The Huguenin family has its legal origin ("commune d'origine" or "Heimat") at Le Locle, a watchmaking centre in the upper part of the canton of Neuchâtel near the French border. Le Locle and the surrounding valleys were colonised in the 13th and 14th centuries by brave pioneers who cleared the land in return for increasing freedom, and the founder of the Huguenin family was among these first settlers.
Huguenin was originally a first name, a diminutive of the French name “Hugues” (from the German “Hugo” meaning "mind" or "thought"), and relatively common in the area. As frequently happened, descendants of one of the many bearers of the name adopted it as their surname, and the Huguenin family of Le Locle was born.
Documents dated 1461/62 refer to two brothers, Jehan and Vuillemin Huguenin, while Vuillemin’s adult sons, Othenin and Jehan are mentioned in 1463. The sons were therefore born no later than 1443, and their father at least twenty years earlier. Early spellings of the name include "Heuguenin", "Heugonin" and "Hugonin": a document dated 1461 in the Musée Neuchâtelois refers to Jehan “Hogonnin” and his daughters, Jaqueta and Hogoneta. Huguenin was still occasionally given as a first name to boys of the region as late as the end of the 18th century, but Hogoneta mercifully fell into disuse!
The similarity between "Huguenin" and "Huguenot" has caused confusion over the years, but the origins of the family at Le Locle clearly predate the Reformation, let alone the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the subsequent flight of French Protestants.
Our Huguenin family
The starting point of our own Huguenin line is Vuillemin Huguenin, one of the two brothers previously mentioned who were born before 1423 and were probably sons or grandsons of one of the serfs freed in 1372 to clear and settle the region. Vuillemin's son Outhenyn (or Othenin) was described as "old and invalid" in 1507, when his four adult sons swore fealty in his place.
By 1533, three of these sons had inherited Outhenyn's land at Le Cachot, and the share of one of them, Otthenin, had passed to his own son Jaques by 1553, when he swore fealty for it to his overlord, Symon de Neufchastel. Jaques had a wooden house on his property, and had the right to his own bread oven, which at the time was a privilege and not a right. The land had been purchased from a man called Janthot Virchaulx, and the previous owner's name seems to have provided this branch of the Huguenin family with the distinctive suffix "Virchaux" in subsequent generations.
In 1592, the sons of the "late" Jaques jointly bought more land at Le Cachot, while one of them, Blayset (or Blaise), had already bought a field and separate house for himself in 1584. Blayset's son David married a distant cousin, Anne-Marie Jeanhuguenin, and in a baptismal record of 1655 he is referred to as "David, son of the late Blaise Huguenin dit Virchaud", which shows that the Virchaux suffix was gradually being accepted at part of the family surname.
David and Anne-Marie had two sons, Jehan (Jean) and Daniel, born before 1659. Jean and Daniel married sisters Susanne and Marie Jeanneret around 1675 and 1680 respectively. Daniel and Marie had three children, including Jonathan, who was baptised at Les Ponts-de-Martel on 17 February 1689. Jonathan was an unusual forename at this time, in spite of the popularity of many other Biblical names.
Jonathan married Madelaine Brand in Le Locle on 17 August 1715, the same day that his cousin Sara Huguenin married Madelaine's brother Daniel. They had five children, all baptised at Le Locle, but Madelaine died in January 1730, when the youngest child was just eighteen months old, and Jonathan married Susanne Maire, a widow, in Le Locle on 15 July 1730. There were no children from this marriage and after Susanne's death, Jonathan married Marie-Madelaine Besançon-Perret in Le Locle on 7 August 1756. Marie-Madelaine died in Les Planchettes in 1764, and Jonathan a year later.
