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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

Haunting beauty of 'our Ellis Island'

13 June 2005

The article as it appeared in the newspaper.

Brick Lane and Spitalfields will be included in a compilation of work by young journalists from abroad 19 Princelet Street is a house, a charity and one peculiarly enduring myth. But perhaps most of all it is the past of the East End of London made concrete.

This extraordinary house (which generates a further mystique of its own by opening so rarely to the public) has seen a lot of people and peoples in its near-300 years. Now it houses the Museum of Immigration and Diversity: Lord Desai has described it as ‘our Ellis Island’.

The house itself first though. Shortly after construction, it was described as ‘lately erected by the said Samuel Worrall, two brick messuages one fronting to Princes Street (later renamed Princelet Street) … and which said piece of Ground is parcel of a larger piece of Ground in Spittle-fields aforesaid…’.

Built in 1719, this ‘brick messuage’ became the home of the Ogier family, one of the many Huguenot clans which had escaped persecution in the Low Countries and France and settled in Spitalfields. Like many of the others, they entered the silk weaving trade and did well out of it.

The Huguenots moved on, but the silk trade remained. By now though, the fine house was subdivided into lodgings and workshops.

The attic windows of 19 Princelet Street were altered to let in more light for the weavers to work by. And as the years went by, the increasingly subdivided building housed other trades and professions: Mrs Mary Ellen Hawkins used it as an industrial school; Isaiah Woodcock was a carver and gilder.

There were Irish tenants and then, in the later 19th century, Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. One of the first groups to arrive, mainly from Poland, formed the Loyal United Friends Friendly Society.

The aim was to help newcomers, just as the Huguenots had done in the 17th and 18th centuries, with their pioneering self-help groups.

They took a lease on 19 Princelet Street and, in 1869, in the garden where the Ogier children once played, they built a synagogue. One of the remarkable things about 19 Princelet Street today is to walk through the shallow body of an early Georgian house… and into a temple.

A hundred years later, up in those third floor attics, the final occupant of the house locked his door and disappeared. David Rodinsky had lived in the garret with his mother and sister.

His mother died, his sister was taken into hospital but Rodinsky stayed on as ‘caretaker’ of the synagogue.

By now a complete recluse, Rodinsky used candlelight to study the ancient Jewish texts of the synagogue, oblivious to the 20th century outside.

One day in 1969, Rodinsky vanished. The room lay undisturbed for ten years and when opened was perfectly preserved, with dozens of notebooks full of cabbalistic diagrams. By his bed there was a solidified cup of tea.

East End stories

While the story of ‘Rodinsky’s Room’ captivates many, the trustees of the house have grasped the opportunity afforded by this unique building: to use its history to look forward. The Spitalfields Centre charity was set up to preserve the house and tell the stories of those generations of East Enders.

Suitcases and Sanctuary is a site-specific exhibition which explores the waves of immigration that have shaped Spitalfields, seen through the eyes of today’s children. The trustees created the exhibition by working with nine and ten year olds from six local schools. They in turn worked with actors, poets and artists to discover and celebrate the richness of a past (and present) formed by many cultures.

It’s an extraordinary exhibition, made the more haunting by its setting in this magical Grade II listed building. It’s made more special, of course, by its rarity.

The fragility of the building means that, until vital restoration is done (and the campaign is on to raise the £3million needed) the public can visit only on a few days each year. It has been described variously as ‘one of the capital’s finest buildings’ (The Observer) and ‘hauntingly beautiful’ (The Times). And you can read hundreds more comments from the visitors of all ages and cultures who have come and been captivated by the house.

19 Princelet Street is open from Sunday, June 19 to Sunday, June 26 every day from 12noon to 7pm, for Refugee Week, your last opportunity to visit this year. Please don’t visit outside those times… you’ll have a wasted journey! Admission is free but donations are encouraged.

Give generously and you can help the charity meet their target of opening the house permanently in the next four years.