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A History of the French in London

Liberty, Equality, Opportunity


Edited by Martyn Cornick & Debra Kelly


London: Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 2013

Hardcover. 488 pp. ISBN 978-1905165865. £40.00


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



This attractive volume is the fifth in a new series published by the Institute of Historical Research of the University of London. It comprises fifteen chapters, plus a substantial introduction and conclusion, written by nineteen contributors, almost all of whom are based in the United Kingdom. The structure of the book is essentially chronological but, as Martyn Cornick insists, it is a study in both space and time. No fewer than sixteen detailed maps of French activity in London at various dates from 1550 to the early twenty-first century form a particularly distinctive feature, and represent a very worthwhile complement to almost sixty black and white illustrations.

The story begins, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the 65,000 French-speaking Protestants who arrived between 1550 and 1759, with a peak occurring after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Settling in the City of London, on its eastern fringes and in Westminster, they were distinguished by their skills (including silk weaving, book binding, stationery and tailoring) as well as by their scientific expertise. After this overview chapter, the focus of the text is sharpened on to a discussion of the house that Ralph Montagu, Charles II’s ambitious ambassador to France, had built in Bloomsbury after 1678. Following his travels in France, Montagu filled his new abode with luxury goods and artefacts made or acquired in France. In due course, it became the nucleus of the British Museum.

Successive chapters trace the flight of French migrants to London, following the Revolution of 1789, including large numbers of Catholic priests. Some emigrés commanded substantial resources but others lived in poverty in such neighbourhoods as Somers Town and Saint Pancras. A proportion stayed in London after 1814, but a goodly number returned to France. As Philip Mansel shows, London accommodated several courts in exile during the nineteenth century, serving as ‘an incubator of French monarchies as well as Franco-British alliances’, and acting as a trans-Manche locus of French politics since ‘national frontiers were indeed porous’ [127]. Concentrating on the reactions of three authors (Jules Michelet, Alexis de Tocqueville and Flora Tristan) in the 1830s, Máire Cross insists that ‘the opinions of French visitors were informed as much by bricks and mortar, as they were by people and ideas: they occupied London as writers with a specific social, economic, cultural and political background, commenting on their experiences according to their gender and circumstances of travel’ [135]. For example, Flora Tristan was fascinated by the magnitude of London’s docks and factories, the widespread illumination provided by gas lamps, and the transformative effect of England’s railways, but she regretted the gross materialism of the capital and believed Paris to be the superior city in many ways.

Between 1848 and 1880, London was home to hundreds and at times to thousands of revolutionary, republican and socialist exiles from France. They found refuge in such neighbourhoods as Fitzrovia, Soho and Leicester Square, and ‘greatly affected the shape and trajectory of political radicalism in the capital’ [165]. Indeed, Charlotte Street and Goodge Street were seen to be the very heart of London’s ‘small anarchist Republic’ [204]. French immigrants practised many trades, not least of which was cooking. In a very distinctive essay Valerie Mars asks how genuinely French was London’s ‘French cuisine’ during the nineteenth century. She reveals a remarkable diversity of culinary styles, with rich migrants who employed French chefs continuing to enjoy French haute cuisine, which could also be sampled a small number of hotels. More bourgeois styles of French cooking could be had at restaurants and hotels around Leicester Square, but many other London restaurants that claimed to offer French food served up fare that had been prepared to satisfy English tastes.

As successive chapters confirm, the general characteristics of French communities in nineteenth-century London are well known – however descriptive statistics about these residents are difficult to assemble. Teachers, domestic servants and seamen represented the largest groups between 1880 and 1939, with others being employed in retailing, catering, banks and commerce. Distinctively French clubs and associations flourished. The Université des Lettres Françaises was founded on the eve of World War I and soon became a component of the new Institut Français du Royaume-Uni in South Kensington. The Institut’s new building benefitted from funds from the French government and the Université de Lille, and would be inaugurated in 1939. Denis Saurat was its long serving director from 1924 to 1945, as well as holding the chair of French at Kings College London from 1926 to 1950.

Drawing on a rich archive of diaries, written records, novels and photographs, three chapters in the volume focus on the Free French in London during the first half of the 1940s. Debra Kelly pays particular attention to the spatial arrangement of Free French London, enhancing her account with a score of contemporary photographs. Martin Cornick explores how the Institut Français served as ‘the first bastion of the Resistance’ [343], and traces the important role of Denis Saurat, who had access to French residents throughout the United Kingdom, in stimulating support for De Gaulle. Under Saurat’s auspices, the journal La France Libre was created to promote Anglo-French solidarity. David Drake analyses the contribution of Raymond Aron to that review, not only as de facto editor-in-chief but also as its most prolific contributor (sometimes signing his articles ‘Rene Avord’).

Combining existing sources with original enquiries, Saskia Huc-Hepher and Helen Drake chart the contemporary French population in London which, according to the source consulted, is of the magnitude of 250,000 to 400,000 persons. Perhaps surprisingly, the highest proportion of French residents is not to be found in Kensington but south of the Thames in Lambeth [400]. Drawing on in-depth interviews and evidence from focus groups of lycéens (Lycée Charles de Gaulle and the NewVIc College in Newham) they reveal the complexity and diversity of that population. The ‘16e arrondissement/South Ken diplomatic expatriate’ stereotype is shown to be only one element in a veritable social kaleidoscope [422]. Perceiving London as a place of refuge, liberty and opportunity, London continues to draw large numbers of French citizens with varying levels of wealth, education and skill – as it has always done. In addition ‘to the “Français de souche”, or French nationals proper, [the French community] also includes a significant number of French-speaking ethnic minorities of ex-colonial descent’ [400]. As well as affording an opportunity for economic, cultural and educational advancement, the more open social milieu of London is shown to offer an escape from racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia encountered across the Channel.

A History of the French in London is a very welcome addition to the literature that will be enjoyed by a wide readership. Its footnotes and references are an essential starting point for all who wish to undertake their own research on this theme. The Institute of Historical Research is to be congratulated for producing this substantial and well illustrated volume for a very reasonable price.


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