Freelance travel writer and Policy Adviser for the UK government living in Brixton. View my blog www.my-big-fat-carbon-footprint.blogspot.com for ethical and budget travel inspiration
Explore 18th Century hidden London
The 17th March, 2013 was one of the rare occasions that 19 Princelet Street was open to the public. An unlikely combination of an eighteenth century Huguenot's house, complete with its own synagogue in his garden, 19 Princelet Street has its doors shut to the public for most of the year, presumably to keep costs down. Luckily, it also preserves the peace and beauty of this traditional eighteenth century building.
This was of the few days that punters were allowed to roam around the Spitalfields townhouse. The other day they allow entrance is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. According to its website, thanks to the long queues and supportive nature of the crowds, it will also open a further two days in 2013, 21st March between the hours of 5-8pm and the 24th March between 2-4pm. When we arrived, the queue certainly snaked its way the whole way back along the road, and this was in the damp drizzle of a mid-march afternoon.
It's a fascinating place, steeped in history, goodwill and oddness. This particular brick house became the home to the Ogier family, who had escaped persecution in France. Like most of their brethren, they entered the silk weaving industry and prospered as merchants. Once the wealthy had moved on, the houses along Princelet Street were often subdivided into workshops and studios for future workers and occupants. Number 19 was used as both an industrial school and then a Mr Woodcock took it over to use as a carpentry studio.
What's fascinating about the house is how it encompasses the history of the East End in four storys. First came the Huguenots, then the Irish, then the Jews, then the Poles (sometimes one and the same), and then the socialists. The only thing that's missing is the more recent documentation of sub-continental and Middle Eastern immigration to the East End. But by the time this happened, Number 19 Princelet Street was already situated in too wealthy an area for recent immigrants to afford the rent.
As well as providing a unique glimpse into these beautiful weaver's houses, the house also acts as an exhibition centre known as The Museum of Immigration and Diversity. One exhibition, called Suitcases and Sanctuary, was created in collaboration with a group of 9-10 year old children from local schools, who celebrated immigration and our shared heritage. The exhibit deals with the more recent shared memories of immigration, including views from Bangladeshi, Somali and Afro Caribbean immigrants.
Despite the crowds of people queuing outside, it is quiet in the house. Muted colours enhance the period features and the thick glass panes in the sash windows feel original. It is a peaceful house to explore, and one in which the idiom 'if these walls could talk' is certainly an apt one. There is a respect for history, and the only sounds are the frequent creaking sounds of the wide oak floorboards and the wooden panelling as it respires to welcome new guests to its inner sanctum.