From Huguenot refugees to Letchworth hero

The story of Charles John Agombar

By John Birch

In the second half of the 17th century, Jacob Hagombart and his wife Marie were weavers, living in France. They were, however, also Huguenots (French protestants) who faced persecution. And so one night they fled, arriving in England and – as with many others down the centuries – settled more or less where their ship dropped them, in Bethnal Green, East London.

English inability to cope with such a “complicated” name resulted in the adoption of a slightly simplified spelling of the name, and so it was as the Agombar Family that Jacob and Marie started their family in the relative safety of seventeenth century England.

Initially the family stayed in a largely French ghetto, however Jacob lived long enough to see some of his grandchildren marry local girls and two generations later – a hundred years after Jacob and Marie’s arrival – his descendants had so integrated that they even ceased to use French first names. Jacques had become James, Guillame had become William.

A hundred years later, however – by the mid-nineteenth century – the family was still living in Bethnal Green.  Weaving had come to an end, with one of the last skilled silk weavers – Charles Agombar – forced to change trade and become a boot riveter, with his son – also Charles – following in the career.

However Charles junior proved to be very adept at working in leather. As soon as he turned 21 he married Ellen Tomkins, switched from shoes to book binding and soon after his third child was born did something that no Agombar had done for nearly two centuries – moved out of the East End, to Tottenham. When the publisher JM Dent moved to Letchworth in 1907, Charles and his family moved with them, moving into 13 Temple Gardens, off Green Lane (a small close of houses built for workers at JM Dent’s Temple Press).

Almost all of Charles’ relatives remained in Bethnal Green in an area described by Charles Booth as some of the poorest housing in the East End, but Charles and his family could not have lived in surroundings more different. His eldest son and daughter were also working for Dents – life must have appeared perfect. They were living the ideal on which Letchworth was founded – the combination of the “joys of the countryside and the comforts of the town.”

But it was not to last. When war came seven years later his eldest son, 23 year-old Charles John, was to join the ranks in the Leicestershire Regiment as a Private. Shortly before his battalion moved to France, in 1915, Charles John married Ada Hinds, who he possibly knew from school as she lived near their former home in Tottenham. 

Charles was almost certainly the first Agombar to set foot on the soil of his ancestors, and spent all of the war on the Western Front, arriving in France during the Battle of the Somme. He survived that, and also Passchendaele, and several other major offensives. As the German Army collapsed Charles was part of the advance until they reached the Selle River at the end of October 1918. In a surprise joint night attack in the early morning of 20 October the British Army secured the high ground east of the Selle, and after a two day pause (to bring up heavy artillery) Charles was part of the renewed attack on 23 October. This major combined assault by Fourth, Third and First Armies continued into the next day, resulting in further advances, but not for Charles. It was the last major assault in which his battalion was involved.

Barely more than a fortnight later the war ended. Whether Charles John’s father and Ada heard of his death before then we can never know – it is possible that the bells were ringing when the telegram arrived.

Ada went on to marry a John Holliday in Reading a year later, and died in 1929. His father, Charles, remained in Letchworth and died in 1945, a year after his sister Dorothy (who never married). His mother – Ellen (or Helen) – died in 1949.

His eldest sister, also Ellen (or Helen), married Charles Stark in 1916, and died in 1978 at the age of 85. They do not appear to have had any children.

Charles’ youngest sister, Beatrice, died in Stevenage in 1980, aged 80. She also does not seem to have married.

(All of this information was compiled using Find My Past - a geneological database which includes the complete census records for England from 1841 to 1911 and is available free in all Hertfordshire libraries – and related free web resources).

This page was added on 05/09/2012.

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  • Charles died at the battle of selle and is buried in the village war grave cemetery atop the hill. It was a huge twist of irony that Selle is just 5 kilometers north of the village of Brancombe le Grand, in Picardy. The original home of Jacob and Marie, from which they fled in 1690 after the edict of Nantes revoked the right to religious freedom granted in the edinct of Fontainebleau and they declined to adopt the Catholic religion.
    Their flight took them through Belgium where they spent some time before moving on to London.
    It is unlikely Charles knew that his regiment had in the previous week’s liberated his ancient family home and lands. Probably stopping at Brancourt.
    I have traced the ancestry back to 1498 in and visited the area around Chantilly, the lace capital that the weavers worked for in that cottage industry. Brancourt le Grand cemetery is full of Hagombart graves and the war cemetery in Selle is beautifully kept and hard to find.
    My mother’s grandmother was an Agombar from Silverton.

