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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

Rescue mission

October 2005
Peter Lewis
A museum in London's East End that looks at the vital role immigrants have played in the history of Britain is under threat from lack of funds. Peter Lewis is outraged

The article as it appeared in the magazine. I VISITED 19 PRINCELET STREET IN SPITALFIELDS, A Grade II* listed building that houses the Museum of Immigration and Diversity, in June during Refugee Week. The reason for my visit to Spitalfields was both duty and curiosity.

I admit to a twinge of nostalgia, but only in the original sense of that much-abused word -nest, a return, algia, pain. My ancestors were all Eastenders. My maternal grandfather, a pacifist stretcher-bearer in the first world war, worked as a briar pipe-maker around the corner. My paternal grandfather, a cocky little docker, had more than one confrontation with the police in union and political marches along Commercial Road and Aldgate.

London has been continuously inhabited for well over 2,000 years and the growth of the city has been sustained by immigrants. Arrivals came from every part of Britain and Ireland, and in the 18th century it was estimated that 'not above one in 20 of the shop and ale-house keepers, journeymen and labourers were born in the town'.

These immigrants settled predominantly in the East End near the docks, and each new wave created tensions among those who considered themselves native or adopted Londoners. As early as the 12th century, a monk commented that: 'All sorts of men crowd there from every country under the heavens. Each brings their own vices and its own customs.'

These people, their lives and influences, are the inspiration for the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street, an elegant Georgian house built in 1719. The first occupier was Peter Ogier an affluent silk weaver, who like some 50,000 other Huguenots, fled religious persecution in France under Louis IV. The lingo spoken on the street later changed from French to Yiddish. The Jews of Spitalfields came mainly from Poland, and in 1869 a synagogue was built on the site of the garden. In the cellar was a space to celebrate weddings, bar mitzvahs and to hold meetings. It was here that the Loyal United Friends were formed to support and assist their members. By the end of the century there were well over 50 lodges of this friendly society in and around London. Sixty years on, meetings were held here with the Irish to organise community action against the marches of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts.

By 1970 Brick Lane and the neighbouring streets had become predominantly Bengali. Jewish bakeries became curry houses; jewellery shops were turned into sari stores. There are now new accents in the streets; Somali, Russian, Kosovan and Lithuanian. More than 300 languages are spoken in the schools of Spitalfields, Hackney and Whitechapel.

I joined a party of junior school children on my visit to 19 Princelet Street. They were from north London and from a spectrum of origins. They were bright, alert and vocal. We stood in the street and studied the architectural clues that might tell us more about the history of the house. We wandered first into the older part of the house and then passed into the synagogue with its raspberry-and rhubarb-coloured glass panelled ceiling, chandeliers and iron pillars. There are few artefacts, but the rusting collection boxes and torah mantles are testimony to past traditions. The children were awed, but then squealed in mock horror at the primitive loos on either side of the room.

The space is filled with exhibitions jointly prepared by local children and artists. We are asked where we came from and what languages we speak. Ferhana, aged 11, explains that her elder brothers were born in Sylhet, and that she, born in London, speaks Sylheti and English. An intense family debate is underway as to whether her baby sister should be taught only English. Mistaking age for wisdom, she asks my advice and I tell her that, unlike me, everyone should speak more than one language.

Later we stand together in front of a battered leather suitcase, filled with small luggage labels. We are asked to decide what single item we would choose to take with us if we had suddenly to flee our home forever. I write that I would take an old gold pocket-watch that once belonged to an unknown and long-dead relative. 'To remind me of the old days,' I tell Ferhana. She is not impressed by my materialism but is far too polite to comment. Later I find that on her label she has written in tiny impeccable script that she would chose to take all her family and hope for the future. I am shamed by her compassion and intelligence.

It is very much my kind of museum, a dramatic space in which to tell stories. It is, it seems, the only museum of immigration and diversity in Britain, perhaps in Europe.

19 Princelet Street was purchased in 1981 for 150,000 by a charitable trust. The museum has received innumerable plaudits for its pioneering work. Bernard Crick, the architect of the government's citizenship curriculum, said that: 'Every schoolchild in England should see this.' Countless visitors, among them Ken Livingstone, Loyd Grossman, Michael Palin, Tracey Emin and David Bowie, have praised the place to the high heavens. The former immigration minister, Barbara Roche, whose mother grew up in Spitalfields, said: 'Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to visit 19 Princelet Street in the East End of London, cannot fail to be moved, or to doubt the vital importance of immigration as part of this nation's history.'

High praise, indeed. But the building is falling down and the house can only open on a few days each year and then numbers must be strictly controlled for reasons of health and safety. The museum is criminally short of funds, relying on private donations and voluntary unpaid trustees and guides. Some charity funding has supported educational projects and a recent grant from English Heritage has enabled technical surveys to start and for some small emergency repairs. But there is nothing substantial from major funders.

Susie Symes, the chairwoman of the trustees, and her colleague Philip Black say that most institutions approached for funds are sympathetic, but happy to pass the buck/euro/pound. One diversion is to advise that the big companies and banks founded by immigrant families will help. Individuals insist that their boards are the people to ask. After a period of reflection, the charity department replies that this is a project for individuals. It does seem that the multiracial aspect of the museum, which should be its greatest appeal, puts off potential donors. Funds would flow if it was solely Jewish, exclusively Muslim, etc. But that is not what this wonderful place exists for.

The prime movers in any rescue plan have got to be the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Treasury and London itself. A paltry 3m would save and restore the building. There is a further political and emotional imperative. An article in the Guardian (June 2003) referred to the value of the museum. 'Whose heritage is it anyway?' it asked. 'Look around a tube carriage in London and ask yourself who the British are.' Well, we have, and we've grieved over the photographs of the dead and injured caused by the July bombings in London, We've noted that the victims and the alleged perpetrators came from more than 30 different nations.

Since then racial attacks have increased six-fold. The British National Party (BNP) speedily distributed a leaflet with the exhortation 'Don't get mad-get even.' It further claimed that our 'once all-white country' has been turned into an 'overcrowded multicultural slum'.

But the BNP bases its arguments on the false premise of a golden age. As long ago as 1701, Swift was mocking the idea of the True Born Englishman - 'your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman-English'. I recently heard on Radio 4 the assertion that 80 per cent of us are immigrants. Where, I wondered, did the other 20 per cent come from? Did they perhaps rise from some primeval ooze? The latter might explain the existence of the BNP.

The bomb attacks took place the day after London's successful bid to host the Olympic Games of 2012. Tessa Jowell and Ken Livingstone have promised funds for cultural events and projects that will form an important and lasting part of those celebrations. The salvation and development of the Museum of Immigration and Diversity should be number one on their list.

Peter Lewis is a writer and a past director of Beamish, the North of England Open Air Museum