What is a Huguenot?

Written by Robert Nash (Secretary and Editor, Huguenot Society of Australia)

Recently the Royal Australian Historical Society was kind enough to give me a Certificate of Achievement for services to Huguenot historical research in Australia. This was very good of the Society, and I am grateful, but it has occurred to me that many people will be confused about exactly who these people with the strange name were, and how they are relevant to Australia.

In short, the Huguenots were the Protestants of France, a country which, although predominantly Catholic, has had a lively Protestant minority ever since the Reformation in the 16th century. The name Huguenot is of uncertain derivation and there are several different theories about its origin. The Huguenots were followers of the important Reformer John Calvin (Jean Cauvin in French) who was a Frenchman, born in Picardy in northern France. He gave the Huguenots their theology and their church organisation.

For much of their long history, the Huguenots suffered persecution in Catholic France, but the worst period was between 1685 and 1787, the period called Le Désert (the Wilderness) when being a Protestant was completely illegal in France and was severely punished. Anyone caught doing anything of a Protestant nature, for example, attending a prayer meeting, could be imprisoned: men were sent to the galleys as galley slaves, women could be imprisoned for life and children were sent to be indoctrinated into the Catholic faith in convents.[1]

The Huguenots had three choices in responding to this severity – they could throw in the towel and convert to Catholicism, pretend to be Catholics and practise their faith in secret, or escape from France and go to another more welcoming country. The last two choices were highly illegal and dangerous. King Louis XIV had declared that leaving France without permission was against the law and could be punished. The frontiers and seacoasts were guarded by the King’s agents, and anyone caught trying to leave was fined and imprisoned.

Nevertheless, almost 200,000 Protestants did flee France between 1680 and 1710. They went to any country which could offer them religious freedom and a chance to work and earn a living. ‘The Refuge’ included the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, and Scandinavia. Some went even further to Russia (hence the Fabergé family who made the wonderful eggs), the American colonies and South Africa (hence such well-known family names as du Toit, du Preez, Fourié, Cronje and Malan).[2] At least 60,000 came to England, and it was at this time that the word ‘refugee’ came into the English language, from the French refugié. Many of them were skilled artisans (goldsmiths, silk weavers, carvers, and engravers, etc.) who contributed enormously to all the countries which welcomed them through their work ethic, morality, and civic consciousness.[3]

So how is this relevant to Australia and its history? Ever since the first European settlement in 1788, Huguenot descendants have come here from all the countries mentioned above, and even from more unexpected places such as Barbados and St Kitts in the West Indies and Sri Lanka. There were convicts on the First Fleet who were the grandchildren of Huguenot refugees (Jacob Bellett, Jacob Tuso, and Steven Le Grove)[4] and amongst the soldiers who guarded them (Privates John Rousseau and John Dubois were on the Second Fleet).[5]

Many, many Huguenot descendants have contributed to life in Australia. These were people with a tradition of hard work, moral uprightness, and social duty. The first Lieutenant-Governor of the colony of Victoria was Charles Joseph Latrobe, after whom so many things in that state are named.[6] The world of business includes a Dutchman, Guillaume Delprat, who was an early manager of the Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) and a gifted engineer.[7] Henry Carter Perdriau pioneered steam ferries on Sydney Harbour. In the military Sir Harry Chauvel earned fame as the first Australian to earn the rank of General,[8] and his nephew, Charles Chauvel, became one of our most famous film directors. Other contributors to the world of the arts were Harold Cazneaux, ‘the father of Australian photography’[9] and the painters Louis Buvelot, Benjamin Dutterau and William Piguenit. Eccleston Du Faur helped to found the Art Gallery of NSW and campaigned to set up national parks in the Blue Mountains and Kuring-Gai Chase.[10] There are so many more we could name: the stunt pilot Fred Hoinville, the journalist Charles De Boos[11] and, nearer our own day, the architect Richard Le Plastrier, for example.[12] We can also claim great sportsmen: Roy Cazaly of AFL fame was descended from a family prominent in the London silk industry,[13] and the South-African-born cricketer, Marnus Labuschagne, has made a name for himself more recently.

