Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Your French Connection - Huguenot Society of Australia

How long is it since you left a meeting feeling truly intellectually satisfied? That is how I always feel after a meeting of the Huguenot Society of Australia. The sessions are relaxed, but with their focus on well-researched historical content they are fulfilling, and afterwards you can chat over a cup of tea or coffee.

Huguenots were French followers of the ideas of John Calvin, the great Protestant thinker of the mid sixteenth century. Their equivalents in England were known as Puritans. Unfamiliar religious ideas were a threat to the established order, and Calvin’s followers were persecuted, causing religious wars between Catholics and Protestants to rage for several centuries in Europe.

In France, the Edict of Nantes in 1598 was the first official recognition of religious toleration by a great European country. It granted freedom of worship in about seventy-five cities and towns in France, a freedom completely overturned by the repeal of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Extremism took hold and great atrocities were committed in the name of religion, causing 200,000 Huguenots to flee France for the safe haven of Protestant Netherlands and other countries which were tolerant of Protestantism.

About 50,000 Huguenots managed to cross the Channel and ended up in England. Although they fled without their financial assets, as a highly skilled and intelligent workforce they were of great benefit to their new homeland and a great loss to France. They came mainly as silk weavers, clock makers, silver smiths, furniture makers and workers in the ironware and textile industries. Some were professional men such as doctors. They congregated in parts of England easily accessible by boat from France, with a particular concentration of silk weavers in the East End of London at Spitalfields.

England’s population was quite small at the time, so an influx of this size had an impact on the gene pool. Perhaps 20–30% of today’s English population have Huguenot forebears, although most would be unaware of this. Large numbers of migrants from Britain settled in Australia so there are many Australians with Huguenot ancestry.

If you find a French sounding name amongst your English or Irish ancestors, or if family legend mentions a French connection, there is a chance that you may be a Huguenot descendant. Strong links to the Anglican or non-conformist churches increase the likelihood, but intermarriage means that some of today’s Catholic families also have Huguenot forebears. If you can trace your family line back to someone practising a recognized Huguenot trade or living in an area of Huguenot settlement, there’s a chance of a Huguenot connection. The Huguenot Society of Australia’s book The Hidden Thread has eliminated much of the guesswork, as it lists almost all known Huguenot family names in Australia.

In my own case, I was raised with the idea that I had Huguenot forebears. The way my grandmother told it, these Huguenots were almost in living memory. But it took me several years of research, going back six generations one by one, to find a name which sounded French. It belonged to Stephen Pierssene Fatt. One more generation back, I found a marriage in London in 1766 between Thomas Fatt and Ann Pierssené (pictured, circa 1790)– voilà, I’d found our legendary Huguenot ancestor. It was easy to trace back another three generations to her family’s arrival in that city.

I made a big mistake by not joining the Huguenot Society of Australia at that point. If I had, I would have discovered a wealth of background information to further enrich the book I eventually wrote, Pierssené, a Huguenot Family of London. The significance of many details unearthed during the research process would have become far more obvious to me.

The Huguenot Society of Australia has chapters in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria and each state usually holds at least two meetings each year. In Victoria, these meetings are held at the GSV on a Saturday afternoon. The national programme for 2011 includes talks such as:‘André Chamson - a leading figure in French Protestantism’, as well as ‘Up there Cazaly’, plus ‘The Lansell family of Bendigo and East Kent’, ‘La Providence, the French Hospital, an Enduring Huguenot Institution’ and ‘The Huguenot Galley Slaves - Martyrs for their Faith’.

The focus of these talks is on history, not religion. The group’s focus appeals to those with an interest in French and English history just as much as to genealogists. Each year a tour of a different region of France is organized. The Huguenot Times edited by the Society’s energetic secretary Robert Nash is always an interesting read.

Access to all of these benefits is available for the very modest annual membership fee of $30. Enquiries about the Victorian chapter should be directed to Caroline Piesse. Phone (03) 9570 1341 or email carolinepiesse@smartchat.net.au. Also, see the website www.huguenotsaustralia.org.au

My article was originally published in 'Ancestor',
Volume 30 Issue 7 / September, October, November 2011
© The Genealogical Society of Victoria Inc
My book Pierssené, a Huguenot Family of London is available through BookPOD.

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