A year after Brexit vote, London museum pays tribute to living history with refugee installation
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'The museum has lived the very history it now celebrates'

A year after Brexit vote, London museum pays tribute to living history with refugee installation

The townhouse at 19 Princelet St. has been a gateway for Huguenots, Irish, Jewish and Asian immigrants. Now, as London’s Museum of Immigration and Diversity, it is a testament to valuable newcomers

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

An empathy-building piece on why the Irish immigrated to England at London's Museum of Immigration and Diversity. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)
An empathy-building piece on why the Irish immigrated to England at London's Museum of Immigration and Diversity. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)

LONDON — It was the poster which even Michael Gove, one of the government ministers leading the fight for Britain to leave the European Union, later admitted made him shudder when he saw it.

One week before the fateful Brexit referendum last June 23, Nigel Farage, the head of the hard right United Kingdom Independence party, stood in front of a billboard containing an image of throngs of Syrian refugees attempting to enter Slovenia with the words “Breaking Point” emblazoned upon it.

Farage said the poster simply encapsulated the fact that “Europe isn’t working.” Others, however, detected darker undertones. George Osborne, the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, condemned its “echoes” of the 1930s, while other critics quickly noted striking similarities with Nazi propaganda.

In a campaign noted for its lack of civility and viciousness — several hours after it was unveiled, a young Labour MP was murdered by a far-right activist — Farage’s poster was one of the low moments.

At the same time, however, it brutally encapsulated the sour public mood and the deep-seated fears about immigration that days later would produce, albeit by a narrow margin, the seismic referendum result.

One year on — and following a general election result which reflected the schisms evident during last year’s campaign — Britain remains deeply divided about Brexit, migration and the wider question of what kind of society it wishes to be. It is a fault line which divides young from old; rural from urban; and those who delight in Britain as a modern, diverse and cosmopolitan nation from those who fear the country’s best days are behind it.

UK Independence Party Leader (UKIP) Nigel Farage in front of the 'Breaking Point' billboard on June 16, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / Daniel Leal-Olivas)
UK Independence Party Leader (UKIP) Nigel Farage in front of the ‘Breaking Point’ billboard on June 16, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / Daniel Leal-Olivas)

But while the debate and divisions about migration seem new and unsettling, they are anything but. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than at London’s Museum of Immigration and Diversity.

Located in a Georgian townhouse on 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields, a district of the capital which abuts the City of London, the museum has lived the very history it now celebrates. In the shadow of what the writer Monica Ali has described as the “crystalline structures” of the modern city, this is an area rich with diversity and color, a testament to Britain’s immigrant experience.

Number 19 Princelet Street Visitors wait for admission to the old synagogue and exhibition space. A bobbin can be seen by the first-floor right hand window.(CC. 2.0/ceridwen)
Number 19 Princelet Street Visitors wait for admission to the old synagogue and exhibition space. A bobbin can be seen by the first-floor right hand window.(CC. 2.0/ceridwen)

Built in 1719, 19 Princelet Street’s early occupants were a Huguenot refugee family — Peter Ogier, a master silk weaver, his wife and eight children. Around 50,000 Protestants fled to London to escape persecution in Catholic France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Ogiers were just one of at least eight Hugenot households on this side of Princelet Street.

The building was both a home and a workplace. Attic rooms which were once children’s bedrooms later became workplaces for Ogier’s weavers with the garret’s windows made larger to let in more light. Today, a bobbin — or bobbine — hangs at the first floor: a reminder of Ogier’s trade.

In time, the house was subdivided into dwellings for five families, and by the 1840s Irish migrants — fleeing the starvation and misery caused by the Potato Famine in their homeland — were among the tenants.

Building a Jewish-friendly society

The greatest and most enduring mark on the building would be left 150 years after its construction when, in 1869, it was leased to a Jewish friendly society — or what’s known in the United States as a benevolent society.

