Huguenots of Spitalfields festival opens with ‘second wave’ invasion

Huguenot weaver, c1790s

Huguenot weaver, c1790s - Credit: Spitalfields Society

One of the cornerstones of London’s East End history has exploded with a Huguenot festival opening today.

Huguenot dress fabric, 1749

Huguenot dress fabric, 1749 - Credit: Spitalfields Society

The story of silk weavers fleeing persecution during the 16th and 17th centuries in the religious wars in France between Protestants and Catholics is unravelled in a fortnight of events in the ‘Huguenots of Spitalfields’ festival.

Chez Elles Bistroquet in Brick Lane (picture: Jeremy Freedman]

Chez Elles Bistroquet in Brick Lane (picture: Jeremy Freedman] - Credit: Spitalfields Society

Events open this evening with the screening of La Reine Margot, about the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 depicting the Huguenots’ plight and reasons for eventually settling in the East End. Hosted by The Spitalfields Society, 7pm at the Water Poet in Folgate Street.

Nadia Brahim and Lili L’Hôte (picture: Jeremy Freedman]

Nadia Brahim and Lili LHôte (picture: Jeremy Freedman] - Credit: Spitalfields Society

The festival marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Anna Garthwaite in 1763, the outstanding textile designer living in Princelet Street who worked with Huguenot silk weavers. This year is also the 415th anniversary of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 which allowed French Huguenot Protestants to worship freely.

There are already strong signs of a French revival emerging in Spitalfields, with London now the sixth biggest French city in population.

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The new wave is even finding its way along Brick Lane’s ‘Curry Mile’, with the recent opening of Chez Elles Bistroquet, nestling among the Indian and Bangladesh restaurants.

The Gallic little bistro, or bistroquet, is the creation of Nadia Brahim and Lili L’Hôte, two old “food addict” friends who came to London eight years ago, working together on the Eurostar train.

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“We were surprised at first to learn that the French are now returning to Spitalfields,” Nadia told Spitalfields Life. “But in recent years, French people have rediscovered this district.”

Lili was one of those discovering Spitalfields when she rented a flat above a Brick Lane curry house that would become their bistroquet when the premises became vacant. The menu is as Gallic as a 2CV car, with almost a third of their clientele being French.



Tomorrow: ‘Huguenot Silk Weavers—From Riches to Rags’, talk by Sue Jackson at Guildhall Library at Aldermanbury in the City, 2pm. Free. Clockmakers’ Museum curator answers questions about one of the oldest collections of clocks in the world. Aldermanbury, 10am-4pm. Free. ‘From Worm to Wardrobe—Wearing Spitalfields Silk’, talk by Museum of London’s fashion curator Beatrice Behlen on how much silk was needed to make a sack back or mantua, two of the fashionable dress shapes of the time, and how long it took to weave enough fabric. Bishopsgate Institute, 20 Bishopsgate. 7pm, £7 (£5 concessions).

Wednesday: ‘Ireland—Huguenot Military, Political & Economic Power’, talk by the Very Rev Dr William McComish, former Dean of St Pierre Cathedral, Geneva, about Huguenots in William of Orange’s Irish campaign such as the Battle of the Boyne. Bishopsgate Institute, 7pm, £7 (£5).

Thursday: ‘French Born, London Made—the Trades of the Huguenots’, talk on weaving, gun-making and clock-making, by social curator Jim Gledhill, 7pm Bishopsgate Institute, £7 (£5).

Saturday: The Big Weave family day out at Spitalfields Market, Brushfield Street, with weaving, tapestry workshops, quilting and embroidery and table looms. Stalls are selling arts, crafts and woven goods, live entertainment. 10am-5pm. Free.

Monday, April 15: Presentation on what is a Protestant and a Huguenot, by the Rev Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church and Dean of Tower Hamlets. Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, City. 2pm, Free. Learn the Language of the Weavers, French ‘taster’ sessions, Bishopsgate Institute. 1.10-1.50pm or 6.30-7.10pm. Free. The Huguenots’ Story, profile of Huguenots of Spitalfields, about the 60,000 French Protestants arriving in the 1680s, by Michael Gandy, fellow of the Society of Genealogists. 7pm, Bishopsgate Institute, £7 (£5).

Wednesday, April 17: ‘Disappearing Spitalfields’ talk by TV historian Dan Cruickshank on whether this is the end of Spitalfields after 900 years, highlighting the physical losses and social and economic changes the area is going through. Bishopsgate Institute, 7.30pm, £10 (£8).

Friday, April 19: Christ Church open day, 10am–4pm, includes recital of Huguenot-related works, by soprano Carola Darwin, 1.10-2pm. Free.

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