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Brick Lane

19 Princelet Street

Just round the corner from Brick Lane is a house with a big wooden door. The brownish paint is peeling. There’s no plaque to tell you what sort of place it is, no sign hanging outside. From this side of the door you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing in the building at all, that it’s just one of those places that used to be something once and has been abandoned for years, decaying away as it waits for a property developer to buy it and bulldoze it and put up a block of implausibly expensive flats for trendy people who work in PR. But if you’re lucky enough to go inside, you will find yourself in one of the most engaging and surprising museums in London.

19 Princelet Street
19 Princelet Street
©Cognitive Applications/Maria Gibbs
The moment you walk into 19 Princelet Street you know that it’s a building full of stories. It’s a building whose life has mirrored the many changes in the whole area over the past three centuries, changing its function as Brick Lane has welcomed new communities in turn.

Built in 1719, the house was first home to the Osiers, a family of French Huguenots, who entered the silk trade, and for some years afterwards the building was used for weavers’ workshops; it was many things after that, including a school at one point. In the mid-19th century, as the area came to be home to a large community of Eastern European Jews, the garden of the house was converted to a synagogue, which remained in service for almost a hundred years.

The museum is currently home to an exhibition called Suitcases And Sanctuary, created by local schoolchildren. (Making it possibly the only museum in the country created by children for adults?) The exhibition encourages visitors to peer inside travelling-cases, to listen to old walls, and in all sorts of other imaginative ways to discover the inspiring stories of people who’ve come from all around the world to make London their home.

There could be no better place for this exhibition; the building itself is so steeped in these stories, with echoes – almost audible – of voices long past, whispering in languages you may not understand at first… And visitors are encouraged to add their own stories too; so every time someone new comes to Princelet Street, the exhibition and the story of the building it lives in become that bit more varied, and the body of echoes a little richer.

Future plans

At the moment visits to 19 Princelet Street have to be with pre-arranged tours – the house isn’t structurally sound enough to support hundreds of people running up and down the stairs unsupervised. But the group that runs it are working hard raising money to develop a permanent museum to explore and celebrate centuries of immigration to London, and the contribution that immigrant communities have made to our lives here. But the building needs essential repairs before this is possible, and for that they need money. The target is £3 million.

So yes, as that modest-looking door suggested, it’s a building with a past, decayed now and more than a little wobbly. But it has a future too, and one that’s as far removed from Trendy Designer Apartments as you can imagine. London’s first Museum of Immigration will explore ideas of citizenship and identity, it will symbolise and celebrate this country’s diversity, and represent all of the communities who have made London their home.

To find out more about 19 Princelet Street, and how you can support their campaign, visit www.19princeletstreet.org.uk