    By francis Rich (03/11/2023)
  • My mother was Emily Bertha Agambar born January 7th 1918, the only child of Benjamin Agambar, also of Bethnal Green. He was the son of Benjamin Agambar Sr. of Bethnal Green, born June 12 1866, married to Eliza Bradford (my great-grandparents). They had many children. The farthest we have been able to go back to a direct antecedant is Jehane Hagombart born 1517 at St Quentin, France. I am thoroughly interested in this chain of correspondence as I grew up in Hatfield, Hertfordshire so knew Letchworth. How interesting to know so many of the “clan” were so nearby. I have spent most of my life in British Columbia, Canada so was pleased to see a Newfoundland connection also. Isnt the internet wonderful at connecting these threads together.

    By JOAN REYNOLDS (20/07/2019)
  • Susan Patrols,

    My name is Tim Agombar. I live in Newfoundland in Canada. My grandfather is one Robert Henry Agombar born in Thunder Bay Ontario to Edward George Agombar who emigrated from England prior to WW1. Edward George was a machinist I believe. It seems to me that your Isabella Laing is a possible connection that we may share . My knowledge is somewhat limited as I have not spent a lot of time in actual records and facts.

    I believe that I am the sole man in the great province of Newfoundland and Labrador to bear the Agombar name.

    Any correspondence from you would be greatly appreciated. I’ve traced things back to Bethnal Green, but the only things I’ve seen are births and marriages. I’m hoping that you might be able to help me learn more.

    Thanks very much,

    Timothy Edward Agombar
    1979 Kitchener Ontario Canada

    By Timothy Edward Agombar (26/05/2018)
  • I originally came from Bethnal green east London. And I have an interest in social history. I saw a programme on spitalfields and the brick lane area on London live tv recently. I did know about the silk weavers the French protestants know as the Huguenots who settled there in the 1600’s this programme also said about the Irish and Jewish immigrants’ who started to settle there in the 1800’s. Very interesting article and comments I believe the famous actor laurence Olivier was of Huguenot decent I read his forebears left to come to England from france in the 1600’s to escape religious persecution like many other Huguenots who came to England.

    By carole heath (19/01/2018)
  • Visiting the Herts at War exhibition recently, I spotted the name Agombar as a War casualty. As I had a teacher of the same name, and it’s quite an unusual name, I guessed they were related. She was a Miss B Agombar and she taught me all the way through my Primary education. I was in the same class as John Yates who also recorded this fact earlier on this page. She was a good teacher but prone to rapping you across the knuckles with a wooden ruler at times, perfectly permissible in those days of course! I’m pleased she lived to a good age but she must have been in her early 50s when she first taught us so I expect she was a teacher all her working life. But she never mentioned her brother to us of course.

    By Dave Thompson (09/03/2015)
  • I am hoping connect to my Grandmothers family who was Agombar born to Robert Agombar and Sarah (Parker) there were 10 siblings. I know the ancesters were silk weavers, I traced them to John Agombar 1838 – 1890 and Isabella Agombar (Laing). My grandmother name was Elizabeth Isabel Agombar b.1909 / d.2000 she came from Bethnal Green. If you can help please Susan Perolls

    By Susan (23/03/2014)
  • My Great Grandmother was Emma Agombar who was born at Bethnal Green in 1860. Her father was Charles Agombar born 1833, a Silk Weaver, and he lived at 25 Bath Street, Bethnal Green along with his wife (b 1831, name unknown) and other daughter Noelia (b 1858). Emma’s parents may have died early because she turns up in the 1871 Census (age 11) at West Square Orphan Home, Austral Street, Southwark, which is now an Imperial War Museum annexe. Emma married my great grandfather Robert Whiteman in 1882 again at Bethnal Green. Does anybody know what happened to Emma’s parents?

    By Bob (03/10/2012)
  • I had a teacher at junior school in Letchworth who was Miss Agombar. This was in the late 1940s and early 1950s located at first Norton Road School and then at the brand new Grange School which opened in 1951. Any connection I wonder with Charles as the surname is so special?

    By John Yates (23/09/2012)
  • I’ve found school reports from my junior school days and 5 are signed by B.A.Agombar. It would seem that she was probably Beatrice, the youngest sister of Charles. She was a great teacher.

    By John Yates (23/09/2012)