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More Lost English - In French Spas

Lost English Ancestors on the French Riviera


Antibes 2

Monsieur B has been hunting an English lady among his French ancestors, he writes to us, without success. She married a Frenchman in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but he cannot find the marriage registration. Her husband was from the department of Var, which also contains a bit more than half of the French Riviera. Monsieur B is not the only Dear Reader to write to us with a British -- usually English -- ancestor mysteriously arrived and sometimes disappearing in France. People do like to create theories as to what happened to such an ancestor but we must not allow ourselves to be carried away. Genealogy is about facts, so we thought to give some that we hope may be of assistance.

The Riviera (roughly the French and Italian Mediterranean coast from Toulon to Spezia) was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because some wealthy people liked it. They went there during the winter to have a bit more sun. The region became even more popular as golf courses were built and as the middle classes trailed after the upper classes, (who had already moved on but never mind). Before that, however, the initial reason for the English journeying there was for their health. Many people had tuberculosis, or consumption, and it was thought the the sun and mineral waters of the region could effect a cure. Very quickly, local business folk developed spas and each one had its own character. We give here the most commonly visited towns.

  • Hyères - was for those who needed calm, as it had a reputation for being boring. Queen Victoria stayed there in the 1880s.
  • Fréjus - had Roman ruins and was considered romantic.
  • Cannes - still had forests surrounding it in the nineteenth century. For a period after its swamps were drained, it was avoided because of the stench. It was considered the best place for those suffering from scrofula or anemia, and for children with diseases that affected their growth.
  • Mentone - was protected from the wind by hills and so, was for those who needed calm. The local walks are steep and the ancestor with a gimpy leg most likely would not have stopped there.
  • Théoule - was considered charming and quiet.
  • Napoule - was not of much interest until a golf course was built there.
  • Le Cannet - was for those who wanted to be in nearby Cannes but could not afford it.
  • Grasse - with all of its flowers and perfume industry, was not for those with pollen allergies.
  • Golfe Juan, close to Vallauris, had a large pottery industry, so an ancestor with that interest may have selected that town.
  • Juan les Pins - which became quite popular in the twentieth century was not so in the nineteenth.
  • Antibes (in the watercolour by William Scott above) was considered to be already ruined by the 1890s.
  • Cagnes - another town that became popular once a golf course was built there.
  • Nice - was the English headquarters of the French Riviera. It was considered a "Small Paris" -- for the French, a town can receive no greater compliment, but many of the English disliked it for it is cold in the winter there (to which we can attest, having nearly died once of an evil strain of bronchitis in a cold, rainy and windy winter Nice.) Nice was more for pleasure than for health and one guide book author of the day looks haughtily askance at the soi-disant or "so-called" invalids who stayed at Nice. 
  • Monte Carlo was absolutely not recommended for health due to the "dangerous seductions of the gaming tables" to be found there (and in Cannes, Nice, and many others, to tell the truth).

Thus, if your ancestor followed fashion but was not too ill, he or she may have gone to Nice. An incorrigible gambler would have tested Monte Carlo. The poor soul with scrofula might have gone to Cannes and tied a handkerchief over the nose. The keen golfer would have gone to Napoule or Cagnes. The potter to Golfe Juan. If your ancestor followed the poets and carried on to the rainier, Italian Riviera, to Bordighera or San Remo, you are reading the wrong blog.

The "season" on the Riviera began any time from October to just after the New Year, but its ending was rigidly and absolutely at Easter, whenever that movable feast might have occurred. One could leave England when the mood was on one, but the most appallingly unaware of fashion's dictates -- or the hopelessly ill or impoverished (and there were many of both who stayed and died there) -- would be found there after Easter.

Arrival and departure were generally at Marseilles, if the voyager were travelling via Paris and Lyons. If arriving by steamer, they might have come either to Marseilles or to Toulon. Neither was, even then, a place where the English stayed. They boarded a train immediately and went to one of the stations listed above.

Thus, if you have an English ancestor who married someone of the region, or who died there, try to learn from the family papers if he or she had an ailment that may have been the reason for going there. Perhaps that will guide you to a town's civil registrations and, we hope, to a fortuitous discovery.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy