French connections

GENERAL CHARLES DE GAULLE (1890-1970), an eminent refugee from France, was dead against Britain joining what was the Common Market and is now the European Union, despite the country having generously hosted him during WW2, when his country was invaded by Germany. This is quite well known, but far less known is the fact that he lived in Hampstead, north London. His home was at 99 Frognal in what is currently St Dorothy’s Convent.

The convent building, Frognal House, was built in about 1740 and later modified in various ways (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1113077). The convent building stands on the site of a 15th century tenement known as ‘house called Frognal’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp33-42). At the beginning of the 18th century, the land on which this stood was owned by the bricklayer Thomas Smith, who probably built the present building, which became known as ‘Frognal House’. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), the house became The Sailors’ Orphans Home (from 1862-1869), which later shifted to the northern end of Fitzjohns Avenue in 1869 and which was constructed on land once owned by Sir Harry Vane (1613-1662).

De Gaulle and his family lived in Frognal House between 1940 and 1942. Monique Riccardi-Cubitt, a writer and art-historian, stayed in Frognal House in about 2000 and has written about it (https://blogs.mediapart.fr/monique-riccardi-cubitt/blog/210418/memories-general-de-gaulle-london). She wrote:

“The reception rooms on the ground floor have remained, but the General’s Cabinet de travail is now the chapel … The first floor panelled library is where I would feel his spirit most strongly hovering as I would work alone early in the morning … In the garden roses grew, I drew and painted them in the late afternoon … His spirit was there too, and I used to wonder how often he would have come back from his headquarters in Carlton Gardens worn and weary with cares, to wander off to the peace of the leafy bowers and refresh his tired mind and soul … From the roof terrace overlooking the whole of London below, he would stand at night and watch the German bombings on the City of London during the Blitz …”

While living in Hampstead, De Gaulle used to attend masses at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Holly Walk. It was the first Catholic church built in Hampstead after the Reformation (16th century). It opened its doors to worshippers in 1816. Its first pastor was a refugee, one of 500 clergy fleeing from the French Revolution, the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel (1766-1852; https://parish.rcdow.org.uk/hampstead/about-the-parish/). Thomas Barrett, a historian of Hampstead, writing in 1912 in his “Annals of Hampstead”, noted:

“Towards the end of the eighteenth century another interesting religious association came into the life of Hampstead, in a very modest and unassertive way, as one of the minor overflows from the French Revolution. Among the priestly refugees from France was a certain Abbe Morel, who had been connected with the Grand Seminary at Bourg. He was attracted to Hampstead by the fact of there being several French families living there—Talleyrand among the rest, some say—exiles like himself, to whom the question of religious worship according to their own faith was becoming a matter of difficulty…”

Barrett believed that Talleyrand, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838):

“… lived for a time at Tensleys, on Hampstead Green, during his service as French Ambassador from 1830 until 1834 … It was pulled down, and the site is now partly covered by the Hampstead General Hospital.”

This is now the location of the Royal Free Hospital. Barrett quotes the following anecdote that reveals that the refugees included members of the French aristocracy:

“… A story is told of two handsomely dressed ladies visiting Hampstead in 1819. They drove in a carriage to the bottom of Holly Hill, and then got out and walked to the top; and sometime later the Abbe was seen walking down the road bareheaded, respectfully escorting them. As the elder of the two ladies got into the carriage she kissed the Abbe’s hand and shed tears. This lady, it was said, was the Duchesse d’Angouleme.”

After some years in Hampstead, Morel:

“… was put to a severe ordeal when, the Revolution having come to an end, it became possible for the refugees to go back to their native country. Most of the little congregation for which he had been officiating returned. He would fain have gone with them ; but in Hampstead he had found a real haven of rest after the turbulence which had preceded his exile, and had formed many ties with the people of the village. He decided to remain, and for many years after that Abbe Morel was a worthy and loved figure in Hampstead.”

In 1941, Fr Joseph Geraerts became the parish priest. During this period:

“… one of the more notable parishioners was General Charles de Gaulle who lived for about a year at 99 Frognal, now St. Dorothy’s Convent. We are told that his tall and impressive figure was always to be seen in the front bench at the 11 o’clock Mass whenever he was home.” (https://parish.rcdow.org.uk/hampstead/wp-content/uploads/sites/193/2015/09/St-Marys-June-15.pdf).

De Gaulle returned to France in June 1944. After initially declining to join the Common Market, Britain applied to join in 1963. De Gaulle was dead against this (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_de_Gaulle#European_Economic_Community_(EEC)). It was only after De Gaulle resigned as President in 1969 that Britain was able to join the European community, which it has left recently.  

Frognal House was converted into its present role, the home of St Dorothy’s Convent, part of a religious community based in Malta, in 1968. The organisation:

“… caters for young ladies coming to study in London or for a short holiday from all over the world. It aims at providing not only a boarding house, but a homely environment where guidance and advice assure the well being and comfort of all the students. Besides catering for the students, the sisters are very much involved in their Parish St Mary’s.” (www.stdorothysmalta.org.mt/convents.html).

Apart from a couple of restaurants in Hampstead, the former Cellier du Midi and the still extant Cage Imaginaire, I had never considered that Hampstead had any other French connections. However, seeing the convent today and looking into its history, has shown me that France had a significant role in Hampstead’s history.

PS: I almost forgot to mention the onion sellers, who used to come to Hampstead from France with their bicycles ands strings of onions. And, also, there is a French creperie in Hampstead next to the King William IV pub on Hampstead High Street.