Monday, July 03, 2006

19 Princelet - Where Georgian and Immigrant London Collide

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Take a guess what was the most popular search term in today’s electronic version of the New York Times – immigration. When I put “immigration” into Google, 521,000,000 responses came back. The entry and settlement of people in a country of which they are not native gets people excited for all kinds of reasons. But it was not an interest in immigration which made me rush to 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields for one of the rare days in the year when London’s Museum of Immigration is open to the public. No, I went looking for more of the Spitalfields’ “picturesque” which had so captured my imagination at Denis Severs House, and where one can so easily imagine the past.

Once again, Spitalfields delivered the goods and of all the strange places I have visited in my quest for uncrowded and authentic experiences, 19 Princelet Street is the strangest. Haunted, heavy with romance, tragic, this unrestored house, built in 1719, and now in a dire state of disrepair, was once the proud home of French Huguenot master silk weavers. Over the centuries, successive waves of London’s East End immigrants have left their mark on the building which the Spitalfields Centre Charity is fighting to keep out of the hands of developers and retain as a permanent resource to tell the story of the Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Bangladeshi, Somalis and others who have sought refuge in the neighbourhood.

Through the writing of Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, the house also achieved fame as the setting for the mysterious story of its last resident, David Rodinsky, who lived above the synagogue and sometime in the 1960s disappeared. Rodinsky’s room remained locked and undisturbed for over 20 years with the chaotic contents, newspapers, a fossilised cup of tea, porridge on the stove, a head imprint in the pillow, covered in dust and frozen in time.

As my friend Laura and I arrived at 19 Princelet, we were asked to wait outside for a while, because the house is in such bad shape that only a small number of people can be in the building at any one time. Finally, it was our turn to enter the dust filled, gloomy hallway, sign the guestbook and head for the synagogue which had been brought from Poland in 1869 and reconstructed, out of sight, in the back garden.

The synagogue, abandoned in 1963 as Jewish residents began to move to other neighbourhoods, has left behind a treasure trove of amazing stories. Along the wooden walls of the second floor ladies gallery, printed in gold lettering, one finds the honour roll of former donors. From overhead, the light which manages to penetrate the gloom of the filthy glass roof would thrill a Hollywood set director. The excavated basement once served as the meeting place of the Friendly Society set up by Ashkenazi Jews to assist victims of the pogroms of the 18th century. In the garret above, once a place for silk weavers, lived the sad and mysterious David Rodinsky.
As we entered the synagogue, I grew increasingly interested in the conversation taking place between a group of young black and Asian women, many in head scarves, who were being shown around by one of the museum guides who was explaining the persecution suffered by the Huguenots and their need to find refuge outside of France. “But weren’t they all Christians, said one of the girls. “Yes, replied the guide who went on to outline the long conflict between French Roman Catholics and Protestants. “But they were all white?” The group of girls shock their heads in disbelief.

Before my visit, I was not convinced that London needed a Museum of Immigration but with that group of perplexed girls in mind, I now think it’s a good idea. Whether the huge amount of money can ever be raised to realise this ambition appears questionable. I hate to say this, but if I had to bet, I’d put my money on the developers. I hope I am wrong. With my sad prognosis looming, I urge you to jump at the chance to see this house. There are three days left this year when the building is open to the public:

Sunday 3 September 12 - 5pmfor European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage

Saturday 16 September 12 - 5 pm
Sunday 17 September 12 - 5 pm
for London Open House weekend (prepare for crowds)

The website gives detailed information about how to arrange a group visit. The organisers ask for at least four weeks notice and a minimum donation of £100 pounds which seems fair to me when you consider that a family ticket for such tourist trash as Madame Tussauds can set you back £74. I can only put forward the idea that any effort and expense you make to see 19 Princelet will be rewarded with a completely unique and memorable experience. If you manage to read Rodinsky’s Room before your visit, the experience will be even more informed by the stories of the lost world of the Jewish East End. In any event, try to go.

19 Princelet Street
London E1 6QH
020 7247 5352

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