The red house in Spitalfields | The story of No.4 Princelet Street
Discover the history of the Georgian terrace and the people who lived there.
Number 4 Princelet Street is probably the most Instagrammed house in Spitalfields. With its bold pinkish red colour, its shabby façade and charming shutters, it’s proved the perfect backdrop for many a photoshoot – both professional and candid. Today, the building isn’t a home, but is rented out for events or filming locations. However, like many other Georgian terraces in E1, No.4 has an interesting history.
In the early 18th century, the area we now know today as Spitalfields was the edge of London – with fields spreading out east just beyond Brick Lane. The area had been a hub for industry since the 15th century when it was known for brick and tile manufacturing. Over a century later, a young man named Joseph Truman Senior (d.1719) joined the William Bucknall’s brewery near Brick Lane around 1666. Thirteen years later, entrepreneurial Joseph acquired the brewery’s lease following the death of Bucknall. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the Truman family rapidly grew the Black Eagle Brewery, later known as the Truman Brewery (but more on the Trumans later).
With London’s population rapidly expanding in the early 18th century, housing development on the city’s fringes continued at pace. Two London lawyers Charles Wood and Simon Michell started developing the roads known today as Fournier Street (aka Church St), Wilkes Street (aka Wood St) and Princelet Street between 1718 and 1728. When the latter was built, it was known as ‘Princesse Street’ or ‘Princes Street’. It appears to have renamed Princelet Street in the 1890s. Wood and Michell leased the land to master builders, who built terraces of townhouses for both sale and lease. Although these houses are expensive and sought-after today, at the time they were aimed towards working Londoners and migrants, particularly the Huguenots, who had been fleeing religious persecution in France in waves since the 1680s.
When it was built in 1723, No.4 Princelet Street was actually numbered No.2 Princes Street. Together with No.1 Princes Street (now No.2 Princelet Street), the pair were the last houses to be built on the road. Wood and Michell had granted local carpenter and builder Samuel Worrall 99 year leases to erect the two terraces, as well as No.6 Wilkes Street around the corner. In June 1724, Worrall leased 1 Princes Street and 6 Wilkes Street to a glover for £756 per annum.
Back to the Truman family, whose business was booming in the early 18th century. Joseph Snr’s grandson Sir Benjamin Truman (1699-1780) had joined the family-run Black Eagle brewery and it was under his watch the business saw rapid expansion, becoming one of the biggest breweries in London. He supplied beer to the Prince of Wales and was later knighted by King George III (1738-1820). Benjamin moved into 2 Princes Street in 1724, which was a perfect location due to its close proximity to the brewery. Four years later, Benjamin would have a next door neighbour in textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), who moved to 1 Princes Street in 1728 with her sister Mary. Today, a blue plaque commemorates Anna’s residency at the house.
Looking at No.4 Princelet Street today, it stands out as it has a much wider frontage than the average Georgian terrace on the street. Its neighbour No.2 has clearly been restored and is in a much better condition. No.4 is a double-fronted, three-storey terrace with a roof loft. The upper storeys feature four sash windows on every floor, with blind windows near the boundary with No.2. The red stucco on the ground floor dates to around 1820, when Regency architecture was all the rage, as evidenced by the Doric pilasters. If you look closely, you’ll see the windows are curved at the top, an architectural trend from French Baroque introduced to England by Sir Christopher Wren. In comparison to the bold, but crumbling ground floor façade, the upper storeys feature the original yellow brick. The attic level features a small dormer window, which was likely added by Huguenot silk weavers once Truman moved on. Spitalfields’ weavers often lived and worked in the same building so they utilised loft space to make the most of the daylight to maximise productivity. One such weaver to live at No.2 Princes St was Joseph Vaux, who took out fire insurance on the property in 1791. A Joseph Vaux reappears in a directory as a ‘black silk weaver’ at Duke Street, Spitalfields, in 1823.
