19 Princelet Street (Museum of Immigration and Diversity), Spitalfields

From the street 19 Princelet Street is just a shabby early Georgian house in a row of handsome, mostly expensively restored historic townhouses. But the run-down frontage and peeling paint conceal a time capsule of 300 years of Spitalfields life that includes a Victorian synagogue built over the original garden.

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19 Princelet Street - a building that echoes with the past.19 Princelet Street - a building that echoes with the past.
It's a cliché that London's East End has been subject to 'waves of immigration' and is one of the city's most 'multicultural' and 'ethnically diverse' areas. This remarkable house offers instead a very human perspective on the area's history, and the immigrants who have shaped it.

Just off Brick Lane and an easy walk from Liverpool Street Station, 19 Princelet Street is not a major attraction by any means. In fact I'd hesitate to call it a 'tourist attraction' at all. It is a mostly empty house and a disused synagogue, dark and a bit dirty, and in urgent need of structural and other repair. But as visitors lucky enough to gain entry (the house is currently open only a small number of days per year - see below), it is a building that echoes with the past. If you have an interest in the history and social fabric of London's East End this is a very worthwhile place to visit, and a haunting example of 'the power of place'.

A Little History...

19 Princelet Street: "It's our Ellis Island"
Lord Desai, academic and politician (and immigrant from India to the UK)

19 Princelet Street was built in 1719 as a residence for the well-to-do Ogier family - French Huguenot immigrants who had prospered in the silk trade. Although the house has five stories, it is surprisingly small, with only two rooms on each floor. There was originally a fairly substantial garden to the rear.

An estimated 50,000 protestant Huguenots had arrived in London around the end of the 17th century, fleeing severe religious persecution, and bringing the term refugee (from the French refugié, one who finds a place of safety or refuge) into the English language. Many settled in Spitalfields - outside London's city walls (and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the Guilds), but close enough for trade. Perhaps inevitably, this first wave of mass immigration also provoked the first anti-immigration protests: Statesmen addressed Parliament to call for an end to the "severe plague of frogs", and demanding that the French be "kicked out of the Kingdom".

By late 18th century the Spitalfields silk industry was in decline, and many of the more prosperous Huguenot families had moved on to other areas of London. In common with other substantial houses in the area, 10 Princelet Street was subdivided into lodging rooms and workshops for trades. Many of the tenants were Irish, reflecting the increasingly large-scale immigration from poverty and famine in Ireland. Despite forming the backbone of the British Army (in the 1850s one in three soldiers in the British Army was Irish), and doing many of the worst and most poorly paid jobs, the Irish suffered brutal discrimination and were constantly vilified for "forcing down wages and driving locals out of jobs".

Then in 1869 the lease on the house was purchased by a group of mostly Polish Jews who had fled the ghettos and pogroms of their homeland. These, the information in 19 Princelet Street notes, were the first immigrants who were "visibly different in race and religion". They swiftly built a substantial synagogue over the garden, and excavated a large room beneath for community use. The ground floor front room of the house, which had once been used as a schoolroom for the Ogier children, became a religious school for Jewish boys (and would later - with pleasing continuity - be a venue for English language night classes for Bangladeshi women).

By the late 1960s the synagogue was no longer. However, a reclusive Jewish scholar and immigrant named David Rodinsky was lodging in one of the attic rooms and acting as a caretaker for the building. In a house already full of stories and fragments from the past, David Rodinsky left his own mark when one day in 1969 he locked the door to his room... and disappeared from Spitalfields forever, leaving piles of books and esoteric writings, and a pan of porridge on the stove. Extraordinarily, it seems that no one entered the building for 11 years, until - in 1980 - it was acquired by the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust. The attic room remains as it was, but until funds are available for conservation and preservation, is not accessible. Rodinsky and the circumstances of his life and death inspired a book, Rodinsky's Room, by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair.

