Suitcase & Sanctuary
At a time when talk of multiculturalism abounds and issues of asylum dominate headlines, the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street in London's vibrant East End offers us a chance to look beyond the news stories. jargon and hype. Here, the heart of our rich heritage beats.
If the many people who have passed through 19 Princelet Street over the years had been made to leave a Hansel and Gretel style trail mapping their journey to and from this living monument to the rich history of one of London's s poorest areas, the trails would surely spread out across the globe like outstretched fingers. The trails are invisible threads that tie this small, seemingly unremarkable house in a side street off London's s Brick Lane to events that have shaped history, to distant places and stories that are at once personal and universal.
In recent years, due to the efforts of a small but passionate group of volunteers who have been captivated by this building, its numerous stories and the links it provides to yet further tales, new threads are beginning to grow. These threads are carried now by those who have been fortunate enough to venture inside on one of the few days when the building is open to the public; the foreign students, local school children, young offenders, city workers who sometimes queue for hours to enter and who leave having been visibly moved by the experience, for as one young volunteer proclaimed "this place changes people."
It is easy to walk past 19 Princelet Street, many people do every day. For the Georgian façade tells little of the mysteries that lay behind it. Similar facades are squeezed into this and nearby streets. It is easy to imagine the cycle they have travelled from desirable family home to dilapidated slum and now back to sought-after refurbishment project for affluent arty types attracted to the rawness of one of the few areas of London yet to be entirely trampled under the foot of gentrification. In fact, you re more likely to wonder whether the building has yet been fitted with a swanky Poggenpohl kitchen than if it has been declared as significant a site as New York's Ellis Island. And, just to be dear, no, there is no trendy new kitchen but rather the original 1719 kitchen sink and, yes, as Europe's only Museum of Immigration and Diversity it is well deserving of the comparison.
On the day I visit, the East End is characteristically grey and wet and, with the lunch rush yet to begin, Brick Lane is unusually subdued. Princelet Street feels familiar and I wonder whether that is from a childhood spent roaming the backstreets of Whitechapel gazing into shop windows where mannequins wear saris and bindis or if the familiarity is borne from one too many Jack the Ripper films with their portrayal of the area and one of its most infamous associates; a case of media-fuelled memory. I pass no. 19 without noticing it. It is bizarre but strangely apt that there is nothing to distinguish this from the other Georgian townhouses that line the street. When I backtrack I eventually find the much talked about building and its equally engaging chairman of trustees, Susie Symes.
Standing in the rain we observe the proximity to London's shiny square mile, its towering pinnacles of glass and steel looming over its grubbier, long neglected neighbour. It is this proximity that has in so many ways shaped the experience of the neighbouring East End and subsequently the lives of those who have left their imprint on no. 19. A former Roman burial ground, Brick Lane and the surrounding area has long been a home for the discarded. Its official status as an undesirable is quite literally blowing in the wind; the prevailing direction of the wind bringing the pollution of the rest of London sweeping over the East. The leather and tanning trades arrived in the East End during the 13th century and were succeeded by other, equally unfavourable trades, as industrialisation set in. But it was the docks, with their steady stream of new arrivals that really guaranteed the East End's status as home to successive waves of immigrants.
Following the Great Fire of London, builders from the North of the country came in droves to rebuild London and, in particular, to work on the restoration of St Paul's Cathedral. Land outside the walls of the city was sold off to them in small plots for development and it was these northern builders who built many of the simple Georgian townhouses that now mingle with the East End's more ominous high rise testaments to a post-war social housing experiment that went wrong. Like most developers, the builders had no intention of hanging around themselves and sold the homes on. No. 19 became home to the Ogier family, French Huguenots who were swept to England on the swelling tide of religious persecution in Catholic France.
France had succumbed to a series of civil wars following the Protestant Reformation in Europe and in 1589 the French throne was finally inherited by the Protestant, Henri de Bourbon. Believing "Paris to be worthy of a Mass", he converted to Catholicism in 1593 but was cautious to ensure that the religious rights of his former co-religionists were protected. He issued the Edict of Nantes which provided for the religious liberties of France's Huguenots. Convinced of the threat that such a sizeable religious minority might pose to the thrown, Henri's grandson King Louis XI V revoked the Edict in r685 and engaged in a programme of intimidation and brutality. Approximately 200,000 Huguenots escaped from France, with 50,000 of those arriving in England. Spitalfields was a natural landing point and most of the new arrivals who brought with them the new term, 'refugee', settled in the area. The vast majority, like the Ogier family, were highly skilled weavers but unable to practice their trade within a city controlled by the guilds, so they continued their work just outside the city walls. As Protestants arriving in a Protestant country and escaping a Catholic King of France who was hardly a favourite of the English monarchy, the Huguenots while not exactly welcomed with open arms-were able to build new lives for themselves and many prospered. Their communities developed and by 1700, 19 years before 19 Princelet Street was even built, there were nine Huguenot churches in Spitalfields where in r685 there had been none. But their transition was not entirely peaceful. In a tale that was to be repeated many times over, some locals were troubled by the ability of these skilled weavers to undercut local tradesmen and sporadic violence and riots broke out in the streets. No doubt it was not the first time and it certainly would not be the last in an area synonymous with events such as the Battle of Cable Street, the Sydney Street Siege and more recently what has become known as `the Brick Lane bomb', left by David Copeland in Hanbury Street in April 1999.
