21 January 2023
Finding elephants, shops and
old houses in Spitalfields
on Chinese New Year’s Eve
This evening is Chinese New Year’s Eve, ushering in the Year of the Rabbit. Charlotte and I pre-empted the New Year’s Eve celebrations last night, having dinner in Gerrard Street in London, and strolling around Chinatown, off Shaftesbury Avenue.
Earlier in the day, we had lunch in Dirty Dicks, a well-known pub on Bishopsgate, close to Liverpool Street Station and on the edge of the East End.
We were meeting Dan Culbertson, an ordinand in the Diocese in Europe who we met a few weeks ago in Budapest when we were visiting Saint Margaret’s Church on behalf of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).
After caught a train to High Leigh for a residential weekend with the Eastern Region Ministry Course, we enjoyed a few hours strolling around Spitalfields and this part of the East End, including Brushfield Street, Folgate Street, Brick Lane, Princelet Street, Fournier Street, and the area around Truman’s Brewery.
The area has an eye-catching collection of modern sculptures, including the ‘Herd of Hope’ – a family of 21 life-sized bronze elephants embarking on the journey of a lifetime as they migrate across London – and ‘Together Forever on Wheels’ incorporating two of Gillie and Marc’s most popular sculpture themes, Rabbitwoman and Dogman, Vespas and coffee.
No 18 Folgate Street is an eccentric and fascinating house made over by the artist Dennis Severs to resemble the home of an 18th century Flemish weaver.
Visitors are invited into a re-creation of the life the Jervis family, Huguenot weavers, and the house is an artwork itself. David Hockney once said that it was like experiencing a great opera.
No 5 Fournier Street an antiques, art and modern ceramics shop opened by Fiona Atkins in a town house in Spitalfields in 2002. The building is part of some of London’s most beautiful Georgian architecture and this too was home to Huguenot silk weavers until about 1820.
No 4 Princelet Street, with its fading pink and red colours, its shabby façade and charming shutters, is probably one of the most photographed houses in Spitalfields. It is regularly rented out for events or as a filming location.
Princelet Street, off Brick Lane, was once known as Princesse Street or Princes Street, and may have been renamed in the 1890s. When No 4 Princelet Street was built 300 years ago in 1723, it 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 street.
The house was once the home of another weaver, Joseph Vaux, and his family. By the late 19th century, Huguenot families had mostly moved on and large numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Russia and Poland began arriving in Spitalfields. One of these was a Polish bootmaker Solomon Franklin and his wife Goulder, who were living there in 1881. A decade later, the house was shared by two families. Polish tailor Solomon Shaw, his wife Rachael, and their eight children, and the Hyams family.
No 6 Princelet Street was once numbered as No 3 Prince’s Street and was home to a 19th century Yiddish theatre.
The synagogue at No 19 Princelet Street closed in 1983. Today, the former synagogue is home to the Museum of Immigration and Diversity, Europe’s first museum of immigration and a unique cultural institution.
The house next door at 17 Princelet Street is the birthplace of Miriam Moses (1886-1965), who became the first woman mayor of Stepney in 1931 and the first Jewish woman mayor in Britain.
Before arriving back at Liverpool Street Station and bustling Bishopsgate, with its towering glass towers of finance, we stopped at Sandy’s Row Synagogue, the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London and the last Ashkenazi synagogue still functioning in Spitalfields.
This is a small, historic Ashkenazi shul on a quiet street, but it is still a thriving synagogue. Unlike other shuls in the old Jewish East End that have been lost due because of a dwindling resident Jewish population, Sandy’s Row synagogue is experiencing an upsurge in membership.
After dinner in Gerrard Street, we strolled back through Chinatown into Charing Cross Street, and took a diversion into Cecil Court, lined with second-hand bookshops, antique and coin shops and shops displaying theatre posters. The famous Foyles bookshop had its humble beginnings on Cecil Court.
We strolled down to Trafalgar Square and Saint Martin in the Fields, caught a train from Charing Cross to Euston, and we were back in Milton Keynes and Stony Stratford late into the night.