I have seen or visited museums of immigration in various cities abroad and found them fascinating places. However, it’s astonishing that we don’t have a permanent museum dedicated to it in London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The word ‘immigrant’ can conjure up negativity in the media and I have been astounded to hear people I know – who are first generation British born to immigrant parents – talking about immigrants in a bad way, despite their family history. London itself was built by immigrants after all – the Romans! I myself am a daughter of immigrant parents, who came from Ireland in the 1970s. While the Irish are greeted with open arms nowadays, 40 years ago they were often unwelcome in Britain, with signs being placed in pubs and shops reading ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. My parents faced racism from some areas of society when they first arrived, but fortunately they stayed and I am proud to be a Londoner and of my Irish roots.
While London is noticeably lacking a permanent museum of immigration, this is where, hopefully one day, 19 Princelet Street comes in. This unique building in Spitalfields is a window on the past and an insight to different waves of immigration which shaped our city. Princelet Street is a lovely road off Brick Lane full of 18th century terraced houses which have been mostly restored. At No.19 is the unrestored, Grade II-listed Museum of Immigration and Diversity, which is open only a few days a year.
Two weeks ago, a team of volunteers opened the doors of No.19 to the public for a few hours on three separate days. Despite the biting freezing temperatures, I ventured out on a Sunday afternoon, joining a growing queue along Princelet Street. Although I anticipated waiting for over an hour, it was actually only about 30 minutes (although, I did arrive 15 minutes before opening). No.19 is a three storey (not including the basement) Georgian house which started life as home to French Huguenots, who were fleeing persecution in France. Over the years, the building was divided into separate lodgings and workshops for weavers. As the years went by, No. 19 housed other trades. After the Huguenots moved on, the Irish came to Spitalfields, fleeing the potato famine, then the Jewish in the late 19th century. Over their decades at No.19, the Jewish residents built a hidden synagogue in the garden in 1869, which is the main draw of the museum today. The light streams into the synagogue through the coloured glass roof, lighting up the names of those who donated to the synagogue inscribed on the wood panels of the ladies’ balcony.
Within the building are exhibitions prompting the visitors to think about their ancestry and what they think about culture and diversity today. ‘Leave to remain’ by three contemporary artists looks at asylum in Britain, while ‘suitcases and sanctuary’ is a look at immigration through the eyes of local schoolchildren. For me, my visit was a mix of indulging my love of history by seeing an old house in its ‘natural’ state and also giving me food for thought. No.19 is slowly crumbling, hence why it isn’t open all year round. While the faded wallpaper and creaky floorboards are undeniably charming, the building is in need of restoration, with a team trying to raise money to save it and develop it as a museum. I hope they reach their aim, it really is a special place which should be preserved for future generations.
- 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BH. Nearest stations: Liverpool Street, Aldgate East or Shoreditch High Street (overland). Check out their website or follow them on Twitter to find out about the next open days or how to donate.
Learn about the history of Princelet Street and the museum’s neighbour No.4.
Find out about another unique Georgian building in the area, the Dennis Severs’ House.
For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.
For a blog update on the Cornhill water pump, which has now been restored, click here.
Cornhill is a road in the heart of the City of London, known for its bustling offices and designer boutiques. Located a stone’s throw from the Bank of England, the name Cornhill comes from it being one of the city’s three hills (Tower Hill and Ludgate Hill).
In a world before cars, travelling around on a horse and carriage was the way to get around. Just like today the city is dotted with petrol stations to refuel, in Georgian and Victorian times there were wells, troughs and water pumps to water the horses and refresh the people. With an extensive underground sewer network and piped water supply, thankfully these days we don’t need to grab a bucket and head to the nearest pump for some water.
While demand for public wells has ceased over the past 100 years, the staggering history and aesthetics of the City’s old street furniture means many of these pumps can still be seen today. Earlier this autumn, one such pump caught my eye. Located outside the Gucci store in the Royal Exchange, it looks very different to other stone and black ones I’ve seen on the streets. Painted in the City of London’s light blue colour, just like the Old Police Telephone posts, it stands out amongst the bins, post boxes and street lighting. While to some, it looks like a tired piece of old London, the pump actually has a significant tie to the history of London and distances from the old capital. A minute’s walk up to the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street is the location of ‘The Standard’ – the first mechanically-pumped water supply in London. As well as being a source for water, the pump became a meeting place and also the mark from which distances from London were judged (until the marker later became Charing Cross – see Civil war, centre of London and a memorial to a queen: The story behind Charing Cross).
Although The Standard pump was discontinued in 1603, back down the hill outside Gucci (of course it wasn’t Gucci then!), the current pump was erected nearly 200 years later. Two of the City’s big players of the time, the East India Company and the Bank of England, together with the local fire stations and local bankers and traders who worked in the area, jointly funded the cast iron pump with an adjoining granite trough.
Designed by architect Nathaniel Wright (who built St Botolph Aldersgate in Postman’s Park), the inscription on the road-facing side, it reads: ‘On this spot a well was first made and a House of Correction built thereon by Henry Wallis Mayor of London in the year 1282.’
It continues on the Royal Exchange-facing side: ‘The well was discovered much enlarged and this pump erected in the year 1799 by the contributions of the Bank of England, the East India Company, the neighbouring fire offices, together with the bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill.’
As well as the inscriptions, the Grade II-listed pump has fire insurance emblems on each side – Royal Exchange, Sun, Phoenix and County. Although the pump is in good condition considering it’s 213 years old, it’s definitely been slightly neglected in recent years and could do a bit of tender loving care.
- The Cornhill pump is located on the north side of Cornhill, outside Gucci (9 Change Alley), City of London EC3V. Nearest station: Bank.
Metro Girl Likes: While you’re in Cornhill, pop into the Counting House for a drink or pie. Built in 1893 as Prescott’s Bank, the pub has stunning woodwork, paintings and tiling, which helps the venue retain its 19th century charm.
For more Metro Girl blog posts on London’s street furniture, read about the myth of the Coco Chanel street lights.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.