Suitcases and sanctuary

12th September 2003 at 01:00
An 18th-century house in east London pays tribute to generations of refugees who have passed through its doors. Matthew Brown reports

Nine-year-old Aisha and a gaggle of her classmates are peering at a pile of battered old brown leather suitcases, heaped on a dusty wooden floor. The top one is open, inviting investigation. Inside the propped-up lid is a mirror, reflecting Aisha's frowning face and some back-to-front lettering made readable in reverse. She mouths the words carefully, to herself: "All of us are immigrants or descended from immigrants - it just depends how far back you look."

Aisha and 20 other Year 4 pupils from Osmani Primary School in Bethnal Green, east London are visiting 19 Princelet Street, an old Georgian terraced house-come-museum just around the corner from Brick Lane in Spitalfields, an area of the capital which, for centuries, has served as the first stop for each new wave of immigrants.

Brick Lane is known as Bangla Town these days, in reference to the Bangladeshi community which has settled there over the past 30 years - the community from which Aisha and many of her classmates come. At first glance, the Museum of Immigration and Diversity is a monument to earlier generations, previous communities, yet the story it tells is as much Aisha's, and ours, as that of its many diverse inhabitants from the past 300 years.

Built in 1719, it first housed Huguenot families fleeing religious persecution in France, and became the home and workshop of master silk-weavers. When the Huguenots moved on, the area was settled by Jewish refugees from central Europe, and in 1869 a synagogue was built on to the back of the house, where there had previously been a garden. The synagogue is still there, one of the oldest in London, complete with a grimy pastel-coloured glass ceiling, rickety balcony, and wooden noticeboards, listing its benefactors in faded golden Hebrew letters.

In another room, excavated beneath the secret synagogue, anti-fascist meetings were held in the 1930s before the famous Battle of Cable Street.

It was a meeting point for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and a place of sanctuary for the children whisked away from the continent on Kinder transport trains.

After the 1960s, the house fell into disrepair, and was rediscovered in 1979 when a charity, the Spitalfields Centre, was set up to save it. It's now a Grade II* listed building on the English Heritage "at risk" register, and needs pound;3 million for preservation work.

Susie Symes, chair of the trust, calls the building a "palimpsest", a "magical place that encapsulates in its very fabric a lot of the story we are trying to tell". While that fabric is decidedly shaky - metal pillars shore up ceilings and staircases; walls bulge under leaky floorboards - its story is precious nonetheless.

The crumbling building is now Britain's nearest equivalent to Ellis Island in the US. The exhibition it houses, called Suitcases and Sanctuary, emerged three years ago out of work by pupils at four local schools with visiting artists, poets, historians, businessmen and actors. Its aim is to "explore how our society has been shaped by our past as a country of settlement".

"The children's work explores similarities and differences in how groups of immigrants have been treated over the centuries," says Ms Symes.

It tells of each swathe of settlers that has made Spitalfields, London, Britain - starting with the Romans and on, through Angles, Saxons, Norse and Normans to Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Africans, Caribbeans, and recent arrivals from the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. "This building is so special because of all these histories, and the way it makes us think about ourselves," says Ms Symes, as she introduces the exhibition to her audience of eager young listeners. "The story of all these diverse groups is not only their story, it is our story. It is our shared history as Londoners, as British people."

It's a moving exhibition, too, interactive in an old fashioned way. Aisha and her friends are enthralled - opening cases to find poems, stories, and pictures; filling in cards that ask them who in their family was the most recent arrival; scribbling on luggage tags an imaginary list of precious belongings to take on a long and sudden journey. "It's the most amazing experience for the children," says Rehana Jamil, a teacher from Osmani School. "It's so simple, yet so relevant to them, and to us."

In the words of Hasib Abdul, aged 11: "It reflects the past and present, where old and new are neighbours." Much like the streets outside; much like our country.

19 Princelet Street will be open to the public during London Open House weekend, September 20-21. Schools can visit at other times by special arrangement. Tel: 020 7247 5352


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