The story of French School students, by Miles Green
(republished from Village Voice October/November 2010)
In 1996, I was invited to meet 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 was one of the greatest politicians of the 18th century, described as the best orator and statesman of his times.
He wrote passionately and to great effect about the French Revolution, and the two Frenchmen wanted to know about the school that he had set up in a large mansion house overlooking the pond at Penn in 1796, exactly two centuries earlier, for the sons of the French nobility who had escaped from the Revolution.
This 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 an initially rather bemused Press Counsellor in the French Embassy in London who eventually 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 and it transpired that he was related to the de Genouillac family who had sent two boys to the Penn school in the 1790s. I eventually went to stay, both at the de Genouillac cheateau in Brittany, still owned by the same family, and with General du Verdier.
In 1977, the then Penn & Tylers Green Society put on a dramatic presentation about the French School in Beaconsfield as part of the bicententary celebrations of Edmund Burke’s life – Burke has his estate, mostly in Beaconsfield, but partly in Penn.
It is a dramatic and moving story which deserves to be properly recorded and I hope to run a series of articles over the coming months with the intention of turning them into a small book.
Copyright: Miles Green