Visiting the house

"This building - it is quite the most amazing found object..."
Kinsi Abdulleh, artist from Somalia

Entrance door of 19 Princelet Street - the entrance to a time capsule of 300 years of Spitalfields life.The entrance to a time capsule of 300 years of Spitalfields life.
The afternoon I visited the house a queue of people snaked down the street from the door, testament to the amount of interest there is in the building and its heritage. We climbed the two stone steps into the hallway, then through into the back parlour where an artistically arranged pile of old suitcases marks the beginning of a display, 'Suitcases and Sanctuary', about leaving and arriving, starting out and moving on. This display has been created by local school children - many of them immigrants, or from immigrant families themselves - working together with local artists. A key phrase is 'listen to the walls', and it's translated into dozens of languages.

From the back parlour you step straight through where the back wall of the house would once have stood, and into the cavernous synagogue, which covers the whole of the former garden. There are dusty chandeliers, dirty coloured Victorian glass in the skylights, and patches of faded gilt lettering. Upstairs a wrought iron balcony runs around 3 sides of the hall. This is where the women and children worshipped, but it is now too fragile to be walked on.

Downstairs there is a basement kitchen - a rusting old fridge and cooker, and the original stone sink in a corner - and the large room under the synagogue. This is where some of the first meetings of the anti-fascist movement took place as Oswald Mosley's fascist followers stalked the streets of the East End. The visitor makes his or her way around the house, reading the thoughtful and well written texts pinned to the walls, pondering the children's responses to the house and the immigrant experience, and chatting with the fantastically friendly and involved volunteers about questions thrown up by the whole experience:

If we were leaving home forever, and could take only one suitcase, what would we pack? What is our identity? Where do we belong? And where are your roots? - In a place, in your family, in your work, in a state of mind?

In a strange way, this dark and dusty wreck of a building feels life affirming. It's a testament to people's tenacity and a witness to all those who have passed through its doors.

A forum for discussing immigration issues

"The first people who came to live on these islands came from somewhere else. Those who we call 'immigrants' are simply the most recent."

In the one upstairs room currently open (the others are too fragile for public access) immigration and the issues surrounding it are brought into contemporary focus. We are reminded of the Caribbean people who came to the UK - at the government's invitation - following World War II (and the many who found the promises of a better life to be empty words), and the fact that the Bangladeshis who now form the largest ethnic group in Spitalfields have been joined in recent decades by Somalis, Kurds and others, fleeing violence and civil war.

On the walls are numerous responses given to the question: 'what do you think about immigration?' Many of these are unpalatable, but the very point of 19 Princelet Street is to encourage dialog and provide a forum for all voices. One of the volunteers spoke of "untangling prejudice" and of the house as a lens through which to view current immigration issues. The house is regularly used for educational purposes, including working with people who have committed racially motivated crimes.

It is an asset, I think, that despite an obvious sympathy with the immigrant experience, there is little political about 19 Princelet Street. It is both a place out of time, and a resting place for fragments of the past in a particularly transitory place. The immigrant experience seeps through the bricks and speaks for itself.

Towards a museum of immigration and diversity

19 Princelet is owned and run by a registered charity, The Spitalfields Centre, which is entirely staffed by volunteers. Funds are desperately needed for essential building work to repair the structure of the building and preserve it for the future.

Due to the condition of the building, and lack of funds, the house is sadly only open to the public on a handful of days per year (ten in 2011). The charity's long-term goal is not only to preserve the building, but to make it fully accessible as a Museum of Immigration and Diversity. It will be the first such museum in Europe. Admission is free, and donations are gratefully accepted.

Another house that echoes the past, albeit in a quite different way, is Dennis Severs' House, just a short walk away from Princelet Street. If you can (and it's not easy given both property's extremely limited opening hours) consecutive visits are well worth it. The theatricality of Dennis Severs' House is a pleasing antidote to the haunting reality of 19 Princelet Street.

Essentials: 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields

Address: 19 Princelet Street, London E1 6QH

Nearest Tube: Liverpool Street

Website: www.19princeletstreet.org.uk

For upcoming open days see the website: www.19princeletstreet.org.uk/openings.html

As you leave 19 Princelet Street, take a moment to look at the beautifully restored house opposite with its polished wood frontage and 'tradesmen's entrance'. The Georgian houses here, and on nearby streets, now change hands for £2 million upwards.