19 Princelet Street

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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed
1923-2001

East End Life

July 9-15, 2003

The Magic and Myths of No 19

No 19 Princelet Street has been compared to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and New York's Ellis Island.

The article as it appeared in the newspaper.

It's a museum that hardly ever opens, but when it does it draws hundreds of visitors. And despite a well-documented history its story has become wrapped ln secrecy, myth and mysticism.

Most baffling of all, although countless visitors - among them Michael Palin, Lloyd Groseman and Tracy Emin - have come away proclaiming its status as one of London's most important buildings, No 19 is on the verge of crumbling away. It's a fate that local charity The Spitalfields Centre is determined to avert. It was set up to reserve the house as Britain's first museum of immigration and diversity, "a new sort of museum, where visitors can discover the stories of people - including the Huguenots, Irish, Jewish, Bangladeshi and Somali peoples who shaped the area and the nation".

The history of Spitalfields is of course, inextricably woven with that of the Huguenots. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, removing pro- tection from persecution for these Low Countries, French-speaking Protestants. At least 25,000 Huguenots settled around London's wails, unable to live or work within a City controlled by the merchant companies and guilds.

The skilled weavers did well. building fine houses along Spitalfields' narrow streets. A Monsieur Ogier built 19 Princes (later Princelet) Street as his workshop and family home; in the back yard the family planted tulips and dahlias from their homeland.

As the Huguenots moved on, the Georgian houses were sub-divided into lodgings and workshops. At No 19 the attic windows were altered to let in more light for weavers to work. Later occupants followed (lther trades, including Mary Ellen Hawkins, who used it as an industrial school, and Isaiah Woodcock, a carver and gilder.

The Irish came, and later Jews from Eastern Europe. One group, mostly from Poland, formed the Loyal United Friends Friendly Society to help newcomers. They took a lease on 19 Princelet Street, and in 1869, in the garden where the Ogier children once played among the dahlias and tulips, they built a synagogue. Beneath the synagogue, they created a meeting place where, 60 years later, meetings would plan community action against Mosley's Blackshirt marches.

It was here in 1980 that the mysterious story of David Rodinsky first came to light. the reclusive scholer had lived for many years in the third floor attic until one day, in 1969, he disappeared. His room wasn't rediscovered until 1980, revealing his open books and notes, a pot of porridge upon the stove, and the imprint of a head still denting his pillow.

This year, the house opens, as usual, on a handful of days. The fragile 300-year building can only stand so many foot- falls and, like a precious manuscript locked in a library, it only emerges for occasional viewing. The openings are scarcely advertised but, astonishingly, 10,000 visitors came last year, finding their way via the web, radio and newspaper articles and word of mouth. To coin- cide with Refugee Week, from June 15-22, the museum wil1 be open every day, giving another airing to Suitcases and Sanctuary - centuries of immigration to Spitalfields, a huge success when staged in 2001 and 2002.

This exhibition explores the history of the waves of immigration that shaped Spitalfields, seen through the eyes of today's children. Nine and ten year olds from six local schools worked with actors, poets and artists to discover and celebrate the richness of a shared past. "The story of all these diverse groups is not only their story, it is our story," says Susy Symes, chair of the Spitalfields Centre.

If the trustees had their way, though, the house would be open every day. A grant of f30,000 from English Heritage, and last year's inclusion of No 19 on the National (and London) Buildings At Risk Register, was a welcome emergency measure. The 3 million needed to prevent the wails and ceilings collapsing completely would achieve something more: it would let the building open safely and permanently to the public. Ms Symes recognises the house's unique role in drawing together the threads of the East End's past. "You have this five-storey Huguenot immigrant's building and a Victorian synagogue literally joined together. What could be more symbolic of the constant flow of people and their move into mainstream society?"

But the trustees are very much looking to the future - and who better to describe that future than the children of today's East End? "Tne children's work explores both similarities and differences between how groups of immigrants have been treated over the centuries" says Ms Symes. Like Brigadoon, No 19 only emerges for occasional viewing, so make sure you don't miss this chance. And while you are experiencing this unique building, dig deep and help to preserve a slice of the East End that must not be lost to future generations.

Suitcases and Sanctuary is open daily during Refugee Week from noon to 7pm.