When workmen began extending the railway line at St Pancras Station in 2002 to take in the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link they made a gruesome discovery. Cutting through the old Somers Town cemetery they found the bones that belonged to aristocratic French exiles from the French Revolution of 1789. One skull in particular caught their attention. It was in a lavishly engraved coffin and had a full set of remarkably high quality porcelain dentures with distinctive gold hinges and set in a bed of sickly purple ‘gums.’ Research showed there could be only one set of false teeth exactly like this and that it had been made for the Cardinal Archbishop of Narbonne, Arthur Richard Dillon. The teeth had joined him exile and had been used for many years. Experts believe Dillon’s porcelain teeth may have been made by the Parisian dentist Nicholas Dubois De Chemant. Towards the end of the 18th century, people were becoming dissatisfied with ivory dentures, and experiments began with porcelain and the production of ‘incorruptible’ dentures. The whole of the set of dentures, teeth and gums, were made of china. In their favour they were more hygienic; however they were brittle, the colours were not very realistic and generally they did not fit well. De Chemant came up with a radical solution, patenting his method of making individual dental moulds of bees wax or plaster and then casting perfectly fitted porcelain dentures. At the time the Archbishop’s teeth would have cost a small fortune, about as much as a coach and horses.
The Archbishop was the youngest of the five sons of Arthur Dillon of Roscommon in Ireland and came from a prominent Jacobite family. His father was a General in the army of King James II and had been forced into French exile following the final defeat of the Irish Jacobites by William of Orange in 1691 at Limerick. In France he was the Colonel Proprietor of the Regiment of Dillon and a Maréchal de camp in the French army. Dillon encouraged his sons to follow him into the French army. The youngest son, Arthur Richard, became the token clergymen and was elevated to Archbishop of Narbonne. A worldly prelate, Arthur Richard was devoted to the hunt, financially extravagant and the lover of several including his widowed niece Madame de Roche. His misdemeanours were noted by Madame de Roche’s granddaughter and great niece of the Archbishop, Lucie de La Tour du Pin. He devoted himself less to the spiritual care of his diocese than to its temporal welfare, carrying out many public works such as constructing bridges, canals, roads, harbours, etc. He founded chairs of chemistry and physics created at Montpellier and Toulouse universities and tried to reduce poverty, especially in Narbonne.
As a lady–in-waiting to Queen Marie Antoinette, Lucie Dillon described in vivid detail family life at Hotel de Roche in the Faubourg St-Germain in Paris and at the Château Hautefontaine. From about the age of fifty, until she died shortly before him, Arthur Richard Dillon lived with the wealthy, widowed Madame de Roche. The pair were considered to be lovers, an arrangement considered scandalous even by the jaded standards of the day. Lucie noted that her great uncle Arthur Richard had lived with her grandmother for twenty years without paying her a single sou of rent. Yet he as the Archbishop of Narbonne, he was paid 250,000 francs a year and had one abbey worth 110,000 and another worth 90,000. Moreover he received an allowance of more than 50,000 francs a year for giving dinners every day during the meetings of the States. In spite of this generous income he appeared always to be in financial difficulties. She also remarked that he spent as little time as possible on his official duties in the provinces, preferring to return as quickly as possible to the Faubourg St-Germain ‘in order to live en grand seigneur at Paris and as a courtier at Versailles. Lucie passed discretely over the exact state of relations between the Archbishop and her grandmother but did say that he was dominated and influenced by her and even that he ‘feared my grandmother too much’.
Following the revolution the Archbishop fled France as the highest ranking of the French clergy who took refuge from the guillotine in England. In 1792 he took up residence in London among the vibrant French emigre community of Somers Town, now better known as Euston and King’s Cross, in a series of relatively modest rented houses until his death in 1806 at the age of 85. Lucie went on to write one of the most celebrated of all female autobiographies, ‘The Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin’. She recalled her escape the America and how she ran a small farm in upstate New York until she and her husband returned to France to find favour under Napoleon.
The dentist de Chemant had also escaped to England where he established himself in 2 Firth Street, near Soho Square, London. The Wedgwood Company supplied him with the porcelain paste the process needed and by 1804, he claimed to have made 12,000 false teeth
The remains of Archbishop Dillon, with the exception of his teeth, were reburied at East Finchley cemetery in north London before being finally returned to France for internment at Narbonne Cathedral. And the dentures? They were for a time left grinning at the public from a display cabinet near the entry hall of the Museum of London.