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Searching for traces of Lille’s Huguenot past


For years the idea of visiting Lille was trapped in my mind. There was something about this rarely spoken about French/Flemish city that drew me closer, and eventually after years of it popping into my head I set off to explore the border city to Belgium. One factor which brought me to this place was another project, searching for the roots of Jacques De La Porte, a French-Flemish Huguenot who became one of the first Western farmers in South Africa. His story of migration is the sanctum of will-power when he set out with his 18 year old Picardie wife in 1698 to flee the persecution of the Protestants by the Catholic Louis XVI, known as the Sun-King, the longest reigning monarch of any European country. His reign began in 1643 and after a succession of wars, Lille fell to France in 1713. The Sun King died in 1715.
Graffiti, Lille, France
Jacques migration begun by entering the tolerant and welcoming Holland where they married, before boarding a boat with his pregnant partner and setting ahead through the Dutch East India Company to the Cape of Good Hope. Once at the Cape, the African plains were ahead of them, they built every element of their lives from scratch whilst remaining in indentured slavery for the Dutch East India Company until they were allowed to become “free burghers”. It was the price they paid for a new start.

Here some 200 years later, his family had thrived in a new land and I was looking to find out where it had began. With notebook in hand containing his basic details and some poorly strung together school-girl French I set about to find something tangible on his humble beginnings. De La Porte simply means “by the gate”. There are five gates in Lille, all representing an important city. Jacques, you see was connected to the wealthy De La Porte’s who had strong ties to royalty and gentry, but he in himself was the outsider. No record could be found of his mother, only his wealthy father and step-mother, whilst they appeared to remain Jacques took the opportunity to change his circumstances. His universal trade, a farmer. He knew how to work the land, he didn’t need the pomp of his predecessors.

The Protestants were driven out of France through what can only be understood as a religious genocide, they fled to far corners of the world striving to start a new life free from ideological persecution. In Lille however, little remains of their artisan roots. Louis XIV did very well out of the mission. A lengthy Boulevard named after him, Le Grand Place built under his ordersand virtually no Protestant roots left today minus one church – the Eglise Protestante Unie de France, situated near the Synagogue to name a few things. It seems, today, the city has lost it’s Calvinist past.

Lille's Flemish centreFrom the Le Grand Place Main Square I made my way towards the older Flemish part of town perhaps there was something here which could indicate these past lives. Spontaneity was not on my side, I hadn’t realised that on Tuesday’s nothing is open. As I made my way through the cobbled streets of the old part of the city, which houses the home that Charles de Gaulle was born, alas it’s closed doors and limited opening time the next day meant I regretted my lack of planning and missed seeing the inner birthplace of one of France’s most celebrated Presidents.

These old streets were lined with patisseries showcasing vibrant macaroons, windows of hand crafted leather bags coupled with perfectly cut dresses and chocolate shops. Every so often members of the French army would appear on foot and push-bikes as they jovially made their way to work. Here and there acts of creative graffiti appeared against the backdrop of the Flemish architecture. Art it appears is most definitely celebrated in this city.

In my quest to find further proof of Jacques time here it was inevitable that I would have to summon the depths of my British language education and bring myself to talk to people. This exercise was proven harder by the limited amount of English spoken by the local people. Not deterred, this was to be embraced, it would only make me try harder.

Lille appears to have protected the French language, but challenges a common stereotype of the French being rude, especially if you speak English and not French. The people I stopped as I demanded a few minutes of their time were a mixed bag. There was the policeman, the old man, the hippy girl, the young guy aimlessly walking behind me until I abruptly stopped him to ask if a particular building was a Tourist Information centre. He shook his head taken aback, and we went our separate ways. Ten minutes later he’s running down the road towards me again shouting that he knows where the Tourist Information centre is in broken English. The old man bubbled up with giggling, which in turn made me laugh, to look at us we were just two people in the street laughing our hearts out. We eventually reasoned through other communication skills that neither understood the other and he waved me off. The hippy girl was French but only there for a day for the Tour de France, she went above and beyond to show me how to get out of the circle I had created for myself in getting lost.

Lille's Porte de Paris, FranceSome time later I made my way into an empty building where sat one receptionist. The glass building looked smart and official, so I figured that whomever was in there would be able to direct me to what I needed in some form. I explained why I was there to the middle aged woman behind the counter in English and broken French. I got my book out, I pointed to the name, I said De La Porte’s several times. This caused her to erupt with fear, shaking her head and her hands at me saying ‘No no no no Anglaise!’. I feared I’d triggered an old-school hatred that lies between the French and English. Then she picked up her phone and called for someone. My second fear was that the person just called was a security guard and I had walked into somewhere I shouldn’t have been. Down the stairs came a French girl in her early 20’s, I was safe. Effortlessly she spoke in English, and the previously panicking older French woman calmed down and smiled in the background.

The young girl understood my mission, she knew the name. She’d heard it all over France but not in Lille. It appeared it was not a name that existed in this area. Louis XVI did pretty well at running them out of town it seems. The best thing about reaching out with people is that you never know what they might come out with. She started telling me that yesterday she had just finished a book based on Huguenot French-Flemish families, written by a girl who was doing the same as me; she gave me the name of the book and the directions to get to the Archives départementales du Nord on Rue Saint Bernard… at the other end of Lille.

My style of not coordinating my arrival in Lille with the everyday opening times in French society meant I wasn’t about to venture into an old record office unprepared. I could cause an unsuspecting French archivist extreme frustration. My time here had come to an end, this time. With thanks to that young girl, I had two more valuable pieces of information. With thanks to Lille I had spent two days walking around the most affable of European cities I had explored so far.

This is not Paris and it is not Brussels, it’s a place of combined France and Belgium that has it’s own identity; and people rarely speak English. Lille offers a challenge to English tourists, speak French at any potentially embarrassing cost and you will be rewarded with warmth, laughter (even if it is at you) and kindness. It’s a perfect city for walking and discovering hidden nooks, you’re likely to have some of the tastiest coffee and you may experience some great works of art, hidden on the corners of streets and at the second most important collections to France outside of Paris at the Palais Des Beaux Arts. All of this is a mere two hours away by train from St Pancras.

Graffiti, Lille, France

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