The Ogier's were relatively affluent refugees and, in the tradition of most immigrant communities, climbing the social ladder meant moving on. The house passed hands and was divided into lodgings and workshops. Susie enthusiastically points out the large windows on the top floor and the double doorway. These were later additions to the building and attempts to increase the efficiency of those who worked inside. Larger windows meant more light and that in turn meant longer working hours. Soon, it was home to Irish immigrants as the potato famine, poverty and starvation forced many to flee Ireland for England. Unlike the Huguenots before them, the Irish were not quite as warmly welcomed. These were Catholics and once again the cheap rates of the Irish threatened the local workforce. Anti-Irish sentiment culminated in the Gordon Riots of 1780 where Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields were burnt down by mobs, many of whom intended to march on Downing Street but got waylaid at a Holborn Brewery where some of them literally drank themselves to death, dying in the street of alcohol poisoning. The next wave of immigrants were perhaps even more noticeable than those who had come before them. From the late 18oos Jewish immigrants escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe arrived and settled in the East End. For the many who landed with nothing, this poverty-ridden part of London became home. They established industries of their own and built on what had been before. And like those before them they found a heady mix of acceptance and hostility, support and distrust. They became an integral part of the vibrant fabric of London s bustling East End establishing synagogues, clubs and schools and frequenting the famous Jewish soup kitchen.
19 Princelet Street speaks of all these groups and many more; of the Bangladeshi community who settled during the 60s and 7os and have subsequently flavoured the area, of Caribbean migrants and Somalis, of more recent Eastern European arrivals. The rarity of 19 Princelet Street is that it is not exclusive, it does not appeal to one group but to all and I am conscious of this as I step inside. There is sometimes a tendency to impose our own stories on such places, to believe that they speak exclusively or predominantly of the story to which we relate, the story we wish to hear told.
This is not a museum like any other you may have experienced. For starters there is the fact that it feels a little like walking into a freezer and within just a few moments you understand that this place must truly hold something quite magical for volunteers to so willingly and enthusiastically work in such temperatures. Susie is dearly a little more accustomed to this than I so I try to ignore the fact that my fingers seemed to have given up and that my lips are probably turning a not so pretty shade of purple. But even more notable than the shivering temperatures is the ramshackle nature of the building. Buckling ceilings are held in place by metal poles, crumbling walls are left exposed and the slick and sophisticated veneer of your average museum is thankfully nowhere to be seen. There is something refreshing about this place. Perhaps it is its simplicity. It isn't trying too hard, it isn't telling you what to think, it is simply encouraging you to think what you will. The exhibition, Suitcases and Sanctuary, was the creation of school children from varied backgrounds. Their names, to be found on the hallway wall, testify to their diverse heritages. When they began the project, they didn't really know what they intended it to become, they simply allowed it to evolve and two years later it is still as captivating and many of the original children are now volunteers and regular visitors.
Susie leaves me to look around and wandering into the main room of the exhibition I quite literally stumble, like many before me, across a tiny synagogue. It had been added to the back of the house, where the small garden would once have been, in 1869 by the Loyal United Friends Friendly Society, a self-help immigrant group. It was a huge undertaking, the whole garden being excavated. The first floor gallery bears the names of former members of its congregation, the gilded inscriptions now fading away. It is tempting to simply stand and absorb the atmosphere of the synagogue. And, the first impulse is to perhaps wonder nostalgically at how such a place could have been abandoned, forgotten by those who had gone to such lengths to establish it and for whom it must once have played such a critical role. But, upon reflection I wonder if this seeming abandonment is really all that sad after all. When I discuss this later with Susie, she smilingly, asks if it isn't in fact a wonderful sign of the natural progress of the immigrant's story. They come, they build their community and support network and then they are able to move on.
The exhibition includes various collections of luggage overflowing with letters, photographs, even cotton reels and potatoes; all part of the activities in which the children imagined themselves as immigrants leaving their homes and settling in London's s East End. They have written letters to family left behind; some prod aim the advantages of their new city while others dream of home. You could rummage through them for hours if you can withstand the cold and tear yourself away from thoughts of the weddings and bar mitzvahs that must have taken place here and of the meetings held below where locals established their campaign to overcome the threat of Moseley's Blackshirts that lingered in the local air during the 193os. And, from time to time, your thoughts may wander upstairs as well, to the attic from where the mysterious Jewish scholar, David Rodinsky, disappeared without trace in 19 G g, his room only discovered, as he had left it, in 1980. Speculation and theories abound about the nature and fate of this elusive character but due to the fragility of this creaking building it isn't possible for visitors to venture upstairs at the current time.
The building desperately requires £3million of investment. This is not investment to turn this breathing building into a sterile environment but simply to keep it standing. Sadly the very fact that makes this site so important; its ability to talk to us all seems to hinder the flow of donations that are so desperately needed. If one group could claim ownership of r9 Princelet Street it would almost certainly have more money than it could handle but it is all too easy for each group whose story is so poignantly conveyed through this building and its local environs to politely suggest that the board approach one of the others.