19 Princelet Street

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19 Princelet Street seems a fitting place for an immigration museum given its layers of history that follow patterns of immigration in the local area. Last week the house held two rare open days – due to its fragile nature it is not yet able to be open to the public on a more regular basis. Funding is desperately required for repairs to the Grade II listed property so that its Museum of Immigration and Diversity can be fully realised. The Londonphile attended the second opening, and the queue stretching all the way back to Wilkes Street would suggest that number 19 has a bright future.

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Originally built in 1719, this five-storey building was home to the Ogier family, French Huguenot silk weavers. A metal bobbin hangs outside the building today as a lasting reminder of the weavers’ presence in the house. After a number of years housing various workshops and lodgings, 19 Princelet Street underwent its most significant change with the building of a synagogue in 1870 by a group of mainly Polish Jews, working together under the banner of ‘Loyal United Friends Friendly Society’ to create a community centre. While the synagogue now comprises the major part of the building, this part of the structure was in fact where the Ogiers’ garden once stood.

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Metal vents in the synagogue floor allow glimpses down to the meeting room built below the synagogue – this downstairs area was also open, along with a kitchen underneath the original house. Upstairs we had access to some of the the women’s gallery in the synagogue, with its lovely views across the space. The floor above that was closed to visitors but now functions as a staff area, while the attic room of mysterious scholar/recluse David Rodinsky – made famous by artist Rachel Lichtenstein’s 1999 book Rodinsky’s Room – is well out of bounds due to structural issues. One of the volunteers told me she had been involved with the charity for ten years and still hadn’t seen it.

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Due to the property’s no-photography rule you will have to imagine the crumbling beauty of its interior for yourself. But it is beautiful, and hopefully the Spitalfields Centre charity will be able to generate the funds needed to preserve and restore this lovely building and turn it into the museum of their vision.

And the best news is that more open days are already planned for March 2013: on Sundays 17th & 24th March, 2-4pm, and what is sure to be a lovely evening opening on Thursday 21st March, 5-8pm. For more details visit 19 Princelet Street’s website.

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Sandys Row Synagogue

Hidden behind a fairly nondescript brick frontage in one of my favourite warrens of old streets in Spitalfields is London’s oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue – Sandys Row. Sandys Row actually started life as a Huguenot church (circa 1763) and was later a place of worship over many years for various Baptists congregations. The local Jewish community – composed primarily of Dutch Ashkenazi workers – created a fellowship in 1854 and took ownership of the site in 1867.

Utilising the chapel’s balcony as the women’s gallery, they also instigated a re-design to create the new main entrance on Sandys Row. The old entrance on the eastern side can still be seen today in its bricked-up form on Parliament Court, the alley behind the synagogue. It was relocated as the Torah Ark (a cabinet containing the synagogue’s Torah scrolls) needed to be housed on this side as it’s the closest to Jerusalem. Following the destruction of the Great Synagogue of London in Aldgate during the Blitz, Sandys Row became London’s oldest Ashkenazi synagogue.

Today Sandys Row is Spitalfield’s last surviving, operational synagogue – in an area that was once home to a flourishing Jewish community. After years of a declining congregation, it has experienced a renaissance of late, with an increasing number of Jewish families moving back into the area and board members who are keen to open the synagogue to visitors. A recent £250,000 English Heritage restoration project allowed for the repair of the Huguenot roof, which had been badly damaged by vibrations from exploding bombs in the Second World War.

A rare glimpse of the human face in these lights – not usually depicted within synagogues.

Currently on display in Sandys Row is a series of fascinating 1912 street photography of the local area by C.A. Mathew. Mathew was an Essex-based photographer – these photographs represent his only surviving body of work. They show a heavily populated Spitalfields that is at once both familiar and unfamiliar: some areas have changed out of sight while others are surprisingly recognisable. Anyone familiar with the wonderful Spitalfields Life blog will probably have read some of the Gentle Author’s pieces about Mathew’s work – or even about Sandys Row itself.

Mathew’s photographs will be on display until February 2013 – Sandys Row is open to the public on Sundays from 10:30am-4pm, but check their calendar to confirm as the synagogue may be booked for private events on some dates.

http://sandysrow.org.uk/