Although the 18th century saw relatively financially comfortable residents on Princes Street, the area had gone rapidly downhill by the 1840s. Although No.2 Princes Street was originally built as one house, it became multi-occupancy throughout the 19th century when Spitalfields became notorious for its poverty-stricken slums and high crime rate. In December 1852, No.2 was the scene of a violent family quarrel, which ended up in a trial at the Old Bailey. Labourer Alfred Cash and his wife Esther were both injured in a row at their home with his younger brother William, who claimed he had been called a “thief” by his sister-in-law. The siblings’ mother Ann Cash and another tenant of No.2, cabinet marker John Peter Greenwood, both gave evidence. While court transcripts show the family trying to play down the row, Greenwood claims the accused called Esther a “bl**dy w**re”, to which she allegedly responded, “I am no more a w**re than your wife is!” William was found guilty of unlawful wounding and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
By 1871, the building was home to William Pilson, a printer and compositor from Cambridge, with his wife Elizabeth and baby daughter Gertrude. By the late 19th century, Huguenot families had mostly moved on and large numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Russia and Poland (then-occupied by Russia) started arriving in Spitalfields. One of these was Polish bootmaker Solomon Franklin and his wife Goulder, who were living at No.2 in the 1881 census. They had been residing in London for over 20 years as their seven children were born in the area, with their eldest son Israel and his English wife Sarah starting the next generation with their baby son Phillip also at home. The Franklins must have been fairly comfortable as they could afford two live-in servants. A decade later, No.2 was being shared by two families. Polish tailor Solomon Shaw and his wife Rachael lived with their eight children (ranging from 17 years to one month old), an apprentice and Polish domestic servant. Also at No.2 were the Hyams family, headed by Philip, a tailor’s cutter, and his wife Matilda, along with their five children. It’s likely these families worshipped at the street’s synagogue, established at No. 19 in either 1862 or 1870, and closed in 1983. Today, the former synagogue is home to a museum of immigration and diversity.
In the 1890s, Princes St was renamed Princelet. The road was surveyed in 1898 for Charles Booth’s poverty map, with the western end of the street shaded pink, which meant “fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings”. However, it was a different story at the Brick Lane end of the road, marked black – meaning the residents were “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal”. Booth’s report mentions one of John Cooney’s infamous lodging houses on the corner of Princelet St and Brick Lane, nicknamed ‘The Beehive’. Booth’s assistant George H Duckworth remarks on the street having many Jewish residents, while disdainfully describing the lodgers at Cooney’s as “thieves, prostitutes, bullies”. Cooney was a prolific businessman in the area, owning several ‘doss houses’, as well as the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street. His cousin was the Victorian Music Hall star Marie Lloyd (1870-1922), who “often comes down visiting here in a smart Brougham (carriage)”, according to Duckworth’s notes. Cooney also had a lodging house a few minutes walk away on the corner of Flower Street and Dean Street (now demolished). It was this lodging house where one of Jack The Ripper’s victims, Catherine Eddowes was living the night she was murdered half a mile away in Mitre Square on 30 September 1888.
At the turn of the 20th century, there was still a large Polish community in Princelet Street. In the 1901 and 1911 census, Polish tailor Samuel Myers, his wife Selina and their large family lived at No.2. They had moved to England around 1880, initially Leeds, then Hull, before settling in London around 1890. The eldest of their 10 children, Miriam Leah married a Polish tailor named Maurice Bluestone in 1898 and remained living with her parents, joined by their own young children Bertha and Henry by 1911.
In 1921, the houses in Princelet Street were renumbered with No.2 becoming No.4. Many Eastern European migrants moved on during the war years, with a new wave of migrants arriving from Bangladesh in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is this community which established Brick Lane’s famous curry houses. The condition of the Georgian terraces of the street continued to decline throughout the 20th century until heritage campaigners began taking notice in the 1960s and 1970s. No.4 was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1969, with the Huguenot houses of Spitalfields being designated a Converservation Area in 1976.
While No.4 has changed a lot over the centuries, today it features 15 rooms boasting many of its original features. It is hired out for events, as well as photoshoots and filming locations by the Old Truman Brewery. I was fortunate enough to see inside during a performance for the Schumann Street promenade musical installation for the Spitalfields Music Festival in December 2017. Although quite dimly lit by candles at the time of my brief visit, I caught a glimpse of the period fireplaces, wood panelling and original staircase.
- 4 Princelet Street, Spitalfields, E1 6QH. Nearest station: Shoreditch High Street or Aldgate East.
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