Frenchman’s Row – homes for colliers

Heddon  - Frenchman's Row
Heddon - Frenchman's Row

Mackenzie, in his View of the County of Northumberland, 1825, speaking of East Heddon, says: “On the north side of the turnpike is a place called the Frenchman’s Row, having been occupied by French emigrants.

“This row of houses, which had been inhabited by colliers engaged in Messrs. Bell and Brown’s colliery at Heddon, was prepared for their reception and presented a pleasing spectacle to the passing traveller.

“The entrance to the apartments on the second story (sic) was by a flight of steps on the outside, which landed on a gallery that ran nearly the whole length of the building. In the front were plots of ground for gardens, which were kept in excellent order by the respective possessors.

“This society of strangers frequently experienced the hospitality and benevolence of the neighbouring gentry.

“They erected a large sun-dial with an inscription upon it, expressive of their gratitude to the English nation. These houses are now partly used as a work-house for the poor.”

Frenchman’s Row is still there, not actually the same building, but with gardens in front which are still kept in excellent order. There is a modern sundial on the south front, and a plaque by the entrance which tells a little more of the story:

“Frenchman’s Row was erected by Messrs. Bell & Brown, lessees of Heddon Colliery, in 1796, as accommodation for colliers. They were then flats, with stone steps at the front leading to a balcony which ran almost the whole length of the building.

“Owing to a slump in the coal trade, the houses were not required for miners, and from 1796-1802 they were the homes of 38 French Royalist Clergy, refugees from the French Revolution. They received 1/-d. (sic) per day from the British Government until their return to France after the Peace of Amiens in March, 1802.

“On leaving, the priests erected a sun-dial with the words ‘Time Flies, Memory Remains’ and a Latin inscription thanking the British people for their hospitality. ‘Quam signare Piis gaudes, gens hospita, donis prospera, sit semper quaelibet hora tibi 1802’. (As your friendly race are glad to mark each hour with kindly gifts, so may every hour be prosperous for you).

“The house at the east end of the row was the site of the original Royal French Arms, being then a small tavern run by the priests. The present public house was built in 1897, partly on the site of the old beer-house and partly on the remains of the Roman Wall.

“The houses were demolished and rebuilt by the Castle Ward Rural District Council in 1962.”

The pub, which was usually known as the Frenchman’s Arms, has since been converted into flats. It is now called Royal French Court and still has the old royal coat of arms on the front of the building.

Madeleine Hope Dodds, in Vol. XIII of the County History, 1930, describes Frenchman’s Row as ‘old-fashioned, brown stone cottages’.

“It was originally called Heddon Square and was built in 1796 ... but before the houses were occupied there arrived off the Tyne three transports carrying 300 French royalist clergy, who during the Revolution had fled to the Channel Islands, and were now allotted to Northumberland by the English Government.

“These eleven vacant colliery houses, among others, were taken to house 38 of the refugees. They remained until 1802, when ... they were able to return to France. On their departure they published in the Newcastle Chronicle a grateful address to those who had befriended them, and as a sign of their gratitude the occupants of Frenchman’s Row set up a sundial, which, having become dilapidated, was restored in 1907.

“Afterwards the row was used as a poor-house until 1849, when it was once more converted into dwelling-houses. The end house has now been rebuilt in brick as an inn, the Royal French Arms, but the rest of the row is unaltered.”

l There are some discrepancies here. Only the plaque, for instance, mentions a slump in the coal trade, so I wonder where the person who composed the text for it got that idea from? And while Mackenzie says that the houses were actually occupied by mining families, Dodds says not.

Under the year 1796, Sykes’s Local Records, 1824, has: “Oct. 5.—The Eclipse, Beaver, and Manchester transports, arrived at Shields from Guernsey and Jersey, with 295 emigrant clergy, and 10 women on board, under convoy of the Serpent sloop of war ... One of these unfortunate strangers fell over board and perished the night they arrived.

“Oct 8th, a transport, with 150 of these emigrants, sailed round from Shields to Sunderland, where they took up their residence in Bishopwearmouth barracks.”

And in June, 1802: “The French Emigrant Clergy, which had been resident in Newcastle and its neighbourhood, since October 1796, took their departure for their own country. They left behind them a most grateful address to their benefactors written in their native language.”

Sykes used contemporary newspaper accounts, and is therefore a more nearly original source than the other three. So unless the ones that went to Sunderland were only there temporarily, it is evident that only about half of the refugees (actually 304, not counting the man who drowned) were billeted in Northumberland.

It appears also that whoever wrote to the Newcastle Chronicle, did so on behalf of the whole émigré community, and not just the ones at Frenchman’s Row.

l Another discrepancy concerns the picture of Frenchman’s Row in the County History. It is from a drawing by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm. Grimm calls it ‘Colliers houses on the Road to Newcastle Northumbd.’

It strikes one immediately as being not quite right: there are two staircases, not one; and no gardens, just bare ground. Dodds describes them as 11 cottages, but there are actually 12 doorways upstairs, and eight (though perhaps more in reality) on the ground floor.

But the most telling thing is that S.H. Grimm died in 1794, and so couldn’t have drawn a building that wasn’t there until 1796. It is impossible to say on present information whether Frenchman’s Row was actually built a few years earlier than stated, or whether Grimm’s picture is of a similar row somewhere else.

Happily, however, the British Library holds Grimm’s sketchbooks, and this picture is numbered 68. So, assuming that he worked through his sketch-pad consecutively, it should be possible to work out where he was by looking at the drawings immediately before and after. Until then, I’m keeping an open mind on whether this is really a picture of Frenchman’s Row.

But this is a detail. The important thing is that Frenchman’s Row and the Frenchman’s Arms, though rebuilt, are genuine survivals from over 200 years ago, when a group of refugees from the French Revolution were given safe harbour at Heddon On The Wall. Nor is Heddon the only example. A memorial in Ancroft churchyard commemorates ten nuns from Rouen, at least some of them Englishwomen, who found a welcome at Haggerston Castle.