Visitors to Spitalfields in East London don't have to look far for clues to the area’s multicultural history. From the 24-hour Beigel Bake Jewish bakery famed for their salt beef bagels since 1974 to the many Bangladeshi curry houses lining Brick Lane, tangible signs of vibrant immigrant communities are everywhere.
Growing up, I heard a great deal about Spitalfields from my grandmother, whose family left Ireland for London in the 1950s. The Irish had a long connection to the area: Irish weavers first came to Spitalfields in the 1730s seeking work after the collapse of Ireland’s linen industry, while the Great Potato Famine of 1845 drove large numbers of starving Irish to England’s capital.
My grandmother, Margaret McLoughlin, spent her childhood in a cramped second-floor flat in 21 Princelet Street, just around the corner from Brick Lane. “Space was at a premium and most houses were barely liveable, nothing at all like the multimillion-pound properties for sale on the street today,” she said.
Different immigrant communities lived side-by-side on the street during her stay there. But one building in particular illuminates the changing face of Spitalfields – and the many cultures that shaped the neighbourhood over time.
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Built in 1743 by French Huguenots who had fled religious persecution under King Louis XIV – and later used by Lithuanian Jews and, finally, as a mosque for the area’s Bangladeshi community – 59 Brick Lane stands as an enduring symbol of London's traditionally welcoming approach towards immigrants.
Named La Neuve Eglise, or the New Church, the building began as a place of worship for French Protestants. But the Huguenots brought more than a church to the area. Skilled French weavers established a thriving silk industry in Spitalfields, leading to the area being known as Weaver Town.
Affluent Londoners soon developed a taste for the French-style silk garments, allowing the most business-savvy Huguenots to build large and distinctive houses. Even today, it's hard to miss the enlarged attic windows, designed to let in light for weavers to work, which are visible on streets all around Spitalfields.
The newly prosperous Huguenots later left for a better quality of life in the suburbs of London – mostly notably to the southern borough of Wandsworth, where the council's coat of arms incorporates blue teardrops for the suffering of the Huguenot people.
The departure of the Huguenots from Spitalfields led the way for a new group of immigrants: Eastern European Jews. In the aftermath of the assassination of the Tsar of Russia in 1881, Jews faced countless pogroms and fled the region by the millions.
Many settled in East London: it was near where many first arrived by boat, plus Spitalfields had established a reputation as a cheap place to live. “Jews from Eastern Europe brought the Yiddish language with them that has found its way into English. Expressions like ‘oy vey’, ‘to schmooze’ or ‘a shlepp’ are Yiddish,” said Kathrin Pieren, collections manager and curator at the Jewish Museum London.
The former church at 59 Brick Lane changed with the new waves of immigration. After briefly becoming the headquarters of the evangelical Society for Propagating Christianity Amongst The Jews and then a Wesleyan chapel in 1819, it was taken over by a Lithuanian Orthodox Jewish group in 1897.
But by the 1930s, like the Huguenots before them, most of the Jewish community had moved to leafier suburbs – in this case Golders Green and Hendon in North London. Their exit was hastened further by the war. Since the Blitz focused its bombing on East London, many people with the means to do so left.
The end of World War II brought a new immigrant population: Muslims from Bangladesh's Sylhet region who had served in the UK’s merchant navy during the war.
It wasn’t always easy for immigrants to make a life in Spitalfields, especially for the Bengali Muslims, who generally had little English language skills and relatively low levels of education. “When we look at Spitalfields, it's very important to look slightly below the myth-making and see it for what it is,” said Susie Symes, the chair of trustees for the Museum of Immigration and Diversity.
Even so, many of the Bangladeshi immigrants found success when they started restaurants. Today, their contributions have established Brick Lane as the curry capital of London and an international destination in its own right.
In 1976, 59 Brick Lane changed purposes once again: the former Huguenot church became the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid (Great Mosque). In 2010, a 29m-tall, minaret-style tower was added.
The changes of 59 Brick Lane – and the surrounding neighbourhood – are outlined in the Museum of Immigration and Diversity just down the street (and next to my grandmother’s old house). Built in 1719 for the Huguenot silk merchant Peter Abraham Ogier, inside, 19 Princelet Street examines how immigration has changed both Spitalfields and London.
One of its installations is of a small suitcase filled with paper boats on a sea of green silk. Made by local schoolchildren from Bengali Muslim families, the artwork represents Huguenots fleeing from France in the late 1600s. All of the boats are inscribed with Huguenot names.
The installation has been here for almost 20 years. But recently, it has been made more poignant by the refugee crisis, said Symes. “When the terrible drownings in the Mediterranean began last year, our tiny boats assumed a very different emotional connection,” Symes said.
Today, the area – and 59 Brick Lane – continues to adapt. But the newest change is very different from previous waves of immigrants and refugees seeking a new life: gentrification. Hipster hangouts like the UK's first cereal-only cafe and a pop-up slushy cocktail bar have opened in the past few years. Rental prices and the cost of living have shot up.
As living costs rise across the neighbourhood, it's unlikely we'll see a new wave of immigrants come into Spitalfields. But the area that has welcomed everyone from Huguenots and Irish Catholics to Eastern European Jews and Bengali Muslims won't soon lose the spirit – or the people, who make Brick Lane the place it is today.
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