The Austens and some Huguenot families

Living in London for the past 40 years has been an immense pleasure. Now I've discovered a new one, and that is being retired in London. I've always loved to explore, but was only able to appreciate parts of town for their ambience. Now there's time to appreciate them more deeply, to learn about their associations with history, about interesting residents. In very many cases they have passed out of fashion and been built over – in which case there's only the odd surviving building to stimulate the imagination – but in other areas, where the faded charm is obvious and where their economic value is not great enough to attract the redevelopers, new residents have moved in to restore houses and revive the life of the community.

One such area that I've come to know much better is Spitalfields, just to the east of London's old city walls. Development began in the early 1700s, first by speculative builders as a new suburb. It soon attracted Huguenot refugees from France and the Low Countries, in particular those involved in the silk fabric trade. They brought their skills and their contacts from the continent and soon recovered their prosperity. Some 150 years later the mechanising of weaving, relaxation of tariffs on imports from France, and robust trade with China destroyed the silk trade in Spitalfields.

The houses had aged by the mid-19th century. To some extent Spitalfields became a slum, housing successive waves of immigrants who moved on once they became prosperous. By the 1970s, when the latest wave of new arrivals was the Bengalis, city redevelopment was threatening to overtake it. Just in the nick of time young artists discovered the antique charm of the houses, which could be bought for a pittance. They are now worth over 1,000,000.

I've been researching the Austen pedigree for long enough that it's now possible to link her family with almost anyone. Though the worlds of the Huguenots and of Jane Austen would seem almost to inhabit separate universes, a surprising number of Huguenot families had close connections with hers. I've made a list of the most notable.

Anyone who has seen the film Becoming Jane will recognise the name Lefroy. Antoine Leffroy, a native of Cambray, took refuge in England from the persecutions in the Low Countries in about 1587, and settled at Canterbury where he and his family engaged in the business of silk dyeing. His descendant Tom Lefroy was the one young man with whom Jane was said to be truly in love; Tom at that point didn't have an income with which to support a wife, and was quickly bundled off by his elders and betters. He rose eventually to become the Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench in Ireland and, at the end of his life, remembered Jane with great affection. Ben Lefroy, from a later generation, did marry an Austen – one of Jane's favourite nieces, Jane Anna Elizabeth.

The Portals were an ancient noble Protestant family of Toulouse who stood firmly by the faith of their fathers, and several of them suffered death rather than recant it. They were among the Huguenots who introduced the art of fine paper making to England – Henry Portal established a mill at Laverstoke, on the Itchen River in Hampshire. He achieved such a reputation that the Bank of England awarded him the contract to produce bank notes. Living in Hampshire, the Portals had extensive social contacts with the Austens. Adela Potrtal married Jane's nephew Edward Knight, and the couple established a long line of descendants.

The Chenevixes were another distinguished family of Protestants, this time from Lorraine, who fled at the Revocation. One branch settled in Ireland, and were much attracted to the military and clerical professions. Melesina Chenevix, the poet and diarist, and granddaughter of Richard Chenevix, the (Anglican) Bishop of Waterford and of Lismore, was the ancestor of a number of people linked to the Austen pedigree. Melesina had married Richard Trench – the de la Tranches were yet another family who had taken refuge in England shortly after the massacre of St. Bartholomew – and their descendants assumed the double-barrelled surname of Chenevix-Trench. Their granddaughter Melesina Mary Chenevix-Trench married Chomley Austen-Leigh, Jane's great nephew. Melesina Mary's sister Helen Emily married Arthur Blundell George Sandys Hill, another great nephew. Their brother Charles married Emily Mary Lefroy, a cousin of Tom Lefroy. Their cousin Melesina Gladys, as well as being the mother of the famous editor of the Daily Telegraph, Bill Deedes, was the grandmother of FitzWalter Plumptre, the Baron FitzWalter – who could also trace his pedigree to the family of Jane's brother Edward.

David Papillon, the first of his family to settle in England, had been sent with his mother and siblings by his father, to escape persecution. They were shipwrecked and his mother drowned. The story of the mingling of genes between David's descendants and the Austens, through the Brodnaxes, is a bit too obscure to tell here, but one individual from the Papillons featured in Jane's life – the Rev John Rawstorne Papillon. The living of Chawton was offered to him, and should he refuse it, then to Jane's brother Henry. He did take it and became the rector of that parish, where Jane lived for her final years. There is a neat bracketing of Huguenot suitors for her hand, from the beginning and the end of her adult life – Mrs Knight, the widow of Thomas Brodnax and elderly benefactor of both the Austens and the Papillons, suggested that the Rev John, a life-long bachelor, would make a suitable husband. With characteristic irony Jane remarked in a note to her sister: 'I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me – & she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own – I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.'

I could end this essay here, but want to mention another resonance between the Huguenots and the Austens. Jane's paternal ancestors from three generations back and further were clothiers of Kent – staunchly protestant, fiercely independent, wool and woollen fabric merchants. The organisation of their business was very similar to that of the silk merchants in London. I was deeply struck, while gazing up to the roofs of Spitalfields. In both industries labour was organised by demarcated skills, and in both the weavers' workplace was accommodated on the top floor of the merchant's house. I was seized by a vivid impression of crabbed men and no doubt women, in both London and Kent, toiling for 14 hours a day in those garrets for a pittance!

This article first appeared, with excellent illustration, on the Jane Austen in Vermont blog

© Ronald Dunning