A guest post by LH Member Wendy Forrest.
The Landmark Trust recently invited London Historians to 13 Princelet Street, Spitalfields. Just outside the bounds of the City, the area has long been home to those living on its fringe, servicing lifestyles from which they were themselves largely excluded. Spitalfields has sheltered Hugenots fleeing religious persecution, the Irish forced out by famine, Jews escaping pogroms and Bangladeshis remaking their lives after a genocidal war of independence.
The desperate living conditions of most 19th and 20th century residents left the Georgian dwellings in need of their own rescue. Militant conservationists and artistic gentrifiers turned Princelet Street and its neighbours from slum to swank. But the area is now threatened by a new and devastating wave of speculative development. Plans for Bishopsgate Goodsyard would create a looming wall of glass towers, some over 40 storeys high. British Land propose to bulldoze historic Norton Folgate retaining just a few Potemkin facades. Princelet Street would stand but its neighbourhood would be destroyed.
The history of No 13 Princelet Street is intimately tied to that of its neighbours and the street is full of stories that reflect the changing fortunes of Spitalfields. The invitation from Landmark Trust prompted a look at the way the street was developed and at the events that shaped some of the most extraordinary houses in the street. The visit felt especially timely as this area, the largest collection of early Georgian terraced houses in London, may soon be changed beyond any possible restoration.
The first houses on Princelet Street were built just after 1700 on land used for market gardening after the priory and hospital of Street Mary Spital were dissolved in 1539. Leonard Gurle moved to the area in the 1640s to create a nursery for fruit trees, jasmine, honeysuckle and lilacs and was so successful that he was made the King’s Gardener in 1677. Spitalfields was still horticultural when construction began on Princelet Street. The plot was known as Joyce Garden, part of an estate bought by Charles Wood and Simon Michell after some shady dealing and at least one Chancery case. These two gentlemen of Lincolns Inn were also involved in the new business of sewage. They won the right to construct a local sewer system, along what is now Hanbury and Wilkes Street, ensuring they benefitted from all neighbourhood development.
Shortly after Wood and Michell acquired the land, Parliament resolved urgent action to counter the spread of non-conformist Protestantism. Fifty new Anglican churches, financed by coal taxes, were planned to serve the ‘godless thousands’ outside the City. Spitalfields, where a thriving Hugenot community now lived alongside established dissenters, was an obvious early site for one of these Queen Anne churches. Hawksmoor was appointed surveyor and designed six of the twelve actually built. The land for Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Christ Church Spitalfields, was sold to the Church Commissioners by Wood and Michell and was linked to the sewer serving Princelet Street. As intended, Christ Church towered above the neighbouring Hugenot chapels, as it still dwarfs the synagogues and mosques which some of these chapels became.
Wood and Michell sold a couple of plots on Princelet Street outright but then decided to parcel out the land on leases of no longer than 99 years. Development fell to speculative builders including several carpenters, a stonemason, a painter, a bricklayer and a blacksmith. Samuel Worrall, carpenter, was chief amongst these and lived at No 18 himself using the back yard, which also had access from Fournier Street, as a timber yard. Worrall was a significant figure in Georgian Spitalfields: carpenter at Christ Church, churchwarden of the parish, overseer of the poor and a trustee of the almshouses in Crispin Street. A Samuel Worrall, probably his son, later rose to become Master of the Masons Company.
The stately Georgian townhouses of Princelet Street are sometimes seen as typical of the houses in which silkweavers lived and worked. Certainly many were built or adapted for silk production with wide windowed lofts designed to illuminate the looms within. Spitalfields was the centre of the industry and by 1832 a parliamentary report noted 50,000 people in the weaver’s district of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green – half the population – entirely dependent on silk manufacture. But the houses of Princelet Street are hardly the average weavers’ lodgings. Most silk workers were poor and, as the industry declined in competition with foreign silks and Indian calicos, many desperately so.
The master weavers who lived in Princelet Street often put work out to as many as 200 journeymen and apprentices. Its likely that some of these houses would have been targeted during the periodic weavers riots, most intense during the 1760s, when silks were slashed on the loom by ‘cutters’ protesting poor rates of pay. Other early Princelet occupants included a weaver, a glover, a brewer, a cutler, a doctor, carpenters and clergymen who would also have been amongst the wealthiest in their respective trades. The local dominance of the textile industry is confirmed by the presence of weavers, a tailor, a needlemaker, a dyer, a knitter and silk brokers.
No 13 was built by a stone mason, Edward Buckingham and his first tenant was probably a tailor. Several early occupants had Hugenot names and local trade directories list silk merchants at this address. But by the second half of the 19th century Spitalfields silk was in decline and new trades arrived at No 13. By 1861 these included a poulterer and a mangler or washerwoman suggesting a dip in the fortunes of the tenants. The house was now multi-occupied, shared between four families by 1871. There were also new names: Guttenberg, a jeweller, and Levy, a boot ‘clicker’ who cut out leather for shoe uppers. By the time Peter Lerwill bought the house in 1984 decades of poverty and overcrowding had taken their toll. He took on a slum but one that retained its original plan, partitions and panelling. Lerwill left the restored house to the Landmark Trust in 2004.
