La Providence – The French Hospital

The tranquillity of the picturesque French Hospital situated off Rochester High Street, belies a distant history of brutality that required French protestants to escape persecution, and the deprivations their infirm members would have experienced as they tried to make a new life in England

The French Hospital / La Providence, that provides accommodation for people of Huguenot descent who are in need, arrived in Rochester in the late 1950’s. Rochester City Council encouraged the interest of the charity by providing financial assistance towards the purchase of what was then known as Theobald Square, and a nearby property. 

More recently the French Hospital acquired the Visitors Centre in which it has created the only museum in Britain that tells the Huguenot story.

The following outlines the circumstances that drove the Huguenots (French Protestants) to flee France, and how their endeavours to provided for their needy compatriots may have set up the first modern voluntary hospital in Britain.

Before telling more of how the French Hospital came to Rochester first let me outline their story of persecution that led to many Huguenots crossing the Channel to seek refuge in England.

The Rush of Protestants from France

During the late 16th century there was a prolonged period of war in France that became known as the French Wars of Religion. The war was effectively over which family would rule France – one was Roman Catholic and the other Protestant who followed the teachings of John Calvin. 

In 1572, in what became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, thousands of Huguenots were killed – effectively paralysing the Huguenot movement as so many of its leaders were killed in the massacre. The trauma was such that many Huguenots converted back to being Catholic.

To try and bring about peace, essential to the wellbeing of France, Henry IV of France (a Catholic who was sympathetic to the Protestant cause) issued a decree known as the ‘Edict of Nantes’ that he hoped would deliver freedoms and tolerance for the protestant Huguenots, and in turn deliver peace and stability for the country. 

Although a worthy effort, the level of tolerance shown waxed and waned according to domestic politics. Eventually in 1685 the ‘’Edict of Nantes’ was renounced by Louis XIV. Although war did not break out again, around 200,000 Huguenot’s made their escape from France – travelling across Europe and further afield. Perhaps spotting an opportunity, James II made it known that the Huguenot’s would be welcomed in Britain and would be free to worship as they pleased – something that was truly assured when the Protestant William of Orange and James’s daughter Mary were enthroned as British monarchs in 1688; and so they arrived in increasing numbers – Huguenot refugees skilled in finance, manufacture, pharmacy and crafts, and quite probably men with considerable military experience as a consequence of the warring history of France.

Origins of the French Hospital

For the purpose of clarification reference is often made to the ‘French Hospital’ or ‘La Providence’ – they are one of the same. La Providence meaning “God’s protective care”. However it is possible that the title of La Providence superseded that of the ‘French Hospital’ as other French Hospitals were set up – such as one in Leicester Square in London, that provided care for poor infirm people who did not speak English, and nor obtain a nomination to a hospital – see St. Barts blog 1863-1914 where people needed to be nominated for treatment by the hospital.

James II set up what was known as the Royal Bounty to support poor Huguenot refugees. It continued beyond his reign with subsequent monarchs up to and including George III, all making contributions to the fund from the Privy Purse. The fund was administered by a French Committee made up of successful Huguenots.

In 1681 the Cripplegate / Finsbury ‘Pest House’ was transferred to the fund for the support of needy Huguenots. The Pest House was used to accommodate 40 to 50 people and the French Committee paid for a resident matron and nurse, as well as the fees of visiting practitioners such as doctors and apothecaries. (Pest houses were were set up as isolation houses during the time of the plague. The Cripplegate Pest House was built around the time of the plague of 1592, and also saw service during the Great Plague of 1665.)

Cripplegate / Finsbury French Hospital: 1718 – 1865

The first French Hospital at Cripplegate / Finsbury

In 1718 the first French Hospital / La Providence was founded and some members of the  French Committee became directors of the French Hospital – a body that still exists today.  This hospitamay well have also been the first voluntary hospital set up to care for the sick poor as it predates the Westminster and Guy’s hospitals by two and nine years respectively.

