The Limits of Charity

When the Huguenots were driven from France in the 1680s it is generally thought they were made welcome in England as fellow Protestants. But there was no funding to help them settle and care for them. The Elizabethan poor law system was based on parishes supporting their own. Strangers were not welcome unless rich enough to maintain themselves. Often this was achieved by a single man arriving & earning enough to bring his family to join him. Loyal servants who came with their masters could be rewarded with funds to set up in business.

But a large group like the Huguenots were different. In December 1681 a group of them described as ‘generally of the meaner sort’ arrived on Bristol in need of relief, with more to follow. The authorities wrote to the government claiming the city already had many unemployed poor so could not cope with them, asking where they should be sent.

The council at the time was waging war with the many Nonconformists in the city, arresting and fining them under the Conventicles Act, destroying their chapels and even shipping some to the West Indies colonies. They suggested the fines imposed on Quakers, Baptist’s etc be used to help the French. No record survives of the outcome.

The following August another group arrived but were welcomed and the corporation raised £42 10s for their support. It seems they were mostly mariners so were of use to the expanding port. But there were also some higher class refugees: 10 merchants, a physician, 3 surgeons, and 9 weavers took the Oath of Allegiance to the crown.

They had a chapel near College Green and some later held council offices. A few left large bequests. But as elsewhere, many Anglicised their names so their descendants are hard to trace. The surname LeRoi became King, a name found in Bristol and more so in nearby Bath.

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