Friday, 30 September 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly's Open House London 2011: 19 Princelet Street Revisited

The moment you step through the door of 19 Princelet Street you know you are entering an uncommon building. Unlike the late Dennis Severs house in nearby Folgate Street, which traces the rise and fall in the fortunes of a former silk merchant’s house over the centuries by the way the rooms are staged, 19 Princelet Street is genuinely close to terminal decline. But all is not yet lost.

The house was built in 1719 by one Samuel Worrall. Three years later he sold it to John Neville. Incredibly, the house stayed within the same family until 1979, although they acted as landlords rather than residents. The earliest tenants were the Ogiers. They, like so many of their neighbours, were Huguenots who had fled religious persecution on the Continent and used their talents to set up a flourishing silk industry in Spitalfields, which was then just outside the City of London. The 17th century historian John Strype, who provided a fascinating account of the household of the Tudor archbishop Thomas Cranmer at Lambeth Palace, came from such a background himself.

Spitalfields continued to attract waves of the dispossessed from Ireland, Europe and beyond right up until the present day. When the silk industry collapsed the grand houses, which had once contained a single family and their servants, were subdivided into a myriad of rooms for workshops and living quarters, the idea being to cram in as many people as possible.

In the 19th century Spitalfields became synonymous with the worst social deprivation. The once elegant Georgian Terrace houses had become slums. In a sense that was what saved a number of them: the inhabitants were simply too poor to tear them down and build accommodation more suited to their needs and the landlords were uninterested in acts of social philanthropy.

Irish weavers had arrived in Spitalfields in the opening decades of the 18th century after their own linen industry was in a slump. They were followed in the 19th century by the Jews who, like the Huguenots before them, were escaping persecution. The Jewish community left their mark on 19 Princelet Street in a most singular fashion. In 1869 they built a synagogue on to back of the house and over what would have been the back garden. More recent refugees have included Bengalis and Somalis. The history of the area and its eclectic population led to the decision to turn the current 19 Princelet Street into a Museum of Immigration and Diversity.

The museum hopes to attract match funding, a programme whereby they would need to raise 25% of the total £3 million it will cost to transform the dilapidated building if they want to secure Government funding for the remaining 75%. When I spoke to the guide on Saturday she was confident that they would eventually achieve that goal.

The upper walls of the narrow entrance hall were painted a sage green and a brown paint had been applied to the wall beneath the dado rail. The matchwood panelling was a mixture of Victorian and Georgian. Next to the staircase were two modern iron girders holding up the ceiling. It required a certain nimbleness and a leap of faith on my part to walk between them, fearing one false move and I would literally bring the house down. The less agile visitor could walk through the door by the front room and around the side if they so wished..

The shuttered front room on the ground floor was filled to the ceiling with lumber, mainly consisting of the wooden pews that had once been placed on the floor of the Synagogue. The back room, as indeed all of the open rooms, contained exhibits for the house’s new role as the Museum of Immigration and Diversity. Thus, there was a suitcase and visitors were asked to write down which items they would take with them if forced to suddenly flee their homes. This was part of the museum’s “SUITCASES AND SANCTUARY” exhibition, designed by school children to offer, according to the publicity “powerful lessons for how we think about asylum seekers, for political debate, for community relations and human rights”
From the English Heritage: Heritage at Risk Register

The far wall of the back room opened up onto the ground floor of the Synagogue. From the beams hung three chandeliers of copper, blackened with age and grime and topped with what appeared to be a double headed eagle. The multi-coloured panes of the roof light were grubby and the glaze cracked in places. I was told that the vaulted sides of the ceiling had once been resplendent with gold stars on an azure background. Now the walls were of a faded yellow.

A few pews had been placed by the walls to allow the weary visitor a momentary respite. Some were numbered and others had built in boxes beneath the seats which were provided with keyholes. I had no idea what the congregation would wish to lock up.As I sat down on one of the pews I looked up at the boards along the side and beneath the metal grills of the Ladies’ Gallery, the latter screening the women from the gaze of the men folk below. They bore a number of inscriptions. One recorded the donations made by the Ladies Holy Vestment Society in 1910 and 1911. I was intrigued about this society and after doing a little research discovered that the synagogue at Dalston in North East London had set up a similar society a few years earlier. In his 1910 work The Dalston Synagogue: an historical sketch" the author I Landau wrote:

“On September 28th, 1905, the Secretary of the Synagogue, Mr. Isaac Goldston, on his own initiative sent a circular to the ladies of the Congregation, inviting them to form a Ladies Committee, whose tasks, among others, should be the care and proper
keeping of the Holy Vestments and the provision of the floral decorations of the Synagogue and Succah. Subsequently, this Committee, at the request of the Board of Management, formed themselves into a permanent institution under the style and title of "The Ladies Society."  

Another sign had been painted in memory of Fanny Rinkoff who died on 18th April 1953. Her family had subsequently donated £7 to the synagogue.

As I sat in my pew I admired the slender crimson twisted barley-sugar iron columns which held up the Ladies Gallery above. On the floor I could see traces of old linoleum, whose unexpectedly bright colours made me think momentarily that the floor had been painted. I was amazed at first to see iron grills embedded in the floor, looking straight down into the basement. But then I reasoned that as only men would have walked around the ground floor of the synagogue when it had been used as such, the women’s modesty was not compromised.

