Stop 5: Christ Church & Fournier Street
Named after Huguenot refugee George Fournier, Fournier Street has some of the most desirable listed residences in London. To acquire a property here will set you back some £2 million and famous artists such as Tracy Emin and Gilbert & George live here. These particular houses have now-very-desirable original features. Ironically these have been preserved by waves of immigrants because they were too poor to change them.
Looking down Fournier Street we are treated to a vision of what 1700s Spitalfields might have been like. These elegant townhouses were once home to a sizeable Huguenot community. There was already a substantial French Protestant settlement in London at the beginning of the 1600s but the Dragonnades, (forced conversions to Catholicism) which began in France in 1681, brought nearly 40,000 Huguenot refugees to London. These French émigrés were divided between Spitalfields here in the east, and Soho to the west and by the eighteenth century were among the largest and most distinctive enclaves in the capital. Both language and fashion set the Huguenots apart and many English gentlemen would venture into the East End simply to marvel at this 'foreign country' within the city. Even the composer Mozart bought a Spitalfields silk waistcoat.
The fortunes of the Huguenots were closely linked to the silk industry. By the 1700s a huge number of workshops and silk ribbon manufactories proliferated here in Spitalfields. The design of the houses on Fournier Street demonstrate the centrality of silk weaving to the lives of these master craftsmen. The second floor of the houses were known as weaver's garrets, they had huge attic windows with tiny attached frames designed to let in maximum light for the weaver to work by.
The era of Huguenot settlement was a period of localised production. Where you produced was as important as what you produced. The Huguenots' proximity to the City and the quality of their work meant Huguenot silk became highly sought after. This allowed the once-refugee community that fled France with nothing but their skills and hope of a better future to prosper. Today the Bank of England, the international textile firm Courtaulds, Dollond & Aitchson the opticians and Rogets Thesaurus are just a few examples of the Huguenot legacy.
By the mid-nineteenth century, London was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution and with the development of the docks; it had access to a vast Empire overseas. This had a debilitating effect on the Spitalfields silk trade, since it was now possible to acquire significantly cheaper material imported from India and China. So the Huguenots moved on.
More broadly, the fate of the silk weavers reflected the wider development of a national economy. It is no coincidence that the term 'nationalism' was first coined in the 1840s, a time when London became the largest city in the world. A growing industrial class sought to destroy the regional divisions and parochialism they saw as barriers to development and establish a unified national economy, through a nation state under which economic growth might thrive. Nationalism in its early form was a rallying cry for a progressive industrial class but was soon to become a sentiment mobilized to defeat its opponents at home and abroad.
On the south side of the street is the imposing Christ Church, built in 1729 by the renowned architect Sir Thomas Hawksmoor. It was erected as part of a government bill to build fifty new Churches in London in order to promote conformity to the Church of England. The bill was passed at a time when London was a rapidly expanding city accommodating growing non-conformist and immigrant communities, like the French Huguenots. Spitalfields was an ideal location for such a church, given its widespread reputation as a den of immorality requiring correction. Unsurprisingly, a new church did not persuade the local populace to conform and we will see a much more successful religious building at our next stop.