Jonathan and Madelaine's third child Daniel was baptised at Le Locle on 9 November 1721, and married Madelaine Dubois there on 25 November 1752. They had eight children, whose surnames are given indiscriminately on different occasions as Huguenin, Huguenin-Virchaux, Huguenin-dit-Virchaux, Huguenin-Jonathan and Huguenin-Virchaux-dit-Jonathan. Daniel died in Le Locle in 1796, and Madelaine married Henri-Louis Matthey-Henri at La Chaux-du-Milieu in 1799. She died in La Sagne in 1804.
Daniel-Henri Huguenin, Daniel and Madelaine's second child, was baptised in Le Locle on 5 October 1755, and married Marie-Marguerite Montandon there on 4 July 1781. She was baptised in La Chaux-de-Fonds on 17 January 1762, and her maternal grandfather was a French "refugee" from Nïmes, Jean Nissole. Daniel-Henri and Marie-Marguerite had eleven children, although four died in infancy. Daniel-Henri died in Cornaux in about 1813, and Marie-Marguerite died in Le Locle in 1819.
Their youngest child, Philippe-Henri Huguenin-Virchaux, was born in Le Locle on 7 December 1802 and married Justine Vuille there on 27 April 1833. Justine was born in La Sagne on 1 November 1805 and was the descendant of a Neuchâtel family which had spent several generations in the neighbouring valley of St-Imier in the canton of Bern. Philippe-Henri and Justine settled in La Sagne, where their seven children were born.
Emma and Albert Huguenin
Gustave Henri Huguenin-Virchaux, the second child of Phlippe-Henri and Justine, was born in La Sagne on 24 September 1835. He was a watchmaker, and married Elise Augustine Perrenoud in La Sagne on 28 October 1857. Elise was born in La Sagne on 9 March 1836, daughter of Gustave Perrenoud and his wife Julie Vuille. Gustave and Elise had no less than 15 children between 1859 and 1878, and when Gustave died in 1883, Elise was left with the sole responsibility of raising and supporting the 13 who survived infancy. She demanded strict discipline, and expected the older children to help with their younger brothers and sisters.
A nephew of Elise who lived in Neuchâtel was nicknamed Perrenoud-la-Vipère, because he hunted adders and brought them to the council offices, where he received 1 franc per head - a significant sum in those days. Finding this addition to his income more than welcome, he went so far as to install a clandestine adder farm behind his house!
Gustave and Elise's eleventh child, Gustave Albert Huguenin-Virchaux (known as Albert), was born in Le Locle on 1 August 1871. He was apprenticed to an enameller at Fleurier and found his apprenticeship very hard. Not only did he have a trade to learn, but in addition he was expected to help care for his employer's children and clean the workshop after everyone else had left. He received no pay and the food was barely sufficient for a hungry adolescent. One morning, he decided that he had had enough, and would run away back to his widowed mother, who lived at Le Locle. However, when he arrived home after walking about 10 miles and climbing 2,000 feet, all he received was a lecture from his mother, who promptly sent him back to Fleurier to complete his apprenticeship. Gustave Albert married Maria Emma Rüfenacht (known as Emma) in Le Locle on 29 November 1890. She was born in Bern on 6 March 1872, and came to the canton of Neuchâtel with her family as a child.
Albert and Emma set up home in Le Locle where their six children were born. As a supplement to his income, Albert raised black rabbits, fed on herbs from the garden and cocoa which apparently produced excellent meat, while the skins were sold to make furs. Emma belonged to the Salvation Army, and had a profound faith which showed itself in encouragement and practical help to her friends and neighbours in difficulty, in spite of the couple's limited means. She was also politically conscious, and tried to persuade her neighbour to vote socialist. When the neighbour pointed out that women at the time had no right to vote, Emma replied that on the contrary, she had five votes: those of her her husband and her four sons.
Gustave Henri Huguenin-Virchaux (known as Henri), Albert and Emma's fifth child, was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds on 19 February 1898. He burned his hand badly on a wood stove at the age of 3, leaving three fingers of his left hand unusable, but this handicap never prevented him from doing anything he wanted to do. When he reached the age of compulsory military service, he hid his left hand from the recruiting officer and easily passed all the physical tests designed to weed out those unsuitable for army service. When the officer told him that he was fit for service, Henri showed him his hand, and was instantly dismissed. In order to compensate for his handicap Henri designed and built many of his own tools to work in the watchmaking trade.
