Huguenot family who rose through the church and Empire

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: In his latest delve into the vaults of local history, DAVID MORGAN unveils a tale that includes a gravestone used as a pavement slab in the churchyard, the Huguenots, the Chapel of St James’ Palace, a Swiss family living in Geneva, an officer of the 7th Prussian Hussars, a foreign correspondent of The Times and a girls’ grammar school in London

Now barely legible, one of the worn gravestones making up the path to the south of Croydon Minster has two names etched into it. Looking carefully we can just see that one is the eldest daughter of the other.

For a parent to bury their own child, no matter what their age, is one of the toughest acts that they are ever called upon to do. Tragedy befell the Chirol family in 1825 when Sophia, just 19, died. The sorrow and heartache of the family can be felt in the memorial inscription: “This damsel is not dead but sleepeth”.

Twelve years later, the family gathered at the same graveyard plot, this time to bury the father. The funeral service would have been a very grand occasion as befitting for a man of the cloth.

The Chirol family gravestone, now badly worn and used as paving in the Minster churchyard

John Lewis Chirol was one of the clergy linked to what was then known as Croydon Parish Church and so the laying to rest of one of their own would have been most poignant, both to clergy and parishioners alike. You can imagine the black mourning clothes, the dark veils and a gloved hand turning the small black-edged funeral card over and over in a suit pocket; the tearful widow leaving the scene with a second family member at rest in the Croydon grave and preparing for another period of mourning.

However, JL Chirol is not all that we might believe that he was. He led a double life.

On the one hand, there is the Rev John Lewis Chirol, a cleric in the Anglican church.

On the other, he is Jean Louis Chirol, the French-speaking pastor of the Huguenot church in London. So distinguished and important does he become in this role as pastor that he was appointed as a chaplain to King William IV. His name is written in gold lettering in the French Chapel at St James’ Palace. His sisters, living in Switzerland, boast to their friends about how well Jean Louis is doing.

“The church in Little Dean Street in Soho, le Quarre, has been doing so well since our brother Pastor Chirol took over.”

“The congregation of L’Eglise de St-Jean in Swan Fields Shoreditch adore him when he preaches there.”

Inside the chapel at St James’s Palace, from an 1821 engraving by Joseph Mead

“Did you hear that Jean Louis has had some of his sermons and talks published? One of them was all about the role of education in the lives of young ladies. He really is a most modern thinker”.

“He has had meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, to safeguard the Royal Bounty which is paid out to support poor Huguenot refugees. Do you know that there are people in the government who do not want to help refugees fleeing to London? I cannot believe it, a rich country like England.”

Chirol’s wife, Louisa, tells a different story, though. She has to live with both sides of the man, Anglican John as well as the flamboyant French-speaking Jean. She knows the hours of study and work he has to put in. She knows the fights he has fought, supporting the needy refugees and the Huguenot community as a whole. She knows the toll it has taken on him.

She remembers all the hoops the two of them had to jump through before they could be married. She makes a wry smile as she recalls the £200 marriage bond that had to be given to the Bishop of London, old Beilby Porteus. What an absurdly ridiculous amount of money!

She is proud of her husband and of their three children. Sophie the eldest, always a treasure; Alexander the son, destined she feels sure to follow his father into the church; Frances, or Fanny to her friends, who seems capable of anything or nothing depending on her mood. Of course, it should have been Sophie who would have been the first to marry, but instead she is the first to be laid in the cold earth of Croydon. It’s hard to keep your faith in such times but it is her rock, JL, who supports Louisa through her grief and enables her to carry on with her life.

The parish gossips just love a wedding, especially with a man in uniform.

“Are you going to the church today to see the happy couple on their wedding day?”

“Of course, I never miss a happy day and that Fanny is such a character.”

“I’m only going ‘cos I ain’t never seen a Prussian before!”


John’s grandson, Valentine, led a long and distinguished career at The Times and for the Foreign Office

“Prussian, dear, a real live Prussian. He’ll be in his uniform. He’s a Prancer!”

“He’s not a prancer. He’s a lancer. Seventh Prussian Lancers. Fancy that. First time ever for Croydon Parish Church, a Prussian officer marching up the aisle for his bride and then to stand, smiling, in the sun as they come out of the South Door. I do hope the weather’s going to be fine.”

“The sad part will be when they have to walk past Sophia’s grave. It’s eight years since she died. He always took it hard, did her father. But he’ll be pleased for Frances, though they’ll miss her when she goes to live over there.”

“What’s his name this chap she’s marrying?”

“Now you’re asking. I think it is Von Graevili, or something like that. I do know, from what Rev Chirol was saying , is that he is a Lieutenant Colonel.”

From 1833, time ticks round to the 1840s. Reverend Alexander Ashburnham Chirol stands in front of the altar in St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, ready for hands to be laid on his head in blessing as he is made a curate there. It was natural for him to follow his father into the church.

His career did not match his father’s though. Nothing much happened to him apart from the kerfuffle caused when he and his family made the very publicised step into the Roman Catholic church.

As some people have been heard to say, talent can skip a family generation. It was certainly the case for the Chirols. Alexander’s son, Ignatius Valentine Chirol, had his grandfather’s double life rolled up and made into one, his own. A talented linguist, he was educated in Europe. He was living near Frankfurt during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

Diplomat: Sir Valentine Chirol

Returning to England, he worked at the Foreign Office for four years before travelling to Egypt and then on to Syria. It was there that he began to get into journalism. After joining The Times in the early 1890s, he became director of the Foreign desk in 1899. He wrote many articles and books. His drive and charisma brought him into contact and favour with many: Lord Curzon, Foreign Secretary and Viceroy of India, a young Winston Churchill with whom he sailed to Karachi, and Teddy Roosevelt whom he met through a mutual friend, Sir Cecil Spring Rice.

Chirol was knighted in 1912. After retiring from The Times he returned to diplomatic duties. A noted Imperialist, he died in 1929, a rich and well-respected figure.

The headteacher at Lady Margaret School in Parsons Green rose to her feet to address the new September 2019 cohort of Year 7 pupils to welcome them into the school, to remind them of the Houses into which they had been placed and to set them a task to find out more about the people after whom the Houses had been named: Moberley Bell, Kensington, Marshall, Lyttleton, Carver and Chirol were the names she read.

She explained that those individuals were chosen because they had all played a significant role in the history and development of the school. When she asked if there were any questions, one girl raised her hand.

“Please Miss, I have heard about Chirol. My dad knows this man who sings in the choir at Croydon and he researches about the history of the church. I think he said there was someone called Chirol buried in the churchyard there.”

“Well, Elisabeth, that looks like a good place to start your research. I shall look forward to reading all about it. Good luck with your endeavours.”

The next weekend Elisabeth and her mother get off the tram at Reeves Corner and walk the short distance to Croydon Minster. After inspecting the gravestones now laid flat and making up the paths in the church grounds, Elisabeth’s voice rings out clearly.

“Mum, come over here. This is the gravestone. It’s got Chirol on it!”

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1 Response to Huguenot family who rose through the church and Empire

  1. John Chandler Honnor says:

    “He has had meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, to safeguard the Royal Bounty which is paid out to support poor Huguenot refugees. Do you know that there are people in the government who do not want to help refugees fleeing to London? I cannot believe it, a rich country like England.” How familiar.

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