Using a bequest from Jacques de Gastigny – a long term employee of William of Orange – the old and unsuitable Pest House was adapted, extended and furnished to provide better accommodation for infirm or sick French Protestants aged over 55. Over time various additions were made to improve the quality of care provided – including small cells known as ‘les petites’ to accommodate people with a mental illness, but unlike the Bedlam Hospital the occupants of these rooms were not put on public display. It appears that these ‘beds’ were eventually ‘closed’ in 1791, but a record of a consultation held in 1837, with inmates concerning the relocation of the hospital, reference to the canvassing of “those troublemakers in the disorderly ward”. 

By the time the Cripplegate hospital closed it was accommodating 60 inmates – down from 140 in 1796, and 100 in 1801.

Move to the ‘salubrious village’ of Hackney: 1865 – evacuation in 1941

The Very Modern French Hospital – Victoria Park, Hackney

In 1862 with French Hospital in Cripplegate proving inadequate, the Trustees decided to build a new hospital in the newly opened Victoria Park in the  ‘salubrious village’ of Hackney. It was designed by Robert Lewis Roumieu, a Huguenot, and provided state of the art equipment for the care for 40 female and 20 male inmates, as well as accommodation for a steward, nurses and servants. The ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment included – lavatories for men and women, baths, stores and closets, central heating, fire places and hot and cold running water throughout the building. There were also lifts to assist in the delivery of food from the kitchen and for moving heavy objects.

Following the end of the Great War (WW1) authorities were under pressure to provide better accommodation and welfare for members of the working class. As part of the initiative to improve housing in the East End of London, the London County Council (LCC) proposed in 1934 to compulsorily purchase the French Hospital in order to develop a new housing estate that would assist in slum clearance and would accommodate 3,000 people.

The Trustees endeavoured to resist the purchase – proud of the building that had by this time become a centre for research into the history of Huguenots in England – a museum and centre of learning. However in 1935 a large part of the hospital’s land was purchased by the LCC.

Plans to remodel the French Hospital and to develop a museum and library dedicated to the Huguenot history, were thwarted by the outbreak of WW2. In February 1939, and probably in recognition of their own refugee history, the Trustees made one of its building available to accommodate refugee children. (War with Germany was not declared until 1 September 1939 but many anticipating problems made their escape from Germany.)

The area of Hackney – and the French Hospital – was badly damaged during the blitz and life for the ‘inmates’ became intolerable. In May 1941 the decision was taken to evacuate the residents to Littlehampton in West Sussex, where they were accommodated with landladies. With the ‘Hackney’ French Hospital being ‘vacated’ of inmates it was requisitioned to provide childcare for mothers undertaking war work.

With the end of the war came more uncertainly for the vulnerable Huguenots. The Hackney French Hospital and the surrounding area had been devastated by bombs and the Littlehampton landladies wanted their rooms back. A far from satisfactory solution was found – prefabricated buildings on vacant land near the children’s nursery.

‘Sojourn’ to Horsham – (1947 – 1957) – and mega changes to the welfare state

With so much lost as a consequence of the compulsory purchase of land, war damage and the temporary nature of the accommodation provided for the inmates, the directors needed to take action. Changes proposed in the state’s health and welfare provision (establishment of the NHS and the National Assistance Act 1948) also enabled the directors of reassess the role of the French Hospital.

The Directors settled on selling some London assets in order to purchase a large Victorian house that was located about a mile from Horsham station at Compton’s Lea in West Sussex. It was in good order with 16 bedrooms, three reception rooms and had central heating. Although the accommodation was comfortable the cost of running the house, maintaining the grounds and the salaries of a large care-team was not sustainable with only 10 or 12 of the 16 places being taken up. The decision was therefore taken to seek more economical premises. In 1955 it was agreed to close the French hospital at Horsham and to find alternative accommodation for the eight women who were still accommodated there.

