The French Honorary Consul (2) 1821 and 2021

Early in 2021 Frederic Laloux was appointed French Honorary Consul for Brighton and Newhaven.  M. Laloux is the most recent incumbent of an official post reaching back to at least 1821. This post is unpaid, apart from expenses.  It occasionally carries the title Vice-Consul as the local consuls (there are about 30 across the UK) report to the Consul Général in London.

regency-society-print-collection-1-2

Brighton as the first Honorary French Consul would have known it in the 1820s. Image (c) Regency Society / Society of Brighton Print Collectors

 

But before looking at his predecessors, let’s start by letting Frédéric Laloux introduce himself:

But before looking at his predecessors, let’s start by letting Frédéric Laloux introduce himself:

“I am very honoured to be asked to write something about myself. This is a rare occurrence, so it took me some time!  I feel it is important to mention that I come from a rather modest background. In fact, I was raised in a high-rise tower block in northern France. The town where I grew up was, at the time, badly hit by unemployment and the chance of a reasonable job in the town itself or its surrounding was low.

“After completing my Baccalaureat, a combination of my father’s help and the generosity of the French system allowed me to go to University and study law. I wasn’t really interested in private law. Instead, anything involving public entities (towns, governments, states) became my area of expertise. Five years later, I had successfully completed a Master in French public law with a specialisation in International Law.

“Having a total lack of professional experience though, it proved again impossible to find any sort of employment. In fact, filling supermarkets shelves at night was the only available jobs I was being offered. In one night, I had changed from a Law school graduate to a penniless job seeker!

“I then heard of an opportunity in England (Brighton), working for American Express. Despite the starting salary being £5, it was for me a huge amount of money being offered and I didn’t think twice. One week later and I was sitting at my desk in the old “Amex house”, the “wedding cake” that many people in Brighton still remember.

“20 years have passed and, having changed positions within the company numerous time (including semi legal roles), I am now enjoying a very happy life with 2 young children and many hobbies. My favourite hobby is yacht sailing. I have a little sailing vessel moored in Newhaven and I have also created a non-profit local sailing association called “Sailhaven”.

“One thing was missing though, as I had somewhat built my life here and perhaps lost some my links with my country. I am very excited to have been chosen as the Honorary Consul in Brighton as it means rebuilding these connections with France and meeting many of my fellow citizen. I am definitely feeling at home in this role and I will do my best to help in any way I can.”

* * *

When the first Honorary Consul took up his post at the beginning of the 1820s, Royal Crescent existed. The new gas works at Black Rock was the only other completed structure further east.  Bedford Square and a handful of houses stretched to the Hove border in the west.  Regency Square and the Chain Pier were little more than a twinkle in their developers’ eye. John Nash was doing a grandiose conversion job on a modest villa in the centre of the town.  Hove was two miles away and of little interest.  But all was changing at an astonishing rate.

Brighthelmston
(c) Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Cross channel ferries from Dieppe arrived at Brighton.  Until 1823, passengers, horses, carriages and goods were manhandled through shallow waters and up the beach by burly sailors or porters.  The advent of the Chain Pier made landings far easier.  The Napoleonic Wars had come to an end (1815) and the protectionism practiced by Britain, especially with regards to France, was easing.  Passengers and goods were increasingly passing between the two countries and arriving in Brighton.  France needed a representative on the south coast. John Smith was the man.

John Smith c.1821 – c.1830

The main task of the French honorary consul is to protect the interests of any French national on British soil.  The following extract from Whitmore’s Royal Guide of 1826 shows that Mr Smith had his office in Western Place (present-day Western Road, roughly between Hampton Place and Spring Street)

John Smith consul

The possession of a passport represented the freedom to leave Britain, but in the early 19th century a British passport was reserved for the highest echelons of society – and not necessarily of much use in France.  A far better way to ensure safe passage into and around France was to buy a French passport for the sum of 10 shillings (50p).  In Brighton, that would be from Mr Sargant, although in other towns such as Portsmouth, Southampton and Dover, it was the French consul himself who would have provided such a passport.

The passport below is typical of its time. It was issued in 1825.  It belonged to Henry Thompson and was provided by the French vice-consul in Portsmouth, Mr Arns Vandenbergh.   The grand heading AU NOM DU ROI [in the name of the King] referred at the time to Charles X.  The main text begs both civil and military officers to allow Monsieur Henri Thompson to pass freely. This was no idle request. French political and even civil life were still in turmoil (there would be another Revolution in 1830). Many French towns still closed their gates at night and demanded an octroi [tax] on certain goods passing into the town.  The protection of the king was needed for those bold English citizens who ventured abroad.

Au nom du Roi The Keep
(c) The Keep, Brighton / East Sussex County Council

Before the age of the photograph, each passport bore a verbal description of the bearer.  The main body of the passport would have been printed in London and the personal details completed by a consul. The 10 shilling fee would be passed by the vice-consul to the Chancellerie du Consulat [Finance office of the Consulate].  Whether any of that money made its way to France is not known.

On the left of the passport above is Mr Thompson’s signalement [description] :

Age ………28…………… years

height … 6 foot 4 inches … (written in pre-Revolutionary style as six pieds, quatre pouces)

hair ……..auburn ……….

eyebrows …. ditto …..

eyes ….. blue ……

forhead ….. high …….

nose …. average ……

mouth ….. average …..

chin …… big …….

face ….. oval …..

Most of us would be hard-put to recognise Mr Thompson from that description.  However, the document did have his signature on it. 

This particular passport has been endorsed with, amongst others, the signatures of the Chief of the Passport Bureau in Paris and the Police Commissioner in Le Havre giving Mr Thompson permission, to sail back to England aboard the Camilla on 3rd September 1825.

And one final curiosity for the modern passport holder:  the Portsmouth vice-consul has endorsed the passport with permission for Mr Thompson’s servant, William Wight, to accompany him to France (see below).  There is no description of Mr Wight.  Was it assumed that a servant never left his master’s side?

H Thompson and his servant
(c) The Keep / East Sussex County Council

In Brighton, Mr Smith was a busy man.  In addition to his duties as vice-consul he was a Town Commissioner from at least 1822 until 1830 and seems to also have had a role as tax inspector.  But it would seem that by 1829 things had started to go wrong.  An angry paragraph published in at least two London newspapers complained that “although there is a Deputy Vice-Consul in Brighton, no passport can be obtained at his office.”  One French-born Brighton resident “being unable to get his passport, actually went over without one.”  A statement which immediately reveals that the captains of boats plying to France did not have to inspect passports before they took a passenger on board. It was only on reaching France that a passport was needed.

M. Laloux and Mr Smith are the “bookends” of two centuries of the valuable office of French Honoaray Consul. More of the intervening incumbents in future blog posts.

fin symbol

One thought on “The French Honorary Consul (2) 1821 and 2021

  1. It is fascinating to think that a “French consul” could be of British, not French, nationality. This is very trusting of the incumbent’s fidelity to his avowed duty of aiding French citizens. Imagine the outcry in certain quarters today if the “British consul” in, say Calais, were revealed to be a French national!

    I imagine that the French consul in post-Brexit Britain might face a number of problems and wish Monsieur Laloux “bon courage” in fulfilling his valuable duties.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s