19 Princelet Street

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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed


17 June 2003

Unlikely haven

An unrestored Huguenot house is a shrine to British Multiculturism say Bel Jacobs and Tim Ingham

The article as it appeared in the newspaperMichael Palin called it 'one of the most remarkable places in London' : 'a prism through which the whole European catastrophe can be apprehended', said writer AN Wilson. Yet to most of the captials inhabitants, 19 Princelet Street is little more than an ordinary address.

Built in 1719, the small house was originally home to master silk weaver Peter Ogier and his family. Huguenots fleeing persectution in France.

It was the Huguenots who build the maze of handsome Georgian houses near Spitalfields, the Irish who took over when the Huguenots moved on and a community of Polish Jews who, in 1869, built a secret synagogue in the garden where the Ogier children once played.

People who worshipped here, in London's third oldest synagogue included some of the 10,000 children rescued from Nazi-occupied Europe by British businesses and families as part of the Kindertransporte project.

In the windowless below, the early meetings of the British anti-fascist movement were held; later plans to defeat Moseley's Black Shirts came to fruition during the Cable Street battles.

Today, London's Bangladeshi community sits on the house's doorstep, in vital bustling Brick Lance. Visitors to the building include those who have fled Burundi, Somalia and Kosovo.

Step behind Princelet Street's shabby facade and the house's history seeps into your bones. Dusty light pours through the synaogue's stained glass roof; footsteps echo in the basement.

The incongruous placement of Victorian urinals under the altar speaks volumes about the practical Jews who met here. In the kitchen the Ogier's stone sink sits in a corner.

For 300 years, weavers and craftsmen, carvers and gilders, refugees and writers tramped up and down the houses rickety stairs but today due to a lack of funds, 19 Princelet Street is in danger of collapsing. Steel struts hold the levels apart and the mysterious second and third floors are off limits.


Britain's multicultural history is something to be proud of...

  • Alec Issigonis, who fled the war between Turkey and Greece was the brain behind the Mini and the Morris Minor.

  • The first Governor of the Bank of England, John Hublon, was the grandson of a French Huguenot.

  • Architect Eva Jiricna CBE arrived in the UK from Prague in 1968 and went on to be named one of Britain's most influential women.

  • Tanya Sarne (pictured top) creater of the Ghost fashion label is the daughter of a Russian Refugee.

  • The late impressario Lord Lew Grade (pictured bottom) fled the Ukraine to become one of the giants in British Television, supporting hits such as The Saint, The Muppet Show and Thunder Birds.

  • Political revolutionaries Lenin and Marx and French writer Victor Hugo are among others who have sought refuge in Britain.

Second Chance

Philip Black is on the board of the charity that scooped up the grade II* listed house in the 1980s to preserve it and to create a permanent museum of immigration and diversity within its walls.

'We're in the top four to five percent of listed buildings in the UK' says Black 'but we're also on English Heritage's official At Risk register. It's a shame for such a beautiful building.

'To make a museum here is a chance to save an important part of London's architectural and spiritual history and to tackle issues of racism and discrimination'.

To this end, the basement and synagogue currently host the haunting Suitcases and Sanctuary Exhibition - drawings, installations and art by local primary school children spill out of scruffy brown suitcases and recall the lives of those on the run.

'Lots of features were created by children who put themselves in the position of someone not necessarily of their own origins,' says Black 'we had Asian children imagining what it was like to come from the Caribbean'.

Other work also decorates the house. Scribbled on the walls amid the scaffolding is one sentence written by a young Burundi girl, a former refugee and visitor to the house: 'you must listen to the past'.

Whether we will listen to Princelet Street or not remains unseen. But one thing is certain - the loss may be immeasurable if we don't.