iNexile - The magazine of the Refugee Council
May / June 2002
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,
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
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.
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
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!