Inside 19 Princelet Street – Spitalfields’ Unique Museum
Princelet Street, and the mysteries it hides, never ceases to amaze me.
The early restored 18th century houses look identical, but behind the doors are film producers, architects, a landmark trust property and – most intriguingly – London’ second oldest synagogue.
A Particular Address
At no. 19 is the Museum of Immigration and Diversity.
It’s rarely open to the public due to its fragility, but I recently went to an open day for a look inside the time capsule.
The story of Princelet Street and Spitalfields in general is one of immigration. From Huguenots to Irish and Jews to Bengalis, waves of people have made the street their home and left traces of their lives here.
The earliest houses on Princelet Street appeared in 1700 and Number 19 was built in 1719, first home to a Huguenot silk merchant Peter Abraham Ogier.
Other poor weaver families succeeded the Ogiers then later it was home to Irish and Polish immigrants. But the family home changed drastically in 1869, when the back garden was built over and the East End’s first purpose built synagogue installed for the growing Jewish population.
It was Polish Jews that bought the lease for the house and with hard-earned financial contributions from the local community, the synagogue opened in 1870.
It was in use until the 1970s but is now looked after by the Spitalfields Centre charity, a Grade II* listed building that’s on English Heritage’s ‘Buildings at Risk’ register.
Inside 19 Princelet Street
Doorway from the past to the present. A rare glimpse inside the historic site at 19 Princelet Street. Photo © Matthew Andrews / 19 Princelet Street.
When you first enter the crumbling building, you’re reminded – In a collection of languages – to “listen to the building”.
And boy can you feel the ghosts of people, from a myriad of countries, who have walked across these same floorboards.
A magical monument to our cultural diversity. Photo © P Black / 19 Princelet Street.
Looking up you’ll see names of the Jewish congregation commemorated on wooden panels, like “In memory of the late Fanny Reinnalf who died 18 April 1953” who left £7 to the synagogue.
Donations, mainly in guineas, inscribed on the wooden panels to commemorate a beloved family member. Photo © Ed Marshall / 19 Princelet Street.
Israel Sangwill – the eminient 20th century Jewish writer – paints a vivid picture of the lively atmosphere when in its prime;
“The worshippers dropped in, mostly in their workaday garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorused the prayers with zeal which shook the windowpanes.”
As well as the museum’s main exhibit: the building itself, there are two installations – Suitcases and Sanctuary created by local primary school groups who contemplate immigration, identity and belonging; and Leave to Remain by 3 refugee artists taking a wry look at the issue of Asylum in Britain today.
A deceptively simple yet powerful explanation of the Irish Potato Famine in the groundbreaking ‘Suitcases and Sanctuary’ exhibition in London’s Museum of Immigration and Diversity. Photo © Ed Marshall / 19 Princelet Street.
In the middle of London’s most diverse borough it’s a place for debate and dialogue on a topic which is integral to London’s history and future.
The internationally praised Suitcases and Sanctuary was thoughtfully designed to harmonise with this fraying monument to our cultural diversity. Photo © Ed Marshall / 19 Princelet Street.
And there are more surprises.
Downstairs, below the synagogue, a basement was created: community space which, in the 1930s, hosted antifascist meetings including those planning the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’ against Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts.
Suitcases and Sanctuary in the basement of the magical and historic 19 Princelet Street encapsulates the many stories of movement and settlement that have shaped London’s East End. Photo © Morley Von Sternberg / 19 Princelet Street.
More recently, the attic was unlocked in 1980 and writings in a collection of 15 different languages were found apparently left by the mysterious Mr Rodinsky who disappeared in the 1969.
So the house continues to surprise and amaze us.
It doesn’t really do the place justice, to pigeon hole it into the category of a ‘museum’ it’s more of an immersion and I urge you to go and explore it for yourself.
They don’t have anymore listed open days this year, but you can find out the latest events, keep up to date and organise a private group tour on their website here.
NB Photography is not permitted inside so pictures have been reproduced with permission and credits from 19 Princelet Street where captioned.
More London Inspiration
The oldest democracy in the world, based in a building with parts from the 11th century. If only those walls could talk. Thankfully, with the help of a Parliament guide they sort of do. Here's 10 things I learned from a guided tour of Parliament....
Often listed as one of the greenest cities in the world, London is blessed with 8 Royal Parks and surrounded by woodland. However, I've made a list of the more esoteric green places to visit in central London, spots with an interesting tale or simply in an unexpected place....
Concerned by Hanging Sword Alley in EC4? Intrigued by Knightrider Street? Or tempted by Wardrobe Place? There are the best street names in the city and they each have a story to tell....
There's 47 churches within London's square mile. Each with their own history and often some special quirk up their sleeve. From ancient relics to pop-up gardens and cutting edge sculpture to 17th century shoes, there's plenty of surprises to be found......
Londoners are very proud of their 150+ year old subterranean network. Sure, we can complain about it, but we love it really. The main reason I love the tube is the little quirks you find at every new station....