Libby Purves - December 23, 2003
Listen to the ghosts of immigration past
It is a week for telling stories, for huddling round the fire and letting the ragged ghosts of Christmas Past crowd in with their untidy tales. So come with me to a suitably Dickensian spot: Spitalfields, in East London, and a side-street off the grubby thoroughfare of Brick Lane, where cabbage leaves and litter blow idly from the market and 200-year-old houses crumble in Georgian majesty.
The crumbling, of course, is largely deceptive. Spitalfields is handy for the City and arty Hoxton, and behind the façades smart money has poured into most of these houses. But one stands apart, in its history and purpose. It is 19 Princelet Street, and it is trying — I use the word advisedly — to become Britain’s first museum celebrating immigration and diversity. And if words such as “diversity ” and “multicultural” make you snarl “Bah, humbug!” I beg you to stay with me, just for five minutes, as it is Christmas.
The Princelet Street project — officially the Spitalfields Centre Charity — is based on the house itself. It was built in 1719 by the Ogier family, Huguenot silk weavers who had fled persecution in France. They were affluent refugees, surrounded by poorer economic migrants. If you want a flavour of the time, try Daniel Defoe’s 1724 account of a family like his: “My Father and Mother being People of better Fashion than ordinarily the People called REFUGEES. . . he had his Door continually throng’d with miserable Objects of the poor starving Creatures. I have indeed, heard my Father say, That he was pester’d with a great-many of those, who, for any Religion they had, might e’en have stay’d where they were, but who flock’d over hither in Droves, for what they call in English, a Livelihood; hearing with what Open Arms the REFUGEES were receivd in England . . . My father, told me, That he was more pester’d with the Clamours of these People, than of those who were truly Refugees, and fled in Distress, merely for Conscience.” Plus ça change.
The Ogiers moved west to smarter streets and the house was sub-divided into lodgings and workshops. The attic windows were altered to give more light to the weavers, and other trades moved in below: carvers, gilders, an industrial school. Then the Irish came, and later the Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, who made the house HQ of the Loyal United Friends Friendly Society, a self-help immigrant group. In 1869 they built a synagogue and a meeting place in the garden where, half a century on, anxious voices would discuss the threat of Mosley’s Blackshirts. As the Jewish traders prospered and in their turn moved west, the incoming Caribbean, Somali, Bengali and other modern immigrants left footprints on the house.
It was the late Tassaduq Ahmed, from Sylhet in Bangladesh, who began the process of saving this Grade II listed house as a living museum of those who have poured their essence into Britain. Rabbi Hugo Gryn supported him: Bengali Muslim and Czech Jew formed a spirited fundraising team along with Randolph Vigne, the Huguenot South African. But it turns out to be hard to raise support for something so deliberately mixed: Jewish foundations and companies would rather it were a Jewish museum, and the same applies to Muslim and Asian organisations. Susie Symes, the chair and a tough former Treasury official, has her work cut out keeping it afloat. It can open for only a few days a year, so fragile is the building, so warily propped-up with temporary supports.
When you do go in, though, it exerts a mysterious emotional force. A shabby cupboard set into the wall is opened and introduced as The Cupboard of Languages. Visitors have been invited to write “listen to the walls” in Yiddish, Bengali, Russian, Hindi, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, Somali, whatever. Then you wander in the dim sorrowful light through an exhibition called Suitcases and Sanctuary. Shabby suitcases spill memories and photographs; artists and schoolchildren worked on them together. Nine and ten-year-old children, many from immigrant communities, tried to imagine the lives of others. Thus Seema Kumari Sindi writes about the Huguenots who “thought life was more easy and more beautiful” here and decided to “stay for ever”. Jewish children empathise with Somalis or Kosovans, and newly arrived Bengalis are invited to imagine the upheavals of 1685 in letters: “Dear danny, King Louise (sic) XIV took away our homes. We lost our business to have freedom. I’m frightened.”
It is all here, recorded or imagined: the anti-Irish riots of 1736, the potato famine and the fact that a few years after that one third of British soldiers were Irish; Thomas Barnardo was Irish.
Modern immigrant children from half a world away have made mock-up newspapers about the famine, with poems about potatoes signed Saleha, Aaron, Ayesha. Then suddenly there is a line from Lord Grade on moving to Brick Lane when he was five; a practical suitcase full of labels children have written, imagining or remembering what they would pack when fleeing forever: “A good cleanser . . . my teddy . . . photos . . . pen and paper, a notebook to write memories . . .”
From the Caribbean immigrants of the Fifties and Sixties comes a set of boxes marked Dreams of England: on the lids the Tower and the Queen in colour, inside the black-and-white reality of scruffy lodgings and “No blacks”. But there are also happy pictures: beaming weddings, bus conductors smart in uniform. It is a deliberate, felicitous muddle with one central message. As Hasib Abdul, aged 11, wrote: “Old and new are neighbours.”
It dwells on the enrichment of Britain by outsiders, but also on the sorrow of exile. For all our “Oh, to be in England!” and “Home Sweet Home”, we often forget that. It is ironic that these islands, whose writers since Anglo-Saxon times have powerfully expressed homesickness, are so relatively blind to the courage of neighbours who may never see their childhood homes again. Ironically, wandering round the dusty silence of the house, it was a sentimental Irish song I found myself humming, The Old Bog Road:
My feet are here on Broadway
A Somali voice, in childish writing, murmurs: “The trees was gone and it was desert”; a Jewish one: “I want to leave Russia because my heart can’t take it any more. Because they can kill me.” But sanctuary among suspicious strangers is not an easy thing, as the song goes on:
Oh, what´s the world to any man
It is a mouldering building and a cheaply assembled exhibition. And no, you cannot drop in because the openings are frustratingly rare. You have to check the website at www.19princeletstreet.org.uk if you want to go. Yet it has great power: it is the beginning of an attempt to do something different, to engage with the centuries-long story of communities arriving, hoping, striving, settling and becoming, well, us.
It is a crying shame that the big hitters, government and corporate, are so scared of it. An incredulous CNN report lately marvelled at London’s indifference to Europe’s only museum of immigration. Susie Symes wrote this autumn that on its rare openings “people queue for two hours . . . City workers alongside a visting ambassador, local Bengali-British children bringing their mothers. Ninety-seven-year-old Meyer, still Yiddish-speaking and playing his treasured violin, meets our youngest volunteer, Punjabi-speaking Nikki, aged seven.” Sir Bernard Crick, architect of the Government’s citizenship curriculum, said: “Every schoolchild in England should see this.”
Last year, on the 17 open days, 7,000 people came. Recently Admiral Roy Clare, director of the National Maritime Museum, visited with his senior team and offered moral support from a big museum to a tiny one: seaborne migrants are part of his museum’s history, too.
But the £3 million it needs to be opened properly still eludes Susie Symes. Donations tend to be modest and private. Foundations, companies, government, even lottery funds (so far) hold back. A senior banker, moved by a visit, asked his charity department to support it; it flinched. It seems that nobody dares to be corporately involved with acknowledging the kind of nation that we really are. Yet it is a vigorous story, a brave one, a yarn worth telling. Happy Christmas.