les filles Anglais
Donn Haven Lathrop 2008

Sometimes the Index to the BULLETIN can be more of an impediment and an irritant, rather than a help when one is looking for information. In 1993 I began looking for information on women involved in clockmaking, and found five entries in the Index; one of them a query about Hannah Montandon and her husband. Nothing under distaff, female, wife, sister, or daughter---except for George T. Daughters---which and who was no help at all. Another one was my own request for research assistance. The response to my request for assistance was interesting: Out of some 35,000 members, only four bothered to respond.

However, there was one intriguing entry---
---on my computer screen when I called up the Index, but it had to wait a bit until some 1,000-odd other names had been collected and listed. Further, the 'SR' indicated that the entry referred to a review of another publication, which means all sorts of delays in getting something one wants to read yesterday! Patience paid off, and the article by Mr. C. C. Baines finally came to hand. The rest of this story is based primarily on his article in the March, 1960, issue of Antiquarian Horology, and bits and pieces gathered from further research. Quoted material is from Mr. Baines' article.

Anne and Elizabeth Adamson were evidently the daughters of an English Roman Catholic who refused to attend the services in the Church of England. England's "official" religion had always been Roman Catholic, or it at least it was until Henry VIII decided to get his own way by going his own way. For the next two hundred and fifty years England's dominant religious factions ranged through Catholicism, Anglicanism and Protestantism---each of these factions naturally being quite sure they and only they held the truth. Religious factionalism killed kings and peasants, resulted in Cromwell's Protectorate, the emigration of the Puritans, and culminated rather viciously in the reigns of James II of England, and Louis XIV of France as they tried to force Catholicism on their subjects.

In the waning years of the 17th century, a Thomas Adamson is listed as a watchmaker in Burnley, just north of Manchester, but there is no way of discovering whether he was the father of these two sisters, or whether they were apprenticed to him. It is of interest that an Adamson, ___, a full century later, is listed in Baillie as Clockmaker to the French Royal Family.

Mr. Baines writes that the sisters were 33 years old (were they, perhaps, twin watchmakers?) when they entered the convent, and the convent diary on the day of their entry in 1689 includes the statement: "Sister Anne Teresa, alias Adomson, was very expert in making of watches of al sortes & her sister in studding of caises." The sisters of the order were known by the English as the "Blue Nuns" because of their blue ceremonial cloaks, while the French referred to them as 'les filles Anglais' evidently because the majority of the nuns were from England. Many Roman Catholics fled England for France in the last days of the reign of James II---by this time the Catholics were in their turn suffering the same persecutions by the Protestants that James II had imposed in his efforts to force Roman Catholicism on his subjects.

James II wasn't very popular---he'd run for his life from England to France at the end of 1688 because it was either that or lose his head. At the same time, there was a flood of skilled workers and intellectuals running in the other direction. Louis XIV (the badly inbred 'Sun King' who was to cause a great deal of trouble on both sides of the Atlantic for many years to come) had revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and began persecuting the Huguenots (Protestants) almost as viciously as had the Spanish sovereigns and the Church in the Inquisition nearly two hundred years earlier. The English historian George Trevelyan wrote: "The sum of human misery thus wantonly brought about is horrible to contemplate. In the course of years some hundreds of thousands succeeded in escaping, mostly into England... A large proportion were artisans and high-class merchants who brought to the lands of their adoption trade secrets and new production methods."

Becoming a nun was evidently an expensive proposition---the sisters promised to pay [on] "their entrance to Religion two hundred pounds starling for them both ..." which sum was finally paid two years later, along with "twenty pistoles (a Spanish gold coin worth about $4.00 in 1960) for the care of the pipe organ."

Very little can be learned about the financial aspects of the sisters' watchmaking activities inside the walls of the convent---convent records are 'open' (within strict limits) to the public---and they evidently did not publicize their efforts in the trade any more than was absolutely necessary. The trade guilds of Paris "did not allow foreigners to practice in the City unless they had exceptional influence or paid heavy fees to enroll in a guild"---which wasn't very much different from the situation in English guilds at the time. Privileges in the trades were extended to certain groups---particularly religious organizations---whereby 'foreigners' were allowed to work, free of police or guild control.

The Blue Nun's sources of supplies, particularly for making watches---"remain a mystery." Whether they did piece-work for other makers in Paris, or obtained their materials from England, they obviously required a well-supplied workshop, in terms of both tools and materials. Some watchcase materials---such as shagreen---were not expensive goods, but there are records that thieves broke into the convent in 1702, and apparently made four more attempts in later years to steal whatever valuables---perhaps raw gold or silver, or finished cases and movements done in precious metals---were to be found in the convent workshop.

It is most likely that the sisters' income derived from piecework for Parisian makers and from their own work, which they could sell to wealthy English expatriates who had followed their deposed King to France. There are records that daughters of the one time English Roman Catholic nobility were sent to the convent to be educated, and several English ladies of high degree were boarders. These nuns may well have 'removed themselves from the world', but the world they had left behind seemed to crowd in upon them and influence their lives through their customers, fellow French makers, and boarders in the convent.

Of the intervening years, full of wars and the ascendancy of Anglican England in the world, there is little information on the Blue Nuns until: "In 1704 Sister Anne lost her reason but recovered 18 months later." Sixteen years later she was appointed Vicaress, a post she was to hold to within a few months of her death in October, 1729, at the age of 73. Her sister Elizabeth had died twenty one years earlier at the age of 51, which probably put an end to their 'movement and case partnership' twenty years after it first began behind the walls of the convent of the Blue Nuns. The Blue Nuns remained in Paris until the time of the French Revolution, when they were driven back to England, where the order finally disappeared completely in about 1810.


BAINES, C. C., A Seventeenth Century Nun Watchmaker, Antiquarian Horology, March, 1960.

TREVELYAN, George M. A History of England, Doubleday & Co. Inc., Garden City, New York. 1953.

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