The many faces of British poverty in France
- 22 June 2014
- From the section Magazine
A little-known charity has been helping out destitute British people in France for nearly 200 years. If the causes of poverty were once wars and revolutions, now it's more likely to be a house purchase gone wrong.
Just a few years after the fall of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, the British community in Paris was growing fast.
Encouraged by a fashion for things English under the restored French monarchy and by growing unemployment at home, thousands of workers - bricklayers, ostlers, servant-girls and governesses - were trying their luck across the channel.
Many thrived. But others did not. They lost their jobs, or were the victim of fraud, and found themselves destitute.
And so in 1823 there was established the British Charitable Fund (BCF) - its purpose to come to "the relief of distressed British subjects" in the French capital.
"The widow and the orphan, the sick and the aged, present themselves, in succession, for food, and raiment, and medical assistance," reads an appeal for contributions written in 1827.
"The houseless wanderer in a foreign land solicits conveyance to his native home; the friendless and forsaken claim consolation and protection."
Nearly two centuries later, the BCF is still distributing help to subjects of the crown who find themselves down on their luck in France.
Today the beneficiaries are more likely to be in Poitou than in Paris. Many are people who came out for the rural good life, and saw it all go sour.
"The profile of our beneficiaries has changed over the generations," says Julia Kett, chairwoman of the trustees.
"Once we were helping seamstresses and dancers. And before that plain working-class labourers. Now more and more there are widows and young families, many living in remote parts of the country.
"The people have changed but the need for our help has not gone away."
Up until World War Two, the BCF owned a sumptuous residence on Avenue Hoche beside the Arc de Triomphe. Today it operates from a small office in the suburb of Levallois-Perret.
Here trustees hold their monthly meetings to agree on who gets what. Here the permanent staff of one answers calls from the distressed. And here is also housed a cupboard-full of archive - a treasure trove for the social historian.
The leather-bound minute books and annual reports go back to the earliest days, with the occasional letter tucked in the folds.
The report for 1832 states that 981 cases have been treated in the year, with 332 people given fares back to the UK.
"Of those who have been sent to England, the greater part were labourers, manufacturers or mechanics who, inveigled into the country by fruitless speculators, or seduced by the hope of bettering their condition, were become the victims of their credulity or delusion," it reads.
A badly spelled letter from 1829 carries a plea on behalf of an employee: "Gentlemen, The bearer his a man with a Wife and two small Children and at the moment in the Greatest distress … he have been in my Company for 10 months and have been berry attentive to his work when he have it to do... What you think proper to give him will be kindly received."
The tides of history - the crises and wars - are reflected in the changing fortunes of the British in Paris.
Need increases in the revolutionary years of 1830 and 1848. But the most dangerous moment is the winter of 1870-1871, when Paris is laid siege to by the Prussians.
Here the minute books change from giving a written account of each individual applying for help. Instead there are pages and pages of names, with a log of the provision that they received.
"People were close to starvation in Paris, and the British suffered like everyone else," says Julia Kett.
In all more than 3,000 people were helped with hand-outs of coal, rice, bread, soup and "leibig" - which was a kind of meat concentrate.
In early 1871, the BCF committee agreed a vote of thanks - duly recorded - to Richard Wallace for "his munificent assistance to the English poor in Paris during the successive periods of the siege".
The illegitimate son of an aristocrat, Richard Wallace (1818-1890) was one of the great heroes of the British presence in Paris.
He gave large sums of money to the BCF, and was a trustee for many years.
Today he is remembered for the Wallace art collection in London - and in Paris for the 50 or so Wallace drinking fountains that he paid for and which are still in use today.
The charity was busy again in 1910 - when floods in Paris caused havoc - and then in August 1914.
With the outbreak of war, thousands of British people travelled to Paris from northern Europe, hoping for help to return to the UK.
In the minute books it is described how a member of the committee made daily trips to the Gare du Nord, buying tickets for groups of British people and seeing them safely on board trains to Calais.
