Les Miserables de Guernesey: Children21st April 2017
On 5 March 1862 Hugo made arrangements with his cook, Marie Sixty, for a repas des enfants pauvres to be served every week, ‘the meal will be the same as ours, we shall serve them, they will say as they sit down Dieu soyez beni and on rising Dieu soyez remercié.’ Hugo followed the teaching of a French doctor that meat and a glass of wine were good for growing children—not a medical opinion that would be advocated today. The first such lunch took place on 10 March 1862 and thereafter they were held on a regular basis. There was a special meal at Christmas, when presents were distributed. These were often of a useful nature—items of clothing for example, but there were also toys. This is part of The Victor Hugo and Guernsey project.
Hugo kept a form of annual register in his notebooks. He was keen to demonstrate that there was no discrimination, that his table was open to different nationalities and different denominations. An analysis of the notebooks for the years 1862-1869 validates his claim. The majority of the children were French/Irish Catholic, but there were also Guernsey and English Protestant children.
Families whose children attended the Hauteville House dinners
- EC Meringer
- FC Abraham, Berger, Carpentier, Couture [correct name Coutu], Etasse, Fossé, Gallois, Goupillot, Jay, Legay, Martin,¹ Moquie, Morvan, Petit, Philippe, Prichet [correct name Richer], Tisserand, Vase
- JC Brinne, Fox, Goryte, Linden, Mauclerc, Mills, Pryde, Ryan, Shell
- EP Braiden, Ems, Ings, Meringon
- GP Agnes, Brache, Dumarest, Fidgett, Green, Guire, Harivel, Renouf
- JP Fontaine, Maret, Masell
Origin: E =England F = France G = Guernsey J = Jersey
Religion: C = Catholic P = Protestant
It should be noted that there are a few contradictions in the ‘register’ notes about origins, denominations, and the spelling of names.
On 8 April, the occasion of the 4th dinner, Hugo noticed a child without shoes passing in the street. ‘I called him. That made 16.’ That was unusual. Hugo did not often invite unknown children. Rather, they came from families recommended to him and he regularly helped not just the children but the parents as well. In the early days some twelve to twenty children attended but by the late 1860s the numbers had increased to about forty and there was a rota system.
Hugo was keen that ministers and priests should attend the meals. The event became famous. Journalists came to observe and reports were published not just in local newspapers but also in England. The wealthy in England and America started to imitate Hugo’s example. There was much philanthropy in St Peter Port, Hugo’s efforts were not unique. What distinguishes Hugo’s method is the way in which Hugo embraced the poor as part of his family, feeding them in his own kitchen (or garden in the summer). He was interested not in alms-giving, but in brotherhood.
In a letter of 27 January 1864, written from Hauteville House, Hugo remarked:
Ne m’envoyez rien, Monsieur, je tâche que mes petits pauvres ne manquent de rien ; Mais tâchez de faire chez vous et de faire faire autour de vous, ce que je fais ici pour les enfants misérables de Guernesey. Etre imité par les nobles cœurs comme vous, c’est toute mon ambition…
'Don't send me [any money], Sir, I am trying to ensure my poor little ones lack for nothing; try yourself instead at your home, and try to persuade those around you, to do what I do here for the poor children of Guernsey. To be imitated by such noble-hearted folk as yourself, that's all I aim for ...'
See also Victor Hugo's Christmas fête, 1865 and My little brothers, Christmas with Victor Hugo, 1862, for the genesis of the Enfants pauvres project.
¹ One of the poor children was Emile Martin (b. France 1853). His step-sister Anne is in the photograph (she is named in the Bourde de la Rogerie's annotation). Victor Hugo gave him a pair of shoes when he left to join the Navy (he lied about his age, joining at around 14 years of age); Mme Hugo gave him a rosary. Emile came back to the island and was a policeman for many years. He ended his career as the usher of the Royal Court. [Thanks to his great-grandson, Martin Coley.]