Access to the Torah ark on its raised platform was barred by an ornate ironwork gate. The wooden Torah ark in its arched recess was shut fast.

Whilst seated I overhead a guide pointing to one woman, who had apparently lived in the building with her grandparents as a child. It was hard to deduce her exact age so I could not be sure of she was in her 60s or older.

I retraced my steps back in to the entrance hall and down a flight of steep stairs to the kitchen. I noticed there was a tap and small basin built into the wall at the top of the stair so that the men could wash their hands before going to SHUL, the Yiddish word for a Jewish House of Prayer.

The shallow stone sink in the kitchen is original to the house. The exposed brickwork hearth had the remains of a Victorian iron range and a 1920s oven, acquired from an upper room when the house was multi-tenanted, placed in front of it. There were wooden battens and a blocked up window in the wall dividing the kitchen from the back room. On a small screen on an upper wall a video loop showed school children giving examples in story form of persecution.,

When I walked out of the kitchen to the back room I passed a locked door bearing the legend” Please do not shake door it is fragile”.

You can see traces of glass in the boarded up window between the kitchen and the back room. The latter held the copper for washing clothes but was also crammed full of architectural features and flagstone floor tiles, all of which were being stored until they could be used in a future renovation. More iron girders held up the ceiling, which was pitted with large holes revealing the plaster and lathe underneath.

There were more examples of the items in the main hall of items making up the “SUITCASES AND SANCTUARY” exhibition.  At the far end of the basement a notice had been placed on a door and announced that it was the “Loo (executive).”  The urinals were beyond.

Having explored the basement I returned up the steep stairs to the ground floor. I daintily stepped through the two iron girders in the hallway and up the stairs to the first floor. I noticed that instead of wooden steps I was walking on ones made of stone.

To enter the bedroom I walked along the Ladies Gallery and into what would have been the back of the silk merchant’s house. The room had been staged as a bedroom as part of the LEAVE TO REMAIN installation which, according to the publicity material is a “wry look at asylum in Britain today by three contemporary artists in exile.” .The walls were painted a muted brown and dingy cream. A rather unprepossessing mattress was on the floor. Affixed to the 18th century panelling was a sequence of images of people and jumbled up below them were their comments on immigration. The idea was for the visitor to try and match the comment with the speaker. Also scattered around the room were phrases emphasising the essential loneliness of the immigrant in a foreign land. I later told one of the guides that the statements were just as relevant to anyone who has ever felt isolated, poor and marginalised. For example the comment that “I had a real fire once” suggested that the tenant in his rented bedroom was too poor to be able to afford one anymore. It is something more and more people will relate to if they have to endure another bitterly cold winter in this country on the scale of the last one. The exorbitant energy bills will force many to go without their heating for fear of the resulting cost being too great for them to meet. Likewise, the reference to the lonely immigrant being told not to worry because things would get better sounded all too familiar and patently untrue.  

For me, the one spark of good cheer amidst this litany of gloom was the cast iron grate in the fireplace. It was extremely pretty and elegant with its garlands of roses. I believe it dates from the Regency period. I came across an identical one a day later when I was at Marble Hill House

We could proceed no further than this bedroom although there are other rooms in this house. Their fragile state makes them unsuitable for general access. I would have loved to have ventured upstairs to see the weavers’ garrets but most of all to explore for myself the legendary Rodinsky’s Room.  It became something of a cause célèbre in 1980 when a locked room was opened up for the first time since 1969. It has last been lived in by a certain David Rodinsky, a Jewish scholar. His story had partly inspired the installation in the room immediately below. Rodinsky's room had been inexplicably abandoned in a hurry to the extent that a pot of porridge was found on the stove and a half drank mug of tea was left on a table. What added to the mystery was that Rodinsky himself had seemingly vanished into thin air, there being no apparent trace of him after that date. The author Rachel Lichtenstein wrote a fascinating account of the event in her book “Rodinsky's Room,” which also resolves the mystery of what really happened to David Rodinsky. The images above of Rodinsky’s Room were taken from postcards on sale at the museum.Rather amusingly, the man who sold them to me from a stall across the road differentiated the two images on the grounds that one was known as the "messy one." I will leave you, Gentle Reader, to decide which is which.

Just as I left the bedroom I noticed the pipes for gas lighting. I remember a school friend had such Victorian pipes in her house. The gas still flowed through them, but they were no longer used for lighting.

The parts of the Ladies’ Gallery supported by the crimson sugar-barley columns were inaccessible, probably because they were too fragile to be walked upon by the multitude. So I made my way back down the stairs and into the Synagogue for a final look around. In the hall, I fell into conversation with one of the volunteers. If they raised their £3 million would they make the place pristine? Or, would they strive to retain some of the building’s quirky charm, whilst rendering it safe and enabling it to be open on a more regular basis? I asked. Definitely the latter was the reply. 19 Princelet Street is on the Heritage at Risk register maintained by English Heritage. It is to be hoped that they succeed in their quest to secure the future of this most intriguing of London museums.