In Somers Town, London, a French Protestant ended up building a whole urban village to accommodate those very Catholics who had pursued the sorry asses of his ilk a century before

In London it is often the case that one group of immigrants leaves a legacy for the next wave of immigrants to inhabit. For example, in Spitalfields there is an old Huguenot church in Brick Lane, which was later used as a synagogue and is now used as a mosque.

One of the sweetest stories concerning how one group leaves a legacy for new arrivals is interwoven into the history of Somers Town, an enclave of northern central London, sandwiched between Camden Town and Kings Cross. Somers Town has endured two hundred and fifty years and its development was linked to the political and religious upheavals taking place in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the late seventeenth century whilst Somers Town was pastoral land used for dog fighting and bull baiting, in France, Catholic King Louis XIV outlawed the practice of Protestantism. French Protestants fled from France in fear of prosecution. The ‘Huguenots’ as the Protestants were nicknamed by their Catholic pursuers arrived in London in large numbers, between fifty and eighty thousand, settling in Soho and Spitalfields. In the middle of the eighteenth century, by which time the Huguenots had become part of the fabric of London, the authorities in London decided to build a New Road for north London to ease congestion and to aid urbanisation. The New Road (known today as Euston Road) was to be an outer ring road running south of the pastoral land that would come to be known as Somers Town. The advent of the New Road spurred local aristocrat Lord Somers to initiate a building programme. His land was leased to French Huguenot developer Jacob Leroux. Leroux’s developments included a sixteen-sided residential building called the Polygon, which consisted of thirty-two houses and became home to Charles Dickens and Mary Wollstonecraft. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Leroux’s housing development was finished, but it did not prove attractive to the rich, as had been intended, and was subsequently sold off at cheap prices. As it happened, the selling-off coincided with a revolution in French political life and the beginning of the Reign of Terror; an attempt to purge any opposition to the newly instated principles of republicanism and democracy. This time it was the Roman Catholic clergy, those who had pursued the Huguenots, who were chased out of the country. Many Catholics ended up on the shores of England and in London, and given the low rents, in Somers Town. So, through a coming together of political revolutions, building developments and a crash in the housing market, a French Protestant ended up building a whole urban village to accommodate those very Catholics who had pursued the sorry asses of his ilk a century before. Part of the legacy of the French Catholics in Somers town is frequent reference to Saint Aloysius a sixteenth century Italian saint, found in place names including a church, several schools and a social club.

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