The society’s members were mainly Russian and Polish Jews, refugees like the Huguenots from persecution at home. They built a synagogue — now the second oldest in London — in the back garden and excavated beneath it to create a meeting room.

Plaque listing synagogue donations at 19 Princelet St. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)
Plaque listing synagogue donations at 19 Princelet St. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)

While it ceased to be working synagogue in the 1970s, this magnificent building is now the heart of the museum. From the ceiling, huge chandeliers with double-headed eagles still hang; the Holy Ark remains intact; and a Victorian glass roof, still majestic even as its pinks and greens have faded, allows shafts of sunlight to dance across the synagogue as they have done for 150 years. The bimah has been carefully stored in an adjacent room awaiting restoration. So, too, has a sequin-studded Torah mantle, and a board on which gifts to the synagogue by its members — three velvet cushions, a suit, a pair of silver bells — were etched for all time.

These new Britons were not without ambition. They modeled what Rabbi Hugo Gryn later called this “little corner of the Kingdom of God on Earth” on Liverpool’s Grand Synagogue. Members of Anglo-Jewry’s prominent families — Mocatta, Rothschild, Montague — were tapped for contributions. Their names are still visible, carved in gold leaf on the balcony, alongside lesser-known congregants — people with little who nonetheless gave what they could.

The congregation grew rapidly in size: In 1870, there were 120 members. A decade later, there were up to nine weddings a day on some days; such a seeming conveyor belt provoked the ire of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Young students in the museum's synagogue sanctuary at 19 Princelet Street, London. (Tom Lindsey/19 Princelet Street)
Young students in the museum’s synagogue sanctuary at 19 Princelet Street, London. (Tom Lindsey/19 Princelet Street)

The Jews left their mark, but they did not stay. Within 100 years, the East End was no longer the epicenter of London Jewry. Like the Huguenots before them, the Jews had moved up and out into the ranks of the middle classes and out to the north London suburbs of llford, Finchley, Golders Green, Hendon and Harrow. In their place was a new generation of migrants — Bangladeshis, Somalis and Bengalis — fleeing war and poverty. Today, nearby Brick Lane is known as “Bangla Town,” its street signs appended by Bengali translations, its neon-lit curry houses the popular venue of many a night out.

But 19 Princelet Street and surrounding Spitalfields serve very much as a palimpsest: each set of new arrivals leaving something for the next. Thus the parlor where the Ogier children studied was a century later a religious school for Jewish boys. Where those young men studied the Torah, a further century on, Bangladeshi women learned English at night school.

This pattern is illustrated again at the Jamme Masjid Mosque on Brick Lane. Built as a Hugenot church in 1743, L’Eglise Neuve was later a Methodist chapel and then the Great Synagogue, giving an ironic twist to its brief incarnation as an early 19th century venue for the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Amongst the Jews.

Facing a mixture of ‘welcoming and wary’

While the experience of successions of migrant groups has been very different, one constant has been the periodic bouts of prejudice they have faced.

Despite attempts to show their gratitude to the nation that had given them shelter — Peter Ogier, for instance, was one of a group of Huguenots who declared their loyalty to King and country in the London Gazette in 1745 — the indigenous population responded with behavior that the historian David Waters terms a mixture of “welcoming and wary.”

In the Museum of Diversity and Immigration in London. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)
In the Museum of Diversity and Immigration in London. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)

Popularly derided as “Frogs,” economic competition from the Huguenot weavers — many were low-skilled artisans, not wealthy master weavers like Ogier — was particularly feared.

Jewish migrants would suffer a similar fate. Accusations that low-paid Jewish laborers, working in appalling conditions in sweatshops, were “taking the bread out of English mouths” were a common refrain. Parliament resolved to investigate the “foreign Jewish question,” while campaigns to curb immigration and, in the words of one of them, protect British workers from “hordes of destitute Jews” sprung up.

