La connexion française

James Thomas investigates the influence of the French language in Waltham Forest, from 1066 to the present day

Elizabeth Lennard

Elizabeth Lennard, who runs the chic women’s clothing boutique, Ella, in Wood Street Market (credit Ann Chow)

The French language in contemporary London is usually associated with brasseries and top-notch schools in Hammersmith and Fulham, or the Consulate and Institut Français in Kensington and Chelsea.

True, most of France’s wealthier ex-pat communities reside in these two west London boroughs. However, French is spoken as a native or second language by more than 100,000 people throughout the capital. Waltham Forest is no exception, boasting around 2,300 French speakers of varying nationalities, making it the borough’s tenth most spoken language. Many of these people are relatively new to the area, but the language isn’t.

French in north-east London goes back nearly a millennium. After William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066, varieties of Old French were implanted as prestigious forms of speech in areas comprising modern-day Waltham Forest. When, in 1103, Ralph de Toni, son of William’s standard bearer at the Battle of Hastings, married Alice, daughter of Waltheof, Anglo-Saxon Earl of Huntingdon, he became the first Norman baron of Wilcumestowe parish (the settlement that later became Walthamstow).

With another Norman, Robert Gernon, controlling land in Chingford and Leyton, Anglo-Norman exerted a strong influence until the 13th Century when other forms of French became fashionable, such as the francien dialect of Paris and the Angevin and Poitevin spoken by the Plantagenet monarchs.

Waltham Forest would have been a linguistic microcosm of southern England with peasants speaking Old English, the aristocracy predominantly Anglo-French and many tradespeople and clerics using both. Latin was widespread in ecclesiastical, legal and administrative texts.

Though not usually associated with London’s Huguenot communities such as Soho and Spitalfields, Walthamstow appears by the mid-18th Century to have been a popular destination for financiers and industrialists of French Protestant origin.

One such was François de Boulay (1759-1828), a wealthy stock jobber who lived at what is now Forest School. Another was Peter Lefevre (1690-1756), a successful distiller of malt who, with his wife Elizabeth Debonnaire, lived at Winns, the mansion better known today as the William Morris Gallery.

Morris himself was credited as the translator of several Old French romances published during the 1890s by his Hammersmith-based Kelmscott Press, including Of the Friendship of Amis and Amile. He cared little for the modern language though. Reluctant to speak with weaver Louis Bazin, he called it “that basest of jargon so grossly misnamed the Frankish or French tongue”. The earlier Walthamstow-dwelling poet George Gascoigne (1535-1577) was more complimentary, describing French as “that pearle of pleasant speeche”.

With a head full of history, I take to the streets to appraise the contemporary state of the language.

My first stop is Wood Street Market, Upper Walthamstow, a friendly hub of vintage clothing stalls, traditional confectionery, old toys, antiques, and vinyl. It’s a multilingual place, where you hear Mexican Spanish, Bulgarian, Polari cockney, and that secret language known only to second-hand record dealers.

Here I meet Elizabeth Lennard, originally from Rochefort, a port in western France famous for housing the world’s largest collection of begonias. For just over a year, Elizabeth’s chic women’s clothing boutique, Ella, has been doing good business here. Prior to this, she ran a stall in La Petite Robe Rose, a now-closed French café in Leyton. I ask her how often she speaks her native language in London. “I speak French with my children everyday”, she replies.

Like many French speakers in Waltham Forest, Elizabeth has a British partner and her children are happily bilingual. On Saturdays they attend La Petite Ecole de Redbridge, just outside the borough, which describes itself as “a French-speaking children’s group run by parents”.

At this learning centre held in Wanstead’s Methodist Church Hall, stories, debate and a little grammar are the order of the day. Elizabeth and her family communicate in French with other adults and children from the Caribbean, Belgium, and francophone Africa.

In nearby Leytonstone, at the Wanstead Flats end of the High Street and conveniently close to the 257 bus route, I find Le Petit Corner; a stylish, child-friendly café run by Rachel Mallach, from Cannes, and her Kentish business partner Toby Hartley. Coincidentally, the Sunday after my visit, Ella is operating on the premises for the day as a pop-up boutique.

Athmane Lardjane

Athmane Lardjane, owner of Chef d’œuvre in Walthamstow High Street (credit Ann Chow)

Rachel explains that the café has been going for around 18 months. “There are quite a lot of French people in the area”, she tells me, and there are plans afoot for monthly gatherings for informal chat and conversation in French and English. Like Elizabeth, Rachel is married to an Englishman and has bilingual children. I ask if this pattern is universal among Anglo-French couples in the area. Not so, it seems; some are switching entirely to English.

My next stop is Mauritian Delights, a small take-away and restaurant in Leyton High Road, but sadly the French speakers aren’t at work during my visit. Undeterred, I head on to Walthamstow High Street, along with Hoe Street as likely a spot as any to encounter the borough’s international francophone mix.

I’m intrigued to know more about the multilingualism of the area’s African-Caribbean and Black African residents. Though I meet a couple of French speakers (one of Togolese origin), it seems that the francophone element of these communities is relatively small in this part of London. Since the 1980s, though, Leyton and Walthamstow have had a significant Algerian population, many of whom speak French.

I enter Chef d’œuvre, a friendly café next to Sainsbury’s, run for 12 years by Athmane Lardjane, an Algerian originally from Oran. Athmane tells me he uses le français every day with his family as well as with Canadians, Mauritians and French nationals. At work, though, he primarily speaks English and Arabic, the dominant language among the borough’s Maghreb diaspora.

Back on Hoe Street, I enjoy a delicious Algerian baklava (baqlawa) at L’Hirondelle, a popular destination for coffee and patisserie. As I do so, my mind turns back to the Norman standard bearer and Wood Street Market. The latter’s horseshoe-shaped structure would be perfect for displaying the Bayeux Tapestry in 2022.