In the "Various" section of the 1915 minute book, there is an interesting exchange concerning a recent letter to the Daily Mail.
A Paris-based correspondent signing himself "A True Britisher" has complained about the number of young men applying for weekly help from the BCF.
"Could they not be compelled to 'do their bit' in the war instead of being a charge on good-hearted people," he writes.
The trustees agree to write their own letter to the Daily Mail rebutting the insinuation that its beneficiaries are draft-dodgers.
Down and Out in Paris and London
- 1933 memoir by George Orwell, first part of which concerns author's experiences living on breadline in Paris, and working as dishwasher or "plongeur" in hotel near Place de la Concorde
- "The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people - people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work."
- On the trail of George Orwell's down and outs (BBC News Magazine, August 2011)
"And later that year there was an appeal for funds in the Times which was heavily subscribed, which shows that most people did not share the views of this 'True Britisher'," says Julia Kett.
At the start of WW2, there were similar demands on the BCF. But in May 1940, with the Germans advancing, it was decided to evacuate Paris, and the charity did not return for five years.
Throughout the 19th Century, the BCF depended on private donations. It helped that it was sponsored by the British embassy (the founder, Lord Granville, was ambassador).
In January 1863 Charles Dickens gave a reading at the embassy to raise money for the charity. He chose extracts from Dombey and Son and the Pickwick Papers.
Society balls were also held to raise funds, and in 1865 one was attended by the Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie.
At the end of the century the charity's books were put on a surer footing thanks to the legacy of a certain Col Hylton Brisco.
Unknown to history, he is an honoured figure at the BCF because his £90,000 bequest - duly invested with the Charity Commission in London - has provided a basic income ever since.
But the Fund also relies on donations. Increasingly so, as it work expands - because today the charity is reaching out to find new people to help.
"A few years ago we realised that the number of beneficiaries was dwindling. Many of our older people were dying off. It was time to find the new face of British poverty in France," says Julia Kett.
A typical case today are the Earleys, a couple who emigrated to a remote village in Poitou in western France with their young son.
The hope was to combine a B&B with an electrical business. But then Graham suffered a serious accident, temporarily preventing him from working, and Gillian developed first breast and then brain cancer.
"We were truly desperate. Without the monthly cheque we received from the BCF I do not know how we could have survived," says Gillian.
Today life is not ideal for the family. Graham has to work three weeks in the month in the UK to make ends meet, and Gillian - although her treatment was successful - is still not 100 percent.
But they have tided the crisis thanks to the BCF.
In Paris Nick Moore is an English teacher in his early 60s who also fell on hard times. He had a stroke and his work dried up. Today he cannot afford the rent of his apartment in the suburb of Saint Ouen.
"The BCF's help essentially keeps me from starving," he says. "But more than that, it's the emotional support. My French is pretty good, but to really express my feelings I have to do it in English - and my case-worker Pamela is British."
In former times British subjects did not qualify for French state help. Now they do. But the process can be long and confusing, and many who need it are not helped by their failure to get to grips with the language.
"The origin of many problems today is the housing market. A lot of British people came out and bought properties that have slumped in value," says trustee Richard Hallows.
"Then they find their dreams of making a living in France don't work out in reality, but they can't go back to the UK because they couldn't afford to buy a home there.
"The other classics are people who find their UK pensions worth much less because of the fall in sterling, and people who've suffered accidents or injuries that stop them working.
"More and more of our beneficiaries are in the deep countryside, where you can have all the additional psychological problems attached to such isolation," he says.
There are also some horror stories. One current case that for legal reasons trustees are reluctant to speak openly about concerns a young man who was kidnapped and brought to France "to work as a slave".
Today the charity is dealing with about 120 individuals. With the British population in France put at around 500,000, there are probably many more who could call on its help.
They are a long way from the grooms and governesses of Lord Granville's time. But the need is still the same.
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