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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

Suitcases and sanctuary

It looks like any old terraced house, but behind the door to 19 Princelet Street is Britain’s first museum of immigration. Matthew Brown went to see it.

The article as it appeared in the journal. Nine-year-old Aisha and her classmates are peering at a pile of old, battered, brown leather suitcases, heaped on a dusty, wooden floor. The top one is open, inviting investigation. Inside the propped-up lid is a mirror reflecting Aisha’s frowning face and some back-to-front lettering made readable in reverse.

She mouths the words carefully, to herself: ‘All of us are immigrants or descended from immigrants – it just depends how far back you look.’

Aisha is here on a school trip with her fellow pupils from Osmani Primary School in Bethnal Green, east London. ‘Here’ is 19 Princelet Street, an old, Georgian, terraced house-come-museum just around the corner from Brick Lane, and barely a Lascar’s spit from Spitalfields Market, an area of the capital that, for centuries, has served as a first home to each new wave of immigrants.

Brick Lane, known as Bangla Town these days, has been the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community for the last 20 to 30 years, the community from which Aisha and many of her classmates come. The house is a monument to earlier generations, yet the story it tells is as much Aisha’s, and ours, as that of its many inhabitants from the past 300 years.

Built in 1719, it first housed Huguenot families fleeing religious persecution in France. Fifty thousand escaped to London, and a family of master silk weavers made their home and workplace at number 19.

By the 1800s, after the Huguenots moved on, 150,000 Jewish refugees from central Europe lived in the area. In 1869 a synagogue was built at the back of the house, where the garden used to be. It’s still there, one of the oldest in London, complete with grimy, pastel-coloured glass ceiling, rickety balcony, and wooden boards, listing its benefactors in faded golden Hebrew.

Beneath the secret synagogue is another room where some of the early anti-fascist meetings were held in the 1930s, before the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’. In the 1940s, it was a meeting point for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and a place of sanctuary for the children rescued from the continent on Kindertransport trains.

In the 1960s the house fell into disrepair, to be rediscovered in 1979 when a charity called the Spitalfields Centre was set up to save it. It’s now a Grade II* listed building on the English Heritage ‘at risk’ register. At least £3 million is needed to preserve it.

Susie Symes, chair of the museum, has been instrumental in turning the crumbling building into a museum of immigration, described as Britain’s Ellis Island. The exhibition it houses, called Suitcases and Sanctuary, tells of each wave of settlers in Britain, starting with the Romans and on through the Angles, Saxons, Norse and Normans to the Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Africans, Caribbeans, and recent arrivals from the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

It’s a touching exhibition, interactive in an old fashioned way. There are cases to be opened; cards to be filled in; and luggage tags to write on. There are boxes to look in; poetry and art to be touched and turned over. There are suitcases full of paper boats, newspapers, stamps, and potatoes. Videos and posters provide visual stimuli; while voices from the past crackle through telephone receivers and hidden speakers in the synagogue’s old toilet.

As Hasib Abdul, aged 11, said, ‘It reflects the past and present, where old and new are neighbours.’ Much like the streets outside; much like the country.