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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

iNexile - The magazine of the Refugee Council

May / June 2002

The House that History built - Britains first museum of immigration.

Walk down the vibrant, bustle of Londonís Brick Lane, turn into a quiet Georgian side street and you will find yourself outside the old carved oak door of 19 Princelet Street. Inside the noise of the modern world subsides.You are in an otherworldly place, an unrestored interior that has been left untouched for three hundred years.

This Huguenot merchantís house and rare synagogue is now home to Britainís first museum of immigration.The Spitalfields Centre Charity which was set up in 1983 created the museum and aims to preserve the house. The story of 19 Princelet Street and its inhabitants is entwined with the history of the generations of immigrants arriving in Spitalfields. Susie Symes, Chair of the Spitalfields Centre says, This precious old building has connections with different refugee and immigrant groups and you can still tell stories in here about groups that are much more recent than the people who lived or worshipped here.

Situated between the docks and the City of London, Spitalfields has always been a place of arrival for immigrants. Some settled in the area for a while before moving on; others stayed behind. Descendants of Huguenots can still be found living here. Arrivals to Spitalfields include the Huguenots, Jews, Irish people escaping the potato famine, people from the Commonwealth countries in the 1950s, and more recently people from Bangladesh and Somalia. Today Spitalfields is known as Bangla Town.

18 Century refuge

19 Princelet Street was built in 1719 by English builder Samuel Worrell when the area had become a refuge for many French Huguenot families fleeing religious persecution. 500,000 managed to escape from France and 50,000 sought asylum in London. By the 18th Century the area of Spitalfields had become known as Liberty. French voices and lifestyles dominated this small street and 19 Princelet Street was home and workplace to the Ogier family, master silk weavers.

The Huguenots moved on and the house was divided into lodgings and workshops.Then Jewish immigrants from central Europe started settling in Spitalfields and by the 1900s the area had a community of 150,000. Jewish people took a lease on 19 Princelet Street and in 1869 a Synagogue, one of the earliest in East London, was built where the garden used to be. One of the main features of this Victorian synagogue is the coloured glass roof through which light filters down. In here, Susie Symes remarks, you could be anywhere in the world, you could easily be in Prague or Venice.

A house of stories

The house is full of stories: the earliest anti-fascist meetings were held in the meeting space under the synagogue when Mosley and the Black Shirts were threatening to march down Cable Street.

Children taking part in the exhibition.

Now the house is an educational resource and home to the Suitcases and Sanctuary exhibition.The exhibition explores the stories and experiences of immigrants to the area through the eyes of children and has already attracted over 5,000 visitors. Children from six local primary schools worked with artists, poets and actors to create the poetry and art that is displayed in suitcases around the building in an imaginative medley of paper boats, postage stamps, telephones, newspapers and even potatoes.

Susie Symes, Chair of the Spitalfields Centre says,The exhibition shows us, through fresh young eyes, a variety of cultures and the ways they have enriched life in our area and in London as a whole. The story of all these diverse groups is not only their story, it is our story. It is our shared history as Londoners, as British people.

The Spitalfields Centre needs to raise funds to save this Grade II* so that the building can be opened permanently. During Refugee Week, the building will be open daily between 16 and 23 June, noon to 7pm. Groups may be able to visit by special arrangement and there will also be a series of open days running in September. Entry is free!

For further details call, call 020 7247 5352 or
email information@19princeletstreet.org.uk
Website: www.19princeletstreet.org.uk