The watchmakers of Waterford

Richard Whatmore tells the story of a beleaguered band of Protestant revolutionaries who fled capture in their native Geneva in order to set up an unlikely community of watchmakers on the southern Irish coast

William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and British prime minister from 1782–83, was instrumental in the Genevan exiles’ move to southern Ireland. (Getty Images) 

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In the early hours of 1 July 1782 a boat left Geneva. It carried many of the men who had been ruling the city since a popular revolution swept the old regime away on 5 April.

Just a few hours earlier, these men had held the reins of power in the city, but now they were on the run. Chased by a French bark, the beleaguered revolutionaries were forced to swim from the boat to safety before fleeing into the woods on the northern shore of Lake Geneva. There they found sanctuary in Neuchâtel, then under Prussian dominion.

The fleeing insurgents had, just a few days before, enjoyed widespread support among their fellow citizens. Yet now they were labelled cowards – even by their former supporters. Their enemies were even more scathing, branding them treacherous democrats and anarchists. For these men, a life of exile began.

Old Geneva, the Protestant Rome, at the nexus of so many of Europe’s ancient trade routes, saw intermittent civil war during the 18th century. Rich families, whose members governed the councils of the city, were increasingly attacked as a patrician class who ruled for themselves rather than on behalf of the public. They built large houses in what became know as the upper town, away from the lower town inhabited by artisans who made the city famous for watchmaking and smithwork. Drawing revenues from investment in the debts of the French state, and from shares in French industries, Geneva’s leading families were influential at the palace of Versailles.

Opponents of Geneva’s nascent aristocracy advocated what they termed ‘honest industry’, meaning a commercial society based on the industrious labours of skilled artisans. They plotted to create a government immune to the corruptions of the rich. The result was the growth of a body of radical politicians at Geneva, in a party calling itself the représentants (representatives), demanding moral and political reform. They accused Geneva’s aristocrats of betraying the Protestant heritage within the city, to be turning Genevan culture French, and of allowing the city to be consumed by a French empire. The rich aristocrats had to be stopped.

The result was the revolution of April 1782. It began with high hopes of peace and reform – and enjoyed widespread popular support. The new regime put an end to violence between opposing parties within Geneva, and passed new laws designed to make Geneva more democratic. It formulated plans to improve public education and to tackle and reduce inequality. Last but not least, it promised a city devoted to Calvinism and commerce.

France, however, refused to countenance a democratic republic on its borders, and had soon canvassed the support of Savoy and Bern. At the end of June – just two months after the revolution – Geneva’s leaders were given the alarming news that some 12,000 troops from the three states were beyond the walls of the city.

At first the new government tried to stand firm. It anticipated widespread republican self-sacrifices and even went to the lengths of ordering gunpowder to be placed in St Peter’s Cathedral and houses around Geneva – so that the city could be blown up in the face of the invading troops. Yet, over the next 24 hours, the leaders’ defiance evaporated and, following a siege of just a single night, they decided to flee the city. They later claimed that, as they could not repel the might of France, their only option was to abandon a lost cause, avoiding bloodshed in the process.

With the leaders of the rebellion gone – condemnation ringing in their ears – foreign troops restored Geneva’s former magistrates and limited the popular element of the constitution. Meanwhile, the exiles turned to Britain.

Protestantism had always created links between Britain and Geneva. The Genevan revolutionaries had attempted to use such connections to obtain support from London for their endeavours, yet British ministers, embroiled in war in North America, refused to take the bait. However, as preliminaries to peace were being negotiated at Paris, and with the radical prime minister Lord Shelburne at the helm of state, the British responded to the Genevan exiles’ calls for aid with alacrity.

One of the exiles, a young lawyer called François D’Ivernois, sent a plan for a New Geneva to the British envoy to Turin, Lord Mountstuart. D’Ivernois’ claim was that the industrious half of the city, being tired of their rulers and the seeming involvement of France in every aspect of their lives, was willing to leave Geneva, taking their skills to an asylum where they might enjoy liberty. He added that a community of watchmakers could be established, and that this community could form the basis of the remaking of Geneva on foreign soil.

It didn’t take long for d’Ivernois’ plan to produce results. With the backing of Charles Stanhope, Lord Mahon, who had grown up in Geneva, Shelburne saw to it that the exiles received offers of land in England that might serve as the basis of the new settlement.

