Above: A few of the many large tombs and gravestones to be seen in the old Huguenot Burial Ground.
The story of the Huguenots in London is, to many people, an unfamiliar subject. A few words of introduction will be given. You are probably well aware of the break with the Catholic Church that took place in England during the reign of Henry VIII. That resulted in the execution of any Roman Catholic in England who did not renounce their faith. On the Continent, a new Protestant movement began to emerge and it met with similar antagonism by the Catholics. To try to overcome the problems, religious leaders met and an Edict was drawn up in the City of Nantes, in Western France, to try to bring about religious tolerance. The ‘peace’ held for a while but in 1685 came the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and massacres occurred in many places in France. The Huguenots – who were French Protestants, mainly from northern France, inspired by the writings of John Calvin – really had little choice other than to flee for their lives.
Because England had become Protestant many years earlier, many about 200,000 Huguenots sought refuge on these shores. They spread to many places in England and settled in many towns and cities. A large proportion of the Huguenot immigrants were highly skilled in a variety of crafts. For example, Spitalfields, just east of the City of London, was where many Huguenots settled – becoming famous for their silk-weaving skills. There are still many Huguenot descendants still living in England, many with French names. Joseph Bazalgette (engineer for the Victoria Embankment) was of Huguenot descent. The Courtauld family are another example.
Our topic today concerns the Huguenots who settled in and around the village of Wandsworth. Because the Huguenots have integrated into English society, their presence is not so obvious today because it is well over three hundred years since they first settled here. Wandsworth is probably the only places in London where a Huguenot Cemetery still exists – although no burials now take place there.
The burial site was opened about 1687. It later became known as ‘Mount Nod’ and it was enlarged in 1700 and again in 1735. It remained in use until 1854 when it was closed under the Metropolitan Burials Act. Today it comes under the care of Wandsworth Council who replaced the railings around the perimeter in 2003. It later reopened as a public garden and contains a number of historic monuments. In 1911 a memorial was erected to the memory of the Wandsworth Huguenots and that can still be seen. Today the burial ground is only open on request, by contacting the Parks Department. The site is now a noisy one being sandwiched at the fork of two busy one-way streets called East Hill and Huguenot Place. Not only is Huguenot Place a reminder of these unusual French settlers but a short distance away (to the north) is a street called Nantes Close.
At one time there was a Huguenot church in the village of Wandsworth and the burial ground on East Hill served for burials of the worshippers. Not being members of the Church of England, it would have been necessary for the Huguenots to have their own separate burial ground. Today, it is probably the only remaining Huguenot burial ground in Inner London – maybe also in Greater London.
As has already been mentioned, it was the Huguenots’ remarkable skill in silk-weaving that made Spitalfields very famous. Wandsworth also was made famous by other skilled Huguenots who worked in quite different crafts. Around 1780 they settled in Wandsworth and were skilled hatters and dyers. When the cardinals in Rome began to order hats from them, their industry made Wandsworth famous throughout Europe. The Huguenots settled in Wandsworth because of the purity and power of the River Wandle, which was ideal for the bleaching and dyeing of felt.
The Huguenots were also renowned for their iron and copper ware, such as brass plates for kettles and frying pans. Dutch Yard (south off Wandsworth High Street) and Coppermill Lane (west off Plough Lane) have names that are reminders of where the Flemish settlers once worked.