At the end of the 17th century, around 50,000 French Protestants fled to England and settled here – and while the legacy of the Huguenots is most famous in the weaving trade, especially in Spitalfields, it is hardly a surprise that aside from the humble weavers there were many richer noblemen as well.
It is the legacy of these better positioned sorts that can be most surprisingly found in that most British of institutions – the Bank of England. In fact, the first Governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Houblon, and several of its Directors were of Huguenot origin.
If you’ve not been before, the museum itself is a very good one, even if only open during the working week so a bit of a pain to visit for the average working Londoner.
The Huguenot display is in the heart of the museum, in the Rotunda area, and is fairly modest – being a few objects and mainly display boards communicating knowledge to the visitors.
For example, the posh frocks worn by BoE staff on special occasions are modelled on the staff uniforms worn by Sir John’s own house servants.
Another Huguenot link is the paper used in banknotes – the contract for which was awarded to Henri de Portal in 1724, and the same company has been providing paper for English banknotes right up to the current day, although the firm was finally sold by the family to De La Rue in 1995.
It’s also worth noting that the Huguenots were not simply refugees, but were in fact invited to move to England by a Royal Proclamation issued in April 1689. At the time, immigration was looked on somewhat differently to how we might consider the situation today.
As an exhibition, it is modest, but as it is also free and does sit within the vastly larger museum, it would be churlish to complain.
Oh, and sitting next to the exhibition in the Rotunda is also one of the museum’s more popular exhibits – a full gold bar that you can try to lift. They are really quite surprisingly heavy.
Sadly, photography is strictly forbidden.
The exhibition is open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm and is free to visit until the 10th May.
Personally, I think it would be a really good idea if the museum opened, for example, Tue-Sat instead so that more of us working Londoners can visit at the weekend.
Incidentally, thanks to the quirks of legal technicalities, as a state-owned organisation, the Bank of England is owned by the Treasury Solicitor, who reports to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve – not to the Chancellor, George Osborne.