19 Princelet Street

Hmm…shabby Spitalfields. Or perhaps not so shabby: it was put to me that “people here like to keep their houses looking shabby on the outside to make it look as if they haven’t got much; but look inside and you’ll see they do alright.” It’s a strange truth: less than half a mile from the City, there’s a huge cachet here in living in a house which looks the part – and more than a few are regularly featured in period dramas on TV and the big screen.

Over the years the houses have gone massively “up” and “down” market. They were built originally for ‘decent’ folk, the sort who’d be the workshop managers and the upper-working-class of their day – with a family living upstairs and servants in the basement. But then the houses were successively taken on by waves of economic migrants, displaced refugees, and all sorts of ethnic groups, and as they filled up with more and more poor people they went rather downhill. Most recently they’re shooting back up as the very fashionable residences of City folk. Never mind Brick Lane just round the corner, these little pockets where the upper-middles can get a bit of peace and quiet, and a specialty food store or too, are all the rage. It must help that Christ Church Spitalfields, that glorious Hawksmoor pile just round the corner, is newly restored: and Spitalfields market too is now the home of all that’s trendy.

In the middle of all this we find the Museum of Immigration at 19 Princelet Street. Arguably this is the most interesting building of all since its history is so varied and well documented, but sadly it’s also probably the most derelict since it’s not actually owned by anyone as their home any more. So it’s not open very often, and Open House 2011 was a rare chance to enjoy it. The story is roughly as follows…

The house was built 1719 and was first occupied by Protestant Huguenots, who were escaping from persecution in France and practiced the silk weaving trade here. In the course of time they prospered and moved on, and the houses became sub-divided into lodgings and workshops. The attic windows were altered to let in more light for weavers to work, but later occupants of the house followed other trades and professions, including Mrs Mary Ellen Hawkins who used it as an industrial school, and Isaiah Woodcock who was a carver and gilder.

Then the Irish came; and later, Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. One little group of early arrivals, mostly from Poland, formed the Loyal United Friends Friendly Society to help newcomers, just as the Huguenots had pioneered self-help groups in the late 17th and 18th centuries. They took a lease on 19 Princelet Street. And in the garden, in 1869, the Jews erected a synagogue. Underneath the synagogue, they created a place where people came together, and – much later – prepared to fight together, against intolerance and fascism.

And in 1969, up in the third floor attics, a recluse, David Rodinsky, locked his door and … disappeared.

All of this is layered here and is on display if you know how to read it. I don’t have any photos from inside (the official website has some), but here’s the outside.

Lastly, a note that they celebrate the first woman mayor of Stepney here as well. Given that the date is 1931 I’d have thought she had a fair chance of being the first woman mayor anywhere, and indeed the first Jewish mayor – but there we go.