Museum archives: A Haven for Huguenots

Although Steyning Museum itself has been closed during the Coronavirus lockdown, our family research team have been working at home, answering the increased volume of email and phone enquiries. One such query was from a family who knew the names and dates of some of their forebears, but wanted us to help them fill in the gaps. Most of all, they were puzzled by the surname of these ancestors – MICHAUX.  Where did it come from?  Does it have a meaning?
After some preliminary research in our archives, we discovered that Walter Michaux arrived in Steyning around 1760, but at first we could not find any clues to where he was born or where he had lived before Steyning. Indeed, we could find no record of him anywhere in England. Perhaps he had arrived from across the sea.

The name Michaux suggests French origins, so we asked ourselves what was going on in France at this time?  Could our Walter Michaux have something to do with the persecuted French Protestants - the Huguenots?  In 1685, a change in the law had generated deep religious intolerance and hatred for the protestant Huguenots, many of whom were forced to live in pallisaded villages (the precursor of ghettos), deprived of their work, frequently starved and tortured to try to force them to become Roman Catholics.  Over the next century, many of those who tried to escape were hunted down and killed, but a few brave souls did manage to find secret ways to flee, often splitting up families in the process.
Two of these escapees were Abraham Michaux and his fiancée Suzanne, who lived in Sedan, close to the Belgian border. When she was younger, Suzanne and two other members of her family had attempted to flee by hiding in a goods wagon.  But soldiers stopped them and her sister’s baby cried, giving them away.  They were sent back to the cruelties being heaped on their village.  Now Suzanne and her fiancée concocted a new plan.

In 1692, Abraham Michaux hired a ‘guide’ to help them plan their escape.  The guide insisted they had to leave separately, so he arranged for Suzanne to travel in a barrel in the cold and rat-infested hold of an English ship, bound for protestant Holland, whilst the guide would lead Abraham on foot at night, hiking through the rough terrain of the forests and hills across northern France and Belgium to the Dutch border.  Both journeys were perilous.  Suzanne’s account of her escape is hair-raising, describing her two days and nights in a dark, musty barrel, with only the spigot open to let in a little air, no food or comforts and the increasing stench.  At one point the barrel was turned over and butted repeatedly by the rifles of soldiers searching for escaping Huguenots.  She stifled her screams and remained undiscovered. Meanwhile, Abraham hid in various hollows and crevices on his hazardous route, finally reaching safety in Holland where they were reunited.

In 1692 Abraham and Suzanne were married in a protestant church and settled in Amsterdam.  They had several children and grandchildren, some of whom stayed on in Holland, whilst others moved on to England or America.

Walter Michaux was one of Abraham and Suzanne’s grandchildren.  As a young man, he took ship with a contingent of Dutch-born Huguenots from Holland to the south coast of England, from there Walter and some of his friends found their way to Steyning. Despite many English people’s historic fear of foreigners, Walter Michaux and the others in his group seem to have been warmly welcomed into our community and given work. In 1761, Walter met and married a young Steyning girl, Diana Hull, and they had a family of at least eight children. Walter must have worked hard and done well for himself, as the land tax records show he rented a good house in Steyning for his family and also  ‘The Mill’ where he set up his own business.

Meanwhile, Abraham and Suzanne emigrated to Virginia in America, where Abraham was killed by a native Indian’s arrow and the small town of Michaux remains to commemorate him.

Image: Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 1680s

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