The French Clinic and the French Benevolent Society following a French charitable tradition, in London.
As early as the 16th century with the arrival of the Huguenots, support networks among the French community were implemented in order to help and assist the poorest of them. The help is then provided mainly by French churches with the support of the most affluent parishioners but they also later founded a hospital in 1718 named the ‘Providence’, which still exists in the form of a retirement home for descendants of Huguenots in Rochester Kent.
Thereafter, each wave of French refugees – especially during the French Revolution, the 19th century and during the Second World War with the Free French initiative – was able to benefit from these charitable structures established by their predecessors. Private initiatives try to fill the gaps and when confronted to urgent needs, the British government intervenes each time and often in quite a generous way.
The French Clinic and the French Benevolent Society were founded in the 19th century. With such an unstable century, after each revolution France is regularly faced to, many French refugees arrive, flooding the town of London : royalists, republicans, Bonapartists, Communists, anarchists … The context in which they arrive is usually quite difficult because the Industrial Revolution brought great poverty upon those at the right end of the social scale, and most of them live in great distress.
French residents who became true Londoners started feeling sorry for them, as was the case with the leader Alexis Soyer who sets up soup kitchens in Spitalfields, an area crowded with native Huguenot weavers. At that time they are barely managing to survive the advent of mechanization of their equipment resulting in chronic unemployment.
There is also the Count d’Orsay, an eccentric dandy and the darling of English high society. He is no less generous and created in 1842 the French Benevolent Society to distribute material and financial assistance. The first members of the French Society are notables of the time living in London such as Count Walewski, the French ambassador, or a doctor, descendant of French refugees during the French Revolution, who settled down in London, the Bélinaye doctor, or a member of the Grillon family who became quite successful in the hostel industry.
In 1867, in a far more official way this time, a French hospital to which a Dispensary will later be added, opened its doors in Shaftesbury Avenue in Soho to provide medical help. It also had at its disposal a convalescent home in Brighton. Funding was implemented in the form of the many subscriptions originating from French, English or even foreign private and public sectors. Queen Victoria was the first president and royal patronage never failed. English and French Doctors, were volunteers. In 1910, the hospital had sixty beds, an operating room, two resident doctors and a wide array of medical specialists. In 1879, the actress Sarah Bernhardt was cared for at the French hospital as she was suffering from exhaustion after her performance at the Gaiety Theatre for the premiere of Racine’s “Phaedra”. In 1913, she once again performed in “Phaedra” at a gala evening to help the hospital, at the Coliseum Theatre.
One hundred years later, facing serious financial difficulties, the hospital was sold to the UK Department of Health and the convalescent home which had been transformed into a retirement home, will also close its doors in 1999. Only the dispensary continues its mission towards the French speaking community, still chaired by a member of the British royal family, the Duchess of Cornwall. Located for a few years in Marylebone, it was transferred to Hammersmith in 2005.
These two organizations, The French Clinic and the French Benevolent Societydi have always operated in parallel and have survived to this day despite undergoing moments of crisis. But these were always overcome thanks to the staff’s good will and their generous donors. Their vocations complement each other and to promote economy and efficiency, they decided in 2014, to merge their expertise and resources into a common administration. At the beginning of this new century, both the new wave of French citizens moving from France to London and the long-term residents, can definitely count, in times of need, on a precious assistance which many have benefited from before them.