On the way to Rochester

In seeking to redesign the services provided by the charity for needy Huguenots, the Charity Commission made it clear to the Directors of the French Hospital that it would oppose the substitution of residential care with monetary grants. The Commission made it clear that the charity needed to provide residential accommodation for needy older people that enabled independent living through being accommodated close to shops and transport. The Commission however did agree to independent provision being made for the charity’s records and treasures. (This enabled La Providence and the Huguenot Museum in Rochester to be run as separate entities.) 

In searching for a new location for the French Hospital, Kent had the attraction of there probably being many people in the county with a Huguenot ancestry as a consequence of many Huguenot’s settling in Kent following their escape from France. Some years previous a proposal had been made – but apparently not pursued – to acquire a square of houses off Rochester High Street (Theobald Square) and to convert them into almshouses. In 1956, with the hunt on to provide accommodation that complied with the requirements of the Charity Commission, the Bishop of Rochester (Christopher Chavasse, who was also of Huguenot descent) invited the charity’s Directors to a meeting at Bishopscourt; here it was decided to proceed with the acquisition and conversion of Theobald Square.

Arrival in the Cathedral City of Rochester – 1959

French Hospital
La Providence – Rochester High Street

Rochester City Council were keen to support what to them was an eyesore off the high street into almshouses. The description of the houses in Theobald Square suggests they could have been ‘slum like’ – they were in a poor state of repair, still had gas lighting and outside toilets.

With an eye to the future one City councillor correctly identified the potential for the square to draw tourist from far and wide. (Based on my experience as a City of Rochester Guide I can confirm this to be the case. There are those who just enjoy viewing the picturesque scene and there are those – some from as far as Canada – who to enjoy viewing an association with their Huguenot ancestry.)

To support the project Rochester City Council rehoused the tenants still living in the square and provided financial assistance to purchase and convert the houses in the square into 39 one or two bedroom flats. The Council also assisted in the purchase of 105 High Street – a doctor’s house – that is now numbered 41 La Providence.

In September 1959 the first 19 flats were occupied, and for the first time the charity accommodated a married couple.

Over the years La Providence in Rochester has expanded. More flats have been added – expanding onto land that was previously occupied by the Maths School – as well as a common room in which social gatherings and church services are held. 

De Coligny
Admiral Gaspard de Coligny in the French Garden

There are occasional opportunities to visit these private areas – if you are able to take one I can strongly recommend it. You will be able the view the ‘other side’ of the City Wall, explore the peaceful gardens planted with shrubs and flowers associated with the Huguenots, and to view the bust of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny a Huguenot leader who was killed during the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre of 1572. In the common room, where Holy Communion is taken each week, you will be able to view a window into which eight 17th century Netherlandish stained class panels have been inserted that depicts scenes from the New Testament.


17th century Netherlandish stained class panels in the Common Room of La Providence

Huguenot papers and documents

The move to Theobald Square resolved the challenge of providing suitable accommodation for the charity’s beneficiaries, but it did not resolve the problem of how to store and make available for viewing and research, the many treasures and papers that contain valuable information about the Huguenot’s history. A solution was finally found when the Huguenot Society – separate from the branch responsible for managing the French Hospital – acquired the Visitors’ Centre in Rochester High Street. The centre now hosts a museum and documents that can assist people in tracing their Huguenot ancestors and researching the history of the Huguenots. 

A ‘Modern’ Huguenot – Christoper Chavasse.

There are many – perhaps 1 in 7 of us who may have Huguenot ancestry – however I cannot conclude this blog without providing some information about the remarkable Christopher Chavasse, a Huguenot who became a Bishop of Rochester and who did much to bring the French Hospital to Rochester. 

Christopher Chavasse (1884 – 1962) — athlete (he competed in the 1908 Summer Olympics in the 440 yards), soldier, and Bishop of Rochester from March 1940 to September 1960. He was a twin with Noel (a doctor) who was awarded the VC twice, the second posthumously, during WW1. Christopher also distinguished himself during the Great War. (Although clergy were not compelled / conscripted into the military Christopher volunteered for service, but as a clergyman he would not have carried arms.)

