Street in the parish of St Luke's, Finsbury, very near to the place where Old Street and City Road meet today. It was built on the 'Golden Acre' near a local landmark, the 'Peerless Pool'; old prints show a three-storey building in plainest Georgian style set around two quadrangles. The garden was surrounded by the orchards and market gardens which lined the 'green lane' to Islington.
It was not difficult to find people in need of the Hospital, and there were 125 residents by 1723; the number rose steadily and was maintained between 220 and 230 for the next 70 years. Money and care were still distributed into the Huguenot community at large, and the records show that temporary treatment was given to the young and sick, as well as the old and poor. Several children, like 10-year old Nathaniel Bobin, were cared for, and the Hospital also accommodated the mentally ill - 'distracted persons' as they were called - one of whom was Jacques Ray, a goldsmith, who had taken to 'running about the streets like a madman forsaking his business and crying Oranges and Lemons.....'. There is a wealth of detail in the Hospital's records, now, with its library, in University College, London, merged with the library of the Huguenot Society, as the Huguenot Library. These records present a sad catalogue of human failings and misfortunes (though not completely devoid of touches of humour): a vivid reminder that there was a darker side to that elegantly housed and landscaped world that we like to remember as Georgian England.
The Nineteenth Century
At the opening of the 19th Century the French Hospital at Bath Street is seen in decline. The city had spread, the rural surroundings were gone, the Huguenots themselves had become absorbed into English society, and perhaps war with France made them made them more patriotically English - whatever the reasons, there was no great celebration of the first 100 years in 1818.
However, the work of the Hospital was carried on in a minor key until it was possible to find a new home. In 1862 three acres of land at Victoria Park in the 'salubrious village' of Hackney, were bought for £3,600, and one of the Directors, Robert Louis Roumieu F.R.I.B.A., designed the new building. It is typical of the goodwill that surrounds this story that he would not take a fee for doing so. The new Hospital was much praised. It was a fashionable Victorian Gothic version of a small French chateau, and it was opened in June 1865 with accommodation for 40 women and 20 men, a steward and his wife and nurses and servants, besides a Chapel, a Library and spacious dayrooms. It seems that the Directors were happy to ignore criticism from the Charity Commissioners that their inmates were treated too well! They were certainly not idle, for life at Victoria Park recognised that it was necessary for those able to do so to make themselves useful in the community. To mark the Golden Jubilee of 1887 the residents presented Queen Victoria with a black silk dress made by twelve weaveresses among their number.
More Recent Times
So, life at Victoria Park ran smoothly until 1934, when the Hospital's Treasurer, Arthur Hervé Browning, had to report in his Presidential Address to the Huguenot Society that the London County Council had 'set envious eyes on our little Naboth's vineyard' which was threatened with compulsory purchase. The War intervened, the residents were sent out of London, and the much-loved Hospital was requisitioned for the war effort and damaged by bombing.
After the War, faced with difficulty in re-possessing Victoria Park and the looming compulsory purchase order, the Directors reconsidered the situation and decided to buy a large country house, Comptons Lea near Horsham in Sussex, as a residential home. However, Comptons Lea proved to be too isolated and inconvenient for elderly people, and they reconsidered again - was there even a need for their Hospital in the welfare state? It was decided that the wishes of countless past benefactors and the needs of present applicants would be best served by the provision of sheltered housing.
The move to Theobald Square, renamed La Providence, off High Street, Rochester, in 1965 was the result. Here the original 39 flats grew, with its extension to the City Wall, to 60, a Common Room was built and gardens developed, making The French Hospital a home for residents and staff, and a site for its treasures, in an enviable setting. Here residents can enjoy their privacy and have their own furniture and belongings around them, with help in sickness or emergency always at hand.
How to Apply
In order to qualify for residence within La Providence or benefit from its outside care, applicants must be able to satisfy the Directors of their direct descent from a French Protestant family and themselves be resident in Great Britain. Anyone wishing to be considered for help, or knowing a Huguenot descendant in need, should apply in the first instance to The Clerk, 41, La Providence, Rochester, Kent ME1 1NB.