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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

A Prince in Town

03 March 2004

19 Princelet Street is a magical, wondrous and ancient building, now the Museum of Immigration and Diversity. Cathy Levy takes a look inside and meets the people behind scenes.

The article as it appeared in the magazine. So much of the East End is packed tight with history and people who still nurture and sustain that history; immigrants, refugees, Eastenders born and bred, there's a strong sense of community spirit amongst them all, maintaining their roots and simultaneously defining London as the cultural mix that it is.

One house in Spitalfields, on Princelet Street, seems almost to carry the united history of the area within its ancient, crumbling walls. Surrounded on either side by luxurious private residences that offer little change from 1 million, 19 Princelet Street may not be as rich materially, but ethereally, emotionally, it's wealthy beyond measure.

A Grade II* historic building (on the English Heritage 'at risk' register), it dates back to 1719 when a Huguenot silk merchant first made it his home. In the back, where once the garden stood, is a small synagogue built there in 1869. Today, it is home to a permanent exhibition, the house transformed into Europe's first and only museum of immigration and diversity. Only open to the public on a sprinkling of days due to the fragility of the building, it's well worth making a note of the dates and doing whatever you can to get here (when open they often have two hour queues outside).

Inside, the atmosphere sort of takes your breath away - it's hard not to sound cheesy or cliched, but centuries of immigrants have passed through these doors, history has been created, and it's difficult not to feel something of that in the peeling paintwork, the crumbling brickwork, the worn wood, and the other original features. "I love it that here on this door which is Victorian, there's an art nouveau wrought iron door handle, situated next to Georgian paneling," says Susie Symes, chair of the charity's Trustees, formed some 20 years ago to preserve the building. She herself comes from a solid background in European economic affairs, having held senior posts at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the European Commission in Brussels, the Treasury, as well as for the last four and a half years, in a purely voluntary capacity, as chair of the Trustees here. She caresses the handle as we talk about the house, adding that they positively encourage people to touch things, to engage fully and feel that sense of the past. And you do want to touch - the original stone sink in the kitchen downstairs, that wood paneling, exposed brickwork, balustrades, handles and all.

One of the volunteers, 18 year-old Paramjit Kaur, takes me into the exhibition, dotted over three floors (the parts which are safe to open to the public). She's incredibly enthusiastic, offering up intricate details about the building and its history at the drop of a hat, as does everyone connected with it, each as passionate as the next. The main part of the house is Georgian I'm told, and then we walk through into what was the garden, then a synagogue, built in 1869 by the Jewish immigrants who needed somewhere to pray. They built it themselves in one year, an incredible feat, considering they also excavated the basement as an overflow and place to hold weddings and barmitzvahs. The Jews and the Irish even used it for their anti-fascist meetings, organising plans to fight Moseley in the Battle of Cable Street.

The exhibition, Suitcases and Sanctuary, created by nine and 10-year-olds from six local primary schools together with artists, photographers and historians, explores stories of immigration over centuries. It forces us to ask questions about why people left their homes to come here, what they found, what they brought and what they left behind. Occasionally we're asked to stop and reflect on the issues ourselves. A suitcase packed with luggage labels asks us to write down what we'd pack in one bag if we had to leave our homes for good. Some already written in the case read, 'teddy bears', 'favourite books', photographs'. Later we're asked to write about our own histories - who is the most recent immigrant in our family - because let's face it, few Londoners are 100% pure bred. Most of us have pasts that speak of foreign tongues and long journeys and here, you're forced to think about that, to relate to the experiences of our ancestors. For the children, who've all created these projects on the Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Somalian immigrants, it's an incredible learning exercise and every child and adult should visit the museum (in fact, for some schools here and internationally, it's on the agenda together with the British Museum). For surely, this is the way forward to ridding the world of racism, the fear of other cultures, and an end to ignorance; engaging the young in these very issues. A short film that plays in the old kitchen shows young Bangladeshi children learning to sing a Yiddish song about friendship. Another exhibit shows letters written by schoolchildren pretending to be Jamaicans arriving in England for the first time, writing their thoughts back home.

And all this costs nothing to the public, there's no entry fee (donations are encouraged and requested from groups who can arrange special visits). The museum and house is supported by private donations, plus a recent grant of £30,000 was given by English Heritage to pay for technical surveys and emergency repair work (steel props literally hold up the ceilings). But 3 million is needed to halt the decay and permanently open the building to the public.

"It's an extraordinary building with a proper, useful purpose," says Susie Symes, emphasising each word. "And it's a proper useful purpose which is about history, but also the kind of society we want to live in today, the kind of London we want to live in, where we all feel free to be ourselves and we all genuinely enjoy engaging in all the differences about us." Which is why she and the other 60 or so volunteers (who all give their time for nothing), plus the tens of thousands of visitors who come here, find it hard to believe that Ken Livingston has done nothing to support the place, even though it's clearly a reflection of exactly the kind of London he rails about. "I'll go on banging on the doors of policymakers until they come down here and see it," she says fiercely. Having found the place by accident during a private walk around the East End with a famous historian and her aunt, Symes has maintained her enthusiasm, passion and devotion to the place. If the Spitalfields Centre, a registered charity set up to preserve and repair the house, hadn't already been here for many years previous, she would have determinedly set one up herself. It is indeed difficult not to feel affected by and drawn in to this place that should surely be on everybody's list of places to visit. Inscribe those dates in your diary and don't whatever you do, miss out.