All of this was stoked by a popular press which hysterically warned of “the invasion of England.” A century later, the notion that Britain was being “swamped” by immigration from southeast Asia, as Margaret Thatcher so memorably put it, dominated the political debate, leaving the newest residents of the East End uncertain and fearful.

Inside the Museum of Immigration and Diversity in London. (Morley von Sternberg/19 Princelet Street)
Inside the Museum of Immigration and Diversity in London. (Morley von Sternberg/19 Princelet Street)

This noxious brew — a mixture of prejudice and political opportunism, tabloid journalism and genuine economic concerns about the exploitation of workers, both migrant and indigenous — would find its echo in the Brexit debate. This time, the target would not be the Huguenots, Jews or Asians, but young East European workers who traveled to the UK with the expansion of the EU after 2004 — although Farage and his fellow Brexiters would also deliberately attempt to conflate and confuse both the issues stemming from the refugee crisis with those arising from the free movement of labor within the EU.

But prejudice sparked both pride and protest. Myer Reback was the beadle at 19 Princelet Street for nearly half a century. His daughter, Esther, later recalled the overcrowded rooms they shared in the house: five girls and their mother slept in one bedroom, a brother made do with a sofa bed in the kitchen.

She also remembers seeing Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts – fascists who sympathized with the Nazis and targeted Jewish areas – marching through the East End.

From the basement of 19 Princelet Street, Jews joined with other anti-fascist campaigners to fight back, holding meetings to plot tactics.

Oswald Mosley walks by fascist Blackshirts in salute, circa 1936. (CC-SA 4.0/ Felipe cuesta)
Oswald Mosley walks by fascist Blackshirts in salute, circa 1936. (CC-SA 4.0/ Felipe cuesta)

It was from here that forces were marshaled before the famed “Battle of Cable Street” when, on October 4, 1936, 2,000 of Mosley’s followers were met by 20,000 opponents — Jews, Irish dockers, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists and communists — determined to prevent them marching through a central East End thoroughfare.

Mosley eventually abandoned his march, and his British Union of Fascists, exposed as unwelcome in an area where it had hoped to fan the flames of anti-Semitism, lost momentum that they would never recover.

Much to the consternation of some sections of established Anglo-Jewry, there had long been a high degree of activism among newly arrived Jewish socialists and radicals, and the “Battle of Cable Street” illustrates a wider truth: anti-immigrant movements often provoke a backlash where those targeted become more organized and politicized.

Inside the Museum of Immigration and Diversity in London. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)
Inside the Museum of Immigration and Diversity in London. (Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street)

The sons and daughters of migrants exercised their rights as British citizens to challenge those who sought to demonize them and turn the clock back, and ironically were helped to more deeply establish themselves.

Contemporary 19 Princelet Street offers a further message of hope. Its centerpiece, an installation entitled “Suitcases and Sanctuary,” was curated by children from six local schools drawn from the East End’s many diverse communities. The children were encouraged to stand in the shoes of others — thus the story of the Jews is told by a group of Bengali Muslim children.

On video, they relate a Yiddish folk story about a shopkeeper dealing with anti-Semitism; in a suitcase, they have written luggage labels describing why Russian Jews were forced to leave the Pale of Settlement.

In other rooms, pupils from a Catholic school explored the story of Bengali immigration, while Somali children looked at the impact of the Irish potato famine.

The exhibit’s power rests in its ability to convey the world through the eyes of children, using empathy to remind visitors what connects their own stories with the past and with each other.

Before entering the synagogue, visitors stop at a small exhibit with handwritten messages. In Russian, French, Bengali, Somali, Yiddish and a veritable Babel’s Tower of other languages, the words “Listen to the walls” have been written. Brexit Britain needs to hear those voices now more than ever — its past remains its future.

19 Princelet Street has a free summer opening on Sunday June 25, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. (last entry 5:30) as part of Refugee Week. Groups can be pre-booked throughout the year at the museum website.

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