Twenty years ago when I first embarked on my family history, I had no idea how exciting it would be. I knew virtually nothing about my maternal ancestry. My mother had died five years earlier and there were no relatives I could talk to.
My maternal grandmother, Emily Maria Gaskin, was the only one of my grandparents whom I could remember. Although she died when I was seven, I still have happy memories of the times we spent together. I was eager to find out more about her, never imagining the wealth of information I would uncover, nor the number of brick walls and distracting sidetracks I would encounter on my journey.
I knew that Emily had died in York in 1956. I discovered that she was born in 1884 in London and that she spent her early years in the Bethnal Green area. In the 1901 census her father William Samuel Pearce Gaskin is recorded as a ‘Teller of Stamps, Inland Revenue’ and seventeen-year-old Emily is a ‘Tailor – machinist trousers’. The census of 1911, however, shows Emily’s occupation as ‘Teller – printing’ so it seems she had followed in her father’s footsteps. She was employed at the time by the De La Rue Company who produced postage stamps and bank notes.
Going further back, I discovered that for generations, Emily’s family had been employed as silk weavers or in related occupations in the same part of London. The 1841 census, for example, recorded that both Emily’s great grandfather William Sherrard (1812-1864) and his father John (1769-1852) were silk weavers in Bethnal Green. It is in fact possible to trace the family back much earlier, mainly through the extensive records and publications of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
The first wave of Huguenots arrived in Britain in the middle of the sixteenth century, Protestants escaping from religious persecution in France and parts of what is now Belgium. A large group of refugees arrived in Britain in 1572 after the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. In 1598 the Edict of Nantes granted Protestants in France some political and religious freedom, but when this was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685 the number of refugees rose sharply. It was at this time that many settled in the area of Spitalfields, including sections of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Mile End New Town and Whitechapel. It has been claimed that some forty or fifty thousand came from France to Britain between the late 1670s and the first decade of the eighteenth century. It was also when the term ‘refugees’ entered the English language.
The earliest ancestors I have been able to trace on my maternal grandmother’s side lived in France in the seventeenth century. My ten times great grandfather Pierre Raby (1610-1660) and his wife Suzanne Rabier (d. 1660) lived in Marchenoir, a village in the Loire region not far from Blois. Their son Daniel Raby (1633-1666) and his wife Anne Presleux (about 1635-1680) lived in Marchenoir, but their son, also Daniel, (1658-1724) born in Marchenoir, emigrated to London. The date of his arrival is not certain but must have been in the latter part of 1687, in the middle of the second major wave of Huguenots seeking refuge in England. On 23rd October of that year the records of the Consistory of the French Church of London, Threadneedle Street, include ‘Daniel Rabbi of Marché Noir’ as being one of those who had ‘made reconnaissance’ that day. This was an obligation which each Huguenot refugee had to fulfil in front of the congregation at the French Protestant Church, describing his or her experiences before, during and after fleeing from France. The refugee could then be accepted fully into the Church.
According to the Huguenot Society, the refugees ‘…could not entirely escape the accusations levelled at immigrants from time immemorial – that their presence threatened jobs, standards of housing, public order, morality and hygiene and even that they ate strange foods’. However, anti-Catholic feeling at the time meant that the Huguenots were not treated as harshly as later immigrants. Within a hundred years of Daniel Raby arriving in Britain, many Huguenots were no longer an identifiable minority in the community. La Neuve Eglise, the Huguenot church on Brick Lane, Spitalfields became a Wesleyan chapel in 1809. (It later became a synagogue and is now a mosque).
Daniel Raby died in the French Protestant Hospital in London on 3 May 1723/24. Eight generations later, when my grandmother Emily Maria Gaskin was born, the Spitalfields silk industry was in decline. Though there have been many changes in the area since then, several of the Huguenot houses are still recognisable today.
I was surprised and delighted to discover my French ancestry. Finding out more about my Huguenot ancestors has been a moving and at times exhilarating experience. I have been fortunate that there is so much information available; inevitably this would not be the case with all refugees. The ordeals of the Huguenots in France and the challenges they faced in settling in Britain graphically illustrate the unchanging plight of refugees throughout history, as relevant today as in the seventeenth century.
Family history lends a different perspective to historical events, whether local, national or international; being related to individual links to the past in a very special way and makes history come alive. Genealogy acts as a gateway to the past and through it I have learnt a lot, not only about my own family and how they lived, but about history in a much wider sense.
Until her retirement Janet Coles was Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education, University of Leeds. Her PhD is on the history of adult education in the inter-war years. As a family historian she also participated in the project Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s, led by Dr Laura King at the University of Leeds.