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. Read the rest of this entry
If time travel were ever made possible, I would do everything in my power to get to the front of the queue to try it out. However, with the possibility of crossing space and time looking unlikely at the moment, I’ll have to make do with my imagination…
This is where the unique Dennis Severs’ House comes in. While not exactly a museum, this private house is opened on rare evenings as a ‘still-life drama’. Earlier this month, I booked tickets for an evening visit time slot with my mother after hearing the house was opening its doors. As we weren’t allowed to take photos – so as to not distract from the experience – I will attempt to give a best description as possible of this unusual visit.
The Dennis Severs’ House is located at 18 Folgate Street, standing amidst a neat row of early Georgian terraces, just a stone’s throw from Spitalfields Market. No. 18 was built in 1724 and had four storeys, including a basement – featuring 10 rooms which are all accessed on your visit. At the time of building, Folgate Street was known as White Lion Street, being renamed the former in 1938. In the early 19th century, an attorney lived in the property, with a silk or velvet manufacturer moving in in 1856.
The fact No.18 is still standing is very lucky indeed, as its neighbour at 20 was demolished in the 1950s, with 12 and 14 following suit in 1980. These lost houses were eventually replaced by the Georgian-inspired modern terraces you see today.
The late American artist Dennis Severs (1947-1999) bought the property in 1979 when it was dilapidated and spent 20 years restoring each room in different historical styles from the 18th and 19th centuries. Throughout each room are signs of the fictional inhabitants, the Huguenot Jervis family, who are imagined to have lived in the house over several generations.
After being greeted at the front door, we were given a brief premise to turn off our phones, no cameras or talking and let the house draw us in. The motto of the house is, ‘You either see it, or you don’t.’ Starting on the ground floor, before working our way down to the basement, then up to the upper floors, each room was full with antique furniture, clothing and other remnants from yesteryear. However, in contrast to museums where visitors are kept at a distance from roped off interiors, you are invited to study the objects in furniture in great detail, up close and personal. If you looked close enough, you could see little notes written by the Jervis family.
Although no-one lives in the house now, lit candles, sound effects and crackling fires makes 18 Folgate Street feel very much alive. Discarded clothing, half-eaten food, unmade beds and broken cups on the floor give the impression the house is still being lived in – but as if the inhabitants have just popped out for a minute, or perhaps left in a rush. The creaky, original staircases and my barely-visible reflection in the aged, glass mirrors added to the feeling I was in another time. Further fuelling the historic atmosphere, sound effects of ringing bells, clip-clop of horses and carriages and cannon shots helped drown out the 21st century sounds outside.
After 45 minutes, I left the Dennis Severs’ House very impressed. It is such a unique place and gives you plenty food for thought. When visiting for the first time, keep an open mind and embrace the quiet and olde world of the house. Although it is also open for some daytime visits, through personal experience I would believe the evening visits would be a lot more atmospheric.
- Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BX. Check the website for detailed opening times and how to book. Nearest stations: Liverpool Street or Shoreditch High Street (Overground). For more information, visit the Dennis Severs’ House website.
To watch Dan Cruickshank’s BBC documentary on the house on YouTube, click here.
Learn about the history of another Spitalfields terrace, No.4 Princelet Street.
For more blog posts on London history, click here.
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.