19 Princelet Street: what would you do with it?


“Do write about us and tell people about us” I was told/asked as I was leaving Princelet Street.  My reply, “yes, I will indeed write about you”.

And so I am.  And like the Dennis Severs House around the corner, like many of London’s town houses, the history of 19 Princelet Street is multi-layred.

First, a puzzle.  If you had a Georgian terrace house built in 1719 with a late 19th extension covering the whole of the thin strip of rear garden, both of which were really on their last legs (very little plaster on the walls, broken glass in the ceiling light, acro props holding the floors up etc), what would you do with it?

If you knew that this house had first been occupied by wealthy Huguenot weavers (the Ogier family – possibly some distant relation of the Ogier law firm in The Channel Islands?) before being occupied by new waves of immigrants as the house was divided into smaller lodgings, workshops and an industrial school, how would you envisage use of the building today?  Perhaps it could be an authentic house, such as 4 Princelet Street, further down the road, which is available for hire.

Here I’ll pause for a bit of house porn – looking at 4 Princelet Street.  The interior is truly delicious (to my eye anyway).  Picture credits all Tea for Joy blog.

If you’d like to spend a night in a similar house The Landmark Trust rent a house out on the same street.

Okay, I got distracted.

Returning to 19 Princelet Street.

Pictures weren’t encouraged in 19PS itself, though I’m not sure why (there isn’t much to photograph).  All I could get is one picture from English Heritage’s ‘At Risk’ register.

Latterly, a group took out a lease of 19PS in 1869 and the house’s garden was covered over and turned into a synagogue.

This is where 19PS distinguishes itself from its neighbours.  The neighbouring houses are now occupied by bankers and the wealthy with a passion for heritage (because these houses are not cheap – circa £2.8m for a 4 bedder, £1.8m for a 2 bedder).  Dan Cruickshank lives in the area.  I would not want to because the houses do not get enough sun on the lower floors: the problem with narrow streets.  19 Princelet Street was freezing when I visited, despite being on a north/south axis.

100 years later there was a single occupant, the caretaker.  He left in 1969, no one seems to know where.  In 1979 someone entered the house.  This shows you how run down Spitalfields was in the 70s – 19PS was presumably one of many abandoned houses in the area.

Now a charity has the lease of 19PS.  The trustees have created a museum of immigration, telling the story of the many communities that have lived in Spitalfields.  Visitors are asked to walk around the rooms reading small snippets of information about the house’s history and then, and only then, ask questions.  They are offered the chance of fill out a suitcase tag, listing the three things that they would take from their home if they were forced to leave suddenly (technology isn’t allowed).  I’ve long realised I could leave with nothing but I tried to write three things down.  The trouble is I could leave all three.  As much as I love beautiful things, memories are more important than material objects (and warmth – I had to leave 19PS eventually because it was so cold).

The rooms I would most like to have visited, the rooms onto the street on ground floor and first floor levels, plus the attics were not open.  I think they are the charity’s office.  I wonder if they will ever be open?

I was intrigued by this house.  Before I went I thought maybe it is the kind of property I could put my weight behind and contribute my efforts to.  But alas, I don’t share the vision of the trustees.  I asked if they are going for the Calke Abbey approach (preserve it as it is, peeling paint and all) or something sympathetic – maybe a room set in 1730, being a Huguenot’s home, another room a squalid lodging, another part the Jewish synagogue (this is the kind of approach Dennis Severs House takes).  I was told the idea is to not add anything but to make the property sound and leave it largely at that.  Even this will take a lot of money.

The charity is basing its vision on The Tenement Museum in New York (which I didn’t know exits, despite having been to New York on occasions when I’ve specifically sought ‘off the beaten track’ experience).  There a house is displayed from the perspective of different immigrant populations.  If this is correct, then the latter approach I enquired about is what is intended, rather than the Calke Abbey approach.  Thus I’m not entirely sure what the trustees’ goal is.  Perhaps they aren’t either.

And what would I do with this house?  I’d suggest the trustees visit 68  – Deane Street.   The house could make some money from location shoots (maybe it already does, I’m not sure – I asked a lot of question but one can only go so far before it becomes an interrogation) and also tell a story about history.

I’ll look this house up again in 10 years’ time (assuming it and I are both still around) and maybe find out what became of it.  In the meantime, I reckon it’s worth a fiver of anyone’s money to see what the trustees can achieve, so check its website out for details of limited openings and make them a generous donation in return for a glimpse inside.  If you’re lucky, one or two of the neighbours will have left their shutters open and you’ll get a slight heart flutter when you glimpse inside.

When visited:  March 2013

Address: 19 Princelet Street, London E1 6QH

Website: www.19princeletstreet.org.uk

Further reading: http://thebrimstonebutterfly.blogspot.co.uk

Theme tune: A little time

4 thoughts on “19 Princelet Street: what would you do with it?

  1. No photos rule – MEAN, and enough to put me off visiting. Unless there are good pics available for download, you leave the house without any tangible reminder, and what you can cram into memory on a single visit is eventually lost as memories fade. Buy a guide book (where available)? Apart from the additional cost, when you are visiting from Australia you simply can’t keep increasing your luggage weight by buying books.

    1. I do agree. I understand when a family live in a house and they are worried about thieves, but even the Royal Palaces and most National Trust houses now allow pictures inside. Plus, if a thief wants a pic they can usually get them. There is also the argument from some houses that people standing around taking pictures spoils the atmosphere. Others don’t like flash etc etc.

  2. House porn 🙂 That is a cute expression.

    You can tell, even in the ruined state, that the synagogue was nicely laid out. Sure it was in a rather deprived neighbourhood, filled with impoverished migrants and too little sunlight streaming in via the narrow streets. But look how carefully the ark, men’s and women’s seats, lamps and ironwork were designed.

    I have visited before but I had forgotten the ceiling windows! So thank you.

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