David Milne at Dennis Severs’ House

The story of London’s Huguenot community

Our colourful capital is home to many different cultures. Neil Simpson discovers how the Huguenot community built a home away from home

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the world came to east London’s Spitalfields district to buy silk woven by a community of French Protestants, the Huguenots. The local attraction Dennis Severs’ House exists as a reminder of that era, so we interviewed its curator David Milne.

‘When London was a walled city its rules were strict, so immigrants settled outside; the first Huguenot settlers came to Spitalfields when the area was demarcated the Liberty of Norton Folgate. France became a Catholic country and more persecuted Huguenots arrived. Instinctively, we all follow where our own kind have gone and many spoke French here – it was the first language on the streets – hence Fournier Street, Fleur de Lis Street and all of Spitalfields’ French-sounding names. 

Dennis Severs’ House drawing room © Roelof Bakker

‘They became prosperous and the Spitalfields’ silk industry world-renowned. There were 17,000 looms at work in a neighbourhood that was three times the size that it is today and even Marie Antoinette ordered silk from Spitalfields. There was a chap here called James Leman who made sensational designs. I’m slightly obsessed with him because he made such an impact on London and then seemed to vanish: you can’t find him, only his designs. A room dedicated to Spitalfields
at the V&A includes examples of his work.’

Spitalfields’ townhouse, Dennis Severs’ House, is getting ready for its Christmas Installation (from 24 Nov). The late American artist Severs devised this tour that takes visitors through time, from the early 1700s to a Victorian-style Yuletide.


Click here to see how the Jewish community settled in London

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