The French School at Penn

The French School at Penn

A year ago, I met two senior French civil servants who were visiting Penn, accompanied by the head of the Consular Division of our Foreign Office. Both Frenchmen were devotees of Edmund Burke who wrote passionately and to great effect about the French Revolution, and they wanted to know about the school that he had set up overlooking the pond at Penn, in 1796, for the sons of the émigré noblesse francaise.

The meeting reminded me that although I knew a good deal about the school from archival sources in England, I had no idea what the French boys themselves thought about their time in Penn or what had happened to any of them after they had left the school. I clearly needed to find French sources to bring the school to life but had little idea of how to set about it.

I was very lucky. My Foreign Office Consul acquaintance put me on to a rather bemused Press Counsellor in the French Embassy in London who proved remarkably effective. Within two weeks I was in touch with a General Jean du Verdier in Versailles who had only recently written an article about Le College de Penn.

We started an increasingly animated and cordial correspondence, each keeping to his own language, and it transpired that he was related to the de Genouillac family who had sent two boys to the Penn school in the 1790s.

The family had all returned to France in about 1800 leaving their younger son, nine years old Casimir, to finish his schooling, as they thought, for a few years. However, the war between France and England and the fear of compulsory military service in Napoleon’s army, prevented his return for 14 long years. He was completely cut off since the almost continual blockade of the Channel ports by the Royal Navy meant that letters had to go via Jersey and then clandestinely into Brittany, and so were often lost or delayed for months and even years.

Meanwhile, after leaving the school in 1808, aged 17, with only 12 guineas to see him on his way, Casimir eked out a living as a teacher in small schools around Penn (as his father had done in the 1790s). He had to endure the widespread, undiscriminating and sometimes violent hatred of all things French and Catholic. “No Jews, no wooden shoes, no Popery” was a popular cry of the day. He was also permanently in debt and at times despaired for his future.

He may not have survived without the friendship and support of the Abbe Maraine, the headmaster of the school, known to all the boys as ‘Le Chef’ and thought of as a father. Every Sunday, Casimir went back to Penn which to him was his home and a sanctuary in a cruel world. He and his fellow former pupils formed a close-knit group lending each other both money and moral support.

Some, like Casimir, had become teachers, one became a well-known doctor in Birmingham, another was a musician and portrait painter in Jersey and one of Casimir’s cousins went to Canada, but the majority seem to have been commissioned into the British army, as Burke had intended, and some served under Wellington in the Peninsula.

They were intensely proud of and grateful to their school. A letter describes, “there are several ‘Pennois’ in my regiment. We call ourselves ‘Pennois’. We keep up the name, When we hear that a ‘Pennois’ is to join the expeditionary corps, a cry goes up, ‘Ah, we would be very happy if he came to our regiment.”

Another school friend, Gustave de Roquefeuil, whose father, the Marquis de Roquefeuil was actually living in Penn in 1797, later wrote to Casimir, “England is a country that will always give me infinite pleasure, J’aime John Bull, J’aime les beefsteak et comme dit Lord Byron, ‘Je love a pot of beer as well as any’. He also reminisced, rather ruefully, about playing cricket at Penn.

Almost all their letters to each other were in French but with some franglais and often ending affectionately in English with ‘farewell myoid friend’, ‘yours for ever,’ ‘yours my good fellow’.

Casimir eventually found a more agreeable post, at a small school near Newbury, under the Rev. James Knollis who became a good friend and who, by a strange coincidence, was to become Vicar of Penn from 1823 to 1860. It was he who built the Old Vicarage that still stands next door to the church.

In 1814, Casimir was finally able to return home to France and to see his family again including a five year old sister he had never met before, and brothers and sisters who he had last seen 14 years earlier. He was quite nervous about the reunion and one can imagine the profound emotion of it all.

Miles Green, Village Voice 63, October/November 1997.

The French School at Penn (Part 2)

When Napoleon escaped from Elba the following year, Casimir immediately joined the royalist army of Brittany and served as a Captain-Adjutant. One of his duties was to make contact with the Royal Navy off the Brittany coast and collect the arms sent to support the royalist cause. After Waterloo (in which he did not take part) he qualified in law but never practised it as a profession. He didn’t need to. His father was now a Comte (Count) with over 4,000 acres in Brittany and Anjou and Casimir himself was a Viscount and a Baron.