And what about the women? The Huguenots have a tradition of strong, resolute women, and indeed, the survival of the Protestant religion in France during the dark days of persecution could not have been possible without their staunch commitment at the family level to their faith. In Australia we have seen the same strong dedication to what is right: the first female JP in NSW was Phyllis Boissier, who served as a nurse in WW1 and then went on to become a much-respected Matron of Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Sydney.[14] Augustine Soubeiran, a French woman from the Protestant heartland of the Cevennes in the south of France, came to Australia as a governess and then, with a friend, Louisa Gurney, set up a school for girls called Kambala. During WW1, she worked tirelessly to raise funds for refugees from the devastated regions of northern France and was awarded a Légion d’Honneur by a grateful French government.[15] Marie Beuzeville Byles became the first female solicitor in NSW and campaigned for the legal and property rights of married women. But she also worked hard for the preservation of our native bush and was instrumental in the setting up of Bouddi National Park.[16] Another noted conservationist was Minard Crommelin, descended from a Huguenot family which had settled in Northern Ireland. She was a tireless fighter for Australia’s native fauna and flora and used her own money to set up a nature reserve at Pearl Beach. She also gave land to the University of Sydney to allow the establishment of the first university biological field research centre in Australia.[17]

At a time when refugees are much in the news, it behoves us to remember how much the Huguenots, the first people to be called refugees, and their descendants in Australia, have contributed. Being forced to abandon almost everything one has and go to another country forces one to work hard and adapt, yet at the same time remain true to the essential core of one’s heritage. Those are traditions which can last through the generations.

The Huguenot Society of Australia is a historical and genealogical society founded in 2001, with members in all Australian states. It organises regular talks and social events in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and membership is open to all. For more information, go to its website: www.huguenotsaustralia.org.au


[1] Good summaries of basic Huguenot history are found in The Hidden Thread: Huguenot Families in Australia, (ed.) Robert Nash. Published by the Huguenot Society of Australia, Sydney, 2009, & Une Histoire des Protestants en France by M. Carbonnier-Burkard & Patrick Cabanel, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1998.

[2] The Huguenots of South Africa, 1688-1988 by Pieter Coertzen, Tafelberg, Capetown, 1988.

[3] The process of fleeing from France is well dealt with in The Quiet Conquest: The Huguenots 1685-1985, (ed.) Tessa Murdoch, Museum of London, 1985.

[4] The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet by Mollie Gillen, 1989.

[5] The Second Fleet: Britain’s Grim Convict Armada of 1790 by Michael Flynn, Sydney, 1993.

[6] La Trobe: the Making of a Governor by Dianne Reilly Drury, Melbourne University Press, 2006.

[7] ‘Delprat, Guillaume Daniel (1856-1937)’, article in Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) by Graeme Osborne, www.adb.anu.edu.au/biography/delprat-guillaume-daniel-5947, viewed 13/11/22.

[8] Chauvel of the Light Horse by A.J. Hill, Melbourne University Press, 1978.

[9] Cazneaux: The Quiet Observer by Helen Ennis, National Library of Australia, 1994.

[10] Eccleston Du Faur: Man of Vision by Joan Webb, Deerubbin Press, Berowra Waters, 2004.

[11] Charles Edward de Boos, A ‘somewhat motley life’ by Peter Crabb, Busybird Publishing, 2022.

[12] www.ozetecture.org/richard-leplastrier, viewed 13/11/22

[13] Cazaly, the Legend by Robert Allen, Slattery Media group, 2017.

[14] Phyllis Mary Boissier, www.discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au/browse/person/93300, viewed 13/11/22.

[15] ‘Soubeiran, Augustine (1858-1933)’, article in ADB by G.E. Sherington, www.adb.anu.edu.au/biography/soubeiran-augustine-8586, viewed 13/11/22.

[16] ‘Marie Beuzeville Byles (1900-1979)’, article in ADB by Heather Radi, www.adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byles-marie-beuzeville-9652, viewed 13/11/22.

[17] Pearl Beach Legacy: The Story of Minard Crommelin, Visionary by Joan B. Webb, Surrey Beatty & Sons Pty. Ltd., Sydney, 1994.

Published online: 25 November 2022