Yet no sooner had this offer been made than Shelburne found himself confronted by complaints that the English goldsmith trade would be undercut by competition from the Genevans. So he changed tack. As a holder of extensive lands in Ireland, the prime minister had been actively promoting the ‘improvement’ of that country and advocating new towns in order to ‘civilise’ the peasants there and to promote Protestantism. His solution was, therefore, to create a New Geneva across the Irish Sea.

Trade routes

The British chose a tract of land at the confluence of the ‘Three Sisters’ rivers, the Barrow, Nore and Suir, just outside the ancient city of Waterford in Ireland – in part because it offered access to international trade routes in the fashion of Old Geneva.

To facilitate the establishment of their watchmaking industry, the Genevan exiles were given passage to Dublin, and a substantial grant of £50,000. A new community was planned, buildings were erected, and negotiations conducted on how the exiles’ republican liberties would be protected. Proposals were even put forward to re-establish at Waterford the famous centre of Protestant learning, the Academy of Geneva. To put a seal on the move, the leaders of the 1782 revolution took an oath of allegiance to George III and became Irish.

All in all, some 100 families quitted Geneva for Waterford. Yet if they landed in Ireland in search of a Protestant utopia, they were to be disappointed.

Things began to go wrong when Shelburne fell from power, having been widely criticised for making peace with France. William Pitt the Younger’s new ministry was less interested in New Geneva. Soon, the exiles were complaining that they were not receiving the funds they needed for the gold to make watches, and to facilitate the transfer of artisans. They also bemoaned the lack of an educational establishment to attract new families.

Above all, the exiles suspected that French diplomats, along with Genevan patricians with connections to London, had warned the British to avoid involvement with radical democrats. This, the Genevans feared, had caused the ministers to lose their ardour for the project.

By 1785 New Geneva was failing. Many families had either returned to Geneva, or had joined communities of Protestant watchmakers in Cologne and in Brussels. One of New Geneva’s leaders, Etienne Clavière, moved to Paris and became a prominent Girondin during the French revolution. Another, Jacques-Antoine Du Roveray, became a spy for the British in the wars against France. D’Ivernois himself became an advocate of British liberties against the horrors of republican France, and was knighted Sir Francis d’Ivernois in 1796.

The New Geneva story reveals the lengths small state republicans were willing to go to in order to maintain their liberties, threatened as they were by the rise of large imperial powers. It equally shows a radical, and perhaps a desperate, side to British politics – one that was willing to support Protestant democrats who promised commercial development.

As for the buildings of New Geneva, they were converted into barracks. They may have been constructed as an asylum for republican liberties, yet within a few years they had became a place for the execution of republicans, at the time of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. As the lyrics of ballads such as The Croppy Boy – which tells the story of an Irish rebel tricked and arrested by a British soldier – hint, New Geneva became notorious that year – and for reasons that the Genevan exiles could never have imagined.


Geneva

A proud but puny state in an imperial world

Observers of the independent republic of Geneva in early modern times believed that this puny state retained its independence because it subsisted “like a bone ‘twixt three mastiffs”: the Holy Roman emperor, the French king and the Dukes of Savoy.

The arch-enemy of Geneva had traditionally been Savoy, which attempted an invasion in 1602, only to be repulsed by patriotic resistance. In order to preserve itself against Savoy, Geneva allied itself to the Swiss Protestant cantons of Bern and Zurich and also to France.

These powers claimed a right to guarantee the republican constitution of Geneva; in the 18th century this became an excuse for increasing involvement in the internal affairs of the city.

As the 18th century wore on, and as the power of France in this part of Europe became greater, fears grew that France might annex the republic, and force the citizens of Geneva to become Catholic.

France was seen as a source of aristocratic manners and of luxury, both corrosive of Geneva’s Protestant heritage and identity.

This was one of the reasons why many Genevans – who travelled all over Europe for trade, and welcomed prominent visitors on their Grand Tours – turned to outsiders, including the British, for aid.

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Richard Whatmore is professor of intellectual history and the history of political thought at the University of Sussex. His book Against War and Empire: Geneva, Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century will be published by Yale in August