Bishop Christopher Chasvasse in the company on Field Marshal Lord Montgomery

In 1917 Christopher was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts to search and bring back wounded men whilst under fire. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre by France.

The citation published in the London Gazette (25/8/17) read:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. His fearlessness and untiring efforts in attending to the wounded were magnificent. Although continually under fire, he volunteered on every possible occasion to search for and bring in the wounded. No danger appeared to be too great for him to face, and he inspired others to greater effort by his splendid example.”

Following the war Christopher continued his ecclesiastical career finally being appointed Bishop of Rochester in April 1940. In 1936 in the King’s Birthday Honours List, he was awarded the OBE (military division), and in 1941 he was awarded the Efficiency Decoration (TD) for long service with the Territorial Army. This honour was awarded to part-time officers who had serviced for more than 20 years, and who had demonstrated themselves to be an efficient and thoroughly capable officer.

Bishop Christopher demonstrated great independence of thinking and probably forward thinking. He was perhaps what could be regarded as a ‘modernising traditionalist’ – if that’s not an oxymoron? I suspect he would not be entirely happy with what he would see today!

  • He was whole heartedly against divorce – he believed that the marriage bond was indissoluble and could not be terminated by the “accident of death”. (So much for ‘until death do we part! He was though probably responding to the concerns about war time marriages that took place within days of meeting and where the couple may not really appreciate the lasting significance of the bond they were making with the vows they were exchanging.)
  • He was critical of the working man who he believed worked less hours, went to bed later, and failed to discipline himself to devote Sunday to God. He expressed this whilst making the case for banning electioneering on Sundays. Although our reasons may be different I suspect many of us would not be to disappointed if there was a day / week free of Party Political campaigning?  

On a more progressive note, Bishop Christopher:

  • chaired the committee that published “Towards the Conversion of England” – a document described as one of the most controversial ever published by the Church of England, and that became a ‘best seller’. The challenge it tried to address was the reaching of 90% of the population who had no connection with Church life.
  • allowed photos to be taken in church of a couple exchanging their marriage vows as he believed the photos may be of value to them in later years; this was despite the Archbishop of Canterbury banning the taking of photographs during weddings a few weeks previous.
  • despite his feelings on divorce, he took the lead in drawing up a “dedication service” for divorced people, following a remarriage in a register office. In allowing this he directed that priests were to ensure the service was private and that it did not become “white wedding with organ, flowers and a reception”. He directed the priests to ensure that the service should be a “pale reflection” of the Church’s marriage service.
  • started a campaign to raise £600,000 in order to provide church buildings and an extended ministry to serve 24 new housing estates being developed in Rochester.

And finally – where does the term Huguenot come from? We do not know – there is no agreement. It was first used deprecatingly in 1560. 

As a community the Huguenots are probably the most successful of all immigrant groups into Britain as they have become well and truly integrated – perhaps only marking themselves out in Rochester by being resident in the French Hospital and by attending the annual service in the Cathedral – neither of which definitively identifies someone as being Huguenot!

People who know they are of Huguenot descent are rightly proud of their heritage – many of whom will wear the symbol of the Huguenot Cross, often as jewellery.

The Huguenot Cross

The symbol comes from France but its origin is less clear and the design may well have been first adopted by the refugees desirous of having a way to identify themselves to each other. There is clearly a lot of symbolism in the design, but much of it is too abstract for me to reliably say what was in the designers mind when they settled on the shape of the cross and the addition of a dove. 

Sources – many – but most useful were The French Hospital in England by Tessa Murdock / Randolph Vigne. The Royal Bounty Archive: a guide for family historians produced by the Huguenot Society, and The Huguenots by Geoffrey Treasure; as well as numerous newspaper reports found on the British Newspaper Archive concerning the life and deeds of the Chavasses.

Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler – 28 August 2018