17 June 2003
Unlikely havenAn unrestored Huguenot house is a shrine to British Multiculturism say Bel Jacobs and Tim Ingham
Michael Palin called it
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.
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.
'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.
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:
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.