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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

Dennis Severs' House: A History of the Huguenots of Spitalfields

Dennis Severs' House Explained

Dennis Severs’ House is a Museum dedicated to the lives of the Huguenots of Spitalfields who immigrated from France in the 17th century

Dennis Severs' House

A history of the Huguenots and Dennis Severs’ House

London is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on earth, with more than 300 mother tongues spoken. Countless migrants and refugees have found homes in the capital for centuries. Considered London’s ‘original refugees’, and the origin of the use of the French word réfugié, the Huguenots escaped religious persecution in France after the revocation of their civil rights in 1685.

In the wake of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, the burning of Reformed preachers at the stake, and the destruction of Huguenot-majority villages to the ground, Protestants had little choice but to flee. Protestantism had principally taken hold in France amongst the merchant classes of artisans. Some noble families had converted too. These converts and their children, for whom the collective term Huguenot was used, were skilled workers and talented tradesmen.

When they first arrived in England, they were compelled to quickly assimilate. They came as weavers, watchmakers, silversmiths, doctors, soldiers, teachers, and clergymen. Some were poor workers, skilled and unskilled, others educated individuals who exerted influence in several of London’s industries. They established themselves in regions popular with French refugees, principally Spitalfields, an East End district with a crest derived from the Fleur de Lys. The area became known for housing the city’s finest silk weavers, the profession of the family portrayed at Dennis Severs’ House.

Prolific artist Dennis Severs gradually transformed his Spitalfields house, derelict when he bought it, into a living museum, designed as a glimpse into the everyday life of London Huguenots. The house follows the story of the archetypal Jervis family, silk weavers and merchants, tracing their changing environment from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th century. The ten rooms are each designed to invoke a different era, composing a ‘still life drama’ of a family as they move through their home, and an image of their legacy.

Dennis Severs’ House is characterised by voices just out of reach. The elusive narrative carries visitors through the stories of the rooms and the generations of people inhabiting them, the transformations of their personal lives and fortunes.

By the end of the 17th century, Huguenot refugees made up 5% of Britain’s entire population. Their legacy and contribution can be found in every fabric of life in London today, with Dennis Severs’ House being one of many memorials to their tenacity and achievement.

Many famous names trace their ancestry to this long period of Huguenot immigration: Winston Churchill, Laurance Olivier, Franklin D. Roosevelt, King George II. Those born of early dissenters and religious refugees encompass politicians, cultural icons, and royalty. Huguenots were granted the opportunity to prove themselves and to contribute to the country where they sought their salvation.

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