The Westminster School Archives
By Nicol Barengo, on 28 August 2019
The Huguenot Library holds the archives of the French Protestant School of Westminster.
The school was founded in 1747 by a group of wealthy Huguenots who became increasingly concerned about the fate of the Huguenot orphans sent to workhouses or growing up illiterate and without any form of education. The institution they planned to create would feed and clothe the children, teach them basic numerical skills, how to read and write in French and English, sing the Psalms, and provide them with a sound religious instruction. Furthermore, the girls would be taught to sew and knit their own clothes as well as the boys’. In order to attend the school one had to provide proof of either being a French Protestant or being a descendant of one. As a result, baptism certificates, parents’ marriage certificates and information on Huguenot descent are often available in the students’ files.
The institution occupied two houses in Windmill Street, near Tottenham Court Road, until 1846, when it moved to a newly built house in Plumtree Street, next to the French Savoy Church. The number of pupils in the school varied throughout the years, mainly depending on the sums that could be raised from the institution’s benefactors. Generally, about thirty students divided in equal numbers between boys and girls were admitted up to 1813. At this date, the financial difficulties that recurrently plagued the school from its creation, intensified. Therefore, the Directors decided to close the boys’ section, sublet one of the houses occupied by the former students and dismiss the Master, whose services were no longer required. The change is illustrated in the surviving receipts, which went from depicting a boy and a girl wearing uniforms to two girls.
This drastic measure was just the last in a series of decisions aimed at reducing expenses, such as buying poorer quality bread and changing the girls uniform from blue to the cheaper grey fabric. This was more hard-felt than it would initially appear, as the institution was known in the Huguenot community as the ‘Blue Coat School’.
The minutes shed light on some of the students’ misbehaviour, such as hitting one of the teachers, in 1783; burying letters in the fields instead of delivering them, in 1793, and climbing on the church’s roof next to the school, in 1868. In 1783, a number of boys managed to throw stones and break one of the neighbouring property’s windows, whilst the Directors were meeting and witnessed the entire event. One wonders if the students were rather unlucky or very brazen! The entry in the minutes pictured below recalls the event, as well as the punishment imposed.
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the institution had a good reputation and was well liked. It is indeed common to see several generations of the same family attending it.
The main aim of the school was to enable the children to become apprentices when they left at 14. This was achieved successfully and many of the boys were given apprenticeships in trades typical of the Huguenot community, such as tailors, cobblers, weavers, jewellers and watch makers. Many of the girls would, on the other hand, be placed in domestic service, or as lace-makers, menders and dressmakers.
The school finally closed in 1924.
More information about it can be found in three articles published in the Proceedings of the Huguenot Society: William Morris Beaufort, ‘Records of the French Protestant School, founded by Huguenot refugees, 1747’, vol. IV, and Susan Minet, ‘Ecole de Charité Française de Westminster’, vols XII and XIII.