Henri spent his youth at La Chaux-de-Fonds, where with other youngsters he constructed a ramp out of snow in order to jump over the railway line as the steam train of the Chemins de Fer Jurassiens passed below, using barrel staves as skis. Railway workers regularly destroyed the ramp, but just as regularly the children rebuilt it. The line still exists, although the trains are now electric.
Henri married Albertine Jeanne Tüller in Fleurier on 7 May 1920. Although she was known by her first name as a child, Henri asked her to use her second name, Jeanne, which he liked very much, instead of Albertine, which he hated. From that time on, she was always known as Jeanne.
In the early days of his marriage, Henri worked at the paper factory at St-Sulpice, where he narrowly missed being involved in a serious accident. For several days he worked cutting up tree trunks with a saw driven by the waters of the river. The saw seemed to be in poor repair, and Henri complained to his employer, who refused to listen. Henri therefore decided to leave this job and only a week later his replacement was killed.
With his wife, Jeanne, Henri left Fleurier to move to the Val-de-Ruz, because the mists were causing their daughter, Agnès, to suffer from bronchitis. They went first to Cernier, where the couple ran a grocery, while Henri also worked as a postman. However, it was a time of economic depression and Jeanne was too kind-hearted to refuse credit to the many families who found it hard to make ends meet, so the grocery was abandoned, lacking sufficient solvant customers.
They then moved to Boudeviliers, where they were caretakers at the agricultural college. The grain there suffered the ravages of mice and Henri had the idea of placing a sheet of metal on the barn floor, and connecting it to an electrical current. A few mice were killed, but soon it became clear that others were still reaching the grain. Henri and one of the teachers decided to watch to see how they did it and were amazed to see the animals crossing the electrified metal on their claws, rather like a man walking on tiptoes. After that, Henri abandoned the scientific approach in favour of a gun.
During World War II Henri worked for a scrap metal merchant recycling old iron: Switzerland has no mineral resources and was obviously cut off from outside supplies at the time. He had to use a blow-torch to dismember a large metal wheel which had furnished hydro-electric power to a maccaroni factory at Noiraigue. The working conditions for Henri and his two colleagues were extremely difficult, and as Henri was working at the foot of the wheel, a hoist weighing 35kg (77lbs) fell directly on his head. He was knocked unconscious, and his colleagues, believing him dead and afraid of being blamed, panicked and left in the company lorry without telling anyone. Henri had suffered a double fracture at the base of his skull, and when he regained consciousness, he managed to stagger to the station and take the train home, walking like a drunkard. When the doctor examined him, he said that the double fracture had probably saved his life, releasing the force of the blow and directing it outwards.
On another occasion, Henri was working recovering metal on the bank of the river Serrière when his ladder was swept away by the current, and he received a sudden dip. Fortunately his progress was stopped by the metal grill which protects the turbine engines of the Suchard chocolate factory at Neuchâtel.
Henri Huguenin (front)
Henri also worked as an electrician, a telephone engineer, and a postman. He played trombone and horn in the temperance society brass band at Neuchâtel, being a teetotaller like his parents.
In later life he devoted himself to more peaceful pastimes, such as gardening and jigsaws of 1,500 to 5,000 pieces. He died in Neuchâtel in 1976.
Jeanne worked as a dressmaker for many years, remaining young in spirit, and always fashionable. She had clients right up to the end of her life, and made a wedding dress for her grandson's bride at the age of 90 in spite of her failing eyesight.
Jeanne said, "It's better to die in the evening, because you learn something new each day." She died of lung cancer in the Hôpital Pourtalès, Neuchâtel in 1986, saying "A star goes out; a new star starts to shine," because her great-granddaughter was born while she was in hospital.