No 19 was built by Samuel Worrall in 1719 and the first occupants were a silk weaving Hugenot family, the Ogiers, who were followed by a number of poorer weaving families and their looms. Later it became home to Polish and Irish immigrants and in the 1860s a synagogue was built into a garden extension. Israel Zangwill tells us ‘Its furniture was bare benches, a raised platform with a reading desk at the centre, and a wooden curtained ark at the end…The worshippers dropped in, mostly in their workaday garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorused the prayers with zeal which shook the windowpanes’. A secret room below the synagogue hosted anti-fascist meetings in the 1930s including preparations for the battle of Cable Street. Children from the Kindertransport found a first sanctuary there in the 1940s. In 1980 the attic was unlocked to reveal cabbalic writings and scattered texts in fifteen different languages, traces of the erudite caretaker who had disappeared suddenly and without trace over ten years earlier. This house is now the Museum of Immigration.
No 2, a three storey house with roof loft on the corner of Wilkes Street, was one of the last to be built by Samuel Worrall. Initially tenanted by a glover, it was soon home to Anna Maria Garthwaithe, one of the most celebrated designers of the 18th century. She lived in Princelet Street for 35 years creating flowered patterns for silk damasks and brocades, nearly a thousand of which are still held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Anna Maria was a Lincolnshire vicar’s daughter and it was only when her father died that she was able to establish an independent life living with her widowed sister. At the age of 40, she came to Spitalfields to work directly with the highly skilled weavers who bought her designs. The house was later tenanted by the Goldsteins, the Venicoffs, the Marks, the Hellers and then by a number of Bengali families before it was restored in 1985.
No 4 is a handsome double fronted house taken in 1724 by Benjamin Truman, third generation brewer responsible for a major expansion of the family firm. The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane was a major employer well into the 20th century and is still a local landmark. Ben Truman supplied beer to the Prince of Wales and was knighted by George III when he took the throne in 1760. Truman was painted by both Gainsborough and Romney and his portrait graced beer labels well into the 1970s. By the mid 18th century No 4 was also occupied by Hugenot weavers who added the characteristic loft. Today it trades on its history and is hired out as a location for photographs and films. The house can be seen in the scene where Sharon Stone ties Hugh Dancy to the bed in Basic Instinct 2 or where Rupert Pendry-Jones finds the victim of a Ripper copycat killing in a 2009 episode of Whitechapel.
No 6 became London’s first Jewish theatre in 1886. Public funds were raised by a local butcher and Sir Samuel Montagu, Liberal MP for Whitechapel. This enabled Abraham Goldfaden, an actor-manager from Riga, to set up the Hebrew Dramatic Club. Jacob Adler, an actor who rose to great fame in New York, performed there after fleeing Odessa. A character in Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto claims the Jargon or Yiddish theatre is ‘the only real theatre in London’. In 1887, during a production of The Gypsy Girl, the firm alarm was raised in error and 17 people were killed in the rush to the exits. The theatre closed shortly after. It is not the street’s only link to the arts. Lionel Tertis, international viola player and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, lived at No 8, his father was the reader and circumciser at the synagogue at No 19.
As the Jews moved on, the Bengali community tenanted the Spitalfields slums. From the early 19th century Syleti men had travelled to Calcutta and found work crewing British ships, often in the sweltering boiler rooms. Some were marooned in London, some jumped ship. Their new London homes were close to the docks and a 1964 survey showed that the highest concentrations of Pakistanis in East London (Bangladesh was still East Pakistan) were in Princelet Street and old Montague Street. The 1971 Bangladesh genocide and War of Independence led to another great refugee influx and by 1971 there were 200 Bengalis occupying just sixteen addresses in Princelet Street. Living conditions were Victorian and Spitalfields was one of the most deprived and overcrowded wards in the country. The campaign for decent housing was led by the community itself through organisations like the Spitalfields Housing Co-operative which took over and improved twenty houses in Princelet Street in the 1970s and manages more than 600 local properties today.
Demolition and redevelopment threatened the whole area in the 1970s and the militant campaign to protect and restore Spitalfields was hard fought. No 13 Princelet Street is a wonderful example of what was saved. On 17 and 18 September The Landmark Trust are holding an Open Day and London Historians are warmly invited to attend. To find out more about developments in Spitalfields:
www.landmarktrust.org.uk for holiday lets and open day news
www.morelightmorepower.co.uk for the campaign for Bishopsgate Goodsyard
www.thespitalfieldstrust.com for plans for Norton Folgate
www.19princeletstreet.org.uk for visiting No 19 and the Museum of Immigration
www.princelet.co.uk interior details at 4 Princelet St for filmmakers and the curious
www.bishopsgate.org.uk for local history learning and research