When he married, in 1827, he inherited the Chateau du Rox in Brittany as part of his marriage settlement. His wife was equally aristocratic and wealthy. Amongst the many distinguished wedding guests was a certain Viscount de Roquefeuil, Casimir’s old friend Gustave. How they must have relished the change in their fortunes.

However, not all his relatives had been so fortunate. An uncle had faced a firing squad, a 71 year old cousin died in prison, one of 30 starving men crammed into one room and another young female cousin died after enduring brutal treatment. Another unfortunate relative had been arrested en route to England and had to feign madness to escape the guillotine.

The school at Penn stayed open for a further five years after Waterloo. Casimir stayed there in 1819 when on a six month tour of all the places in England that he wanted to see. When the school was finally closed, in 1820, Casimir hastened back to be present at the last prize giving and to thank his old masters. The head master, the Abbe Maraine, now 74, was awarded the decoration of the Order of the Lys by Louis XVIII. Two years later, the school was pulled down and carried away.

Casimir, naturally enough a staunch royalist, was put in Rennes jail for six months· in 1831, on a charge of treason. The Bourbons had been exiled to Scotland in 1830 and Casimir had travelled to see them using a false passport and disguised as an English gentleman called Mr Algernon Stewart. He could, of course, easily pass for an Englishman.

After his release he was out of sympathy with all the successive administrations and spent most of his energies raising his family of five boys and restoring and improving his neglected chateaux and estates.

This year; (1997) one of Casimir’s direct descendants, General Jean du Verdier, has completed an article on the school based on the extensive family archives carefully assembled by Casimir in the library of the Chateau du Rox in Brittany, still owned and occupied by his great grandson, the present Comte de Genouillac.

I was pleased to be invited to stay at the chateau for a few days to see the archives at first hand and to get a feel of the ambience. I accepted with alacrity and like Casimir, went via Jersey and thence by ferry to St Malo and car to the chateau.

I found a chateau full of period furniture and family portraits. The Comte, knowing my interest, had already taken some 30 of the portraits off the wall and had them professionally photographed in Rennes. Copies of the portraits of Casimir, his forebears and his descendants were set out for me on the desk in the library, together with all the bundles and boxes of family papers likely to be of interest to me. A photocopying machine was at my disposal and the Comte himself was at hand to answer any questions. It was a historical treasure trove.

The system of inheritance or ‘partage’ as it is called, in France, introduced by Napoleon, requires any inheritance to be equally divided between all the children, both sons and daughters. It is therefore, apparently comparatively unusual for old houses and estates to survive in the same family for many generations. Le Rox (pronounced Rhow) is an exception and still sits amidst 300 acres belonging to the estate.

The Comte, aged 75, is a very considerable personality, a former army officer and engineer completely down to earth and combining a high degree of practical skills with a very knowledgeable and academic interest in his archives. He and his wife look after the chateau almost entirely by themselves and he is devoted to it. He regards Casimir as perhaps his most important forbear in that they both shared a passionate interest in the chateau which is still much as Casimir left it. He has five children and many grandchildren for whom the chateau remains the focus of family reunions.

All the marvellous materials gathered from General du Verdier and from the chateau, were integrated (with indispensable help from Jean Rollason who has impressive French) into a dramatic presentation which the Penn and Tylers Green Society put on in Beaconsfield Church on July 6 to celebrate Burke’s bicentenary. The photographs of the chateau and its rooms and of the portraits, together with the more interesting documents, formed part of a splendid exhibition about Burke, put together by Elizabeth Scott-Taggart of the Beaconsfield Historical Society.

My own interest in the de Genouillac family has not yet run its course. I have been asked to read a paper to an international conference on French émigrés which is to be hosted by the French Institute in London in 1999. My contribution will be published as part of the proceedings of the conference and so the de Genouillac story will be recorded for international posterity.

Miles Green, Village Voice 64, Christmas 1997.