Fournier Street: One roof, many histories

Changing shadows

The Economist | Dec 18th 2003

DURING Friday prayers, shoes spill down the steps of the Jame-e-masjid mosque in Spitalfields. The main doors, giving on to Fournier Street, are thrown open, and the supplications of the faithful mingle with the noise of the perpetual building work in the City, a little way to the west. When the devotions end, thousands of men reclaim their footwear and congregate in Brick Lane to natter in English, Bengali and "Benglish". Most wear the kufi, the Muslim prayer cap.

A hundred years ago, similar assemblies formed in the same spot on Friday evenings and Saturday lunchtimes, except that instead of the kufi the men wore yarmulkes, and they and the accompanying women spoke Yiddish instead of Bengali. Between 1898 and 1976, the building on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane was the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. Before that, it was occupied by the Methodists, who had inherited it from the displaced Huguenots—Calvinists fleeing persecution in France—who had built it in 1743. On the pediment at the top of the Fournier Street façade, the Huguenots had placed a sun-dial, inscribing it with an allusion to a Horatian ode that has turned out to be a fitting motto for their temple: "Umbra sumus" ("We are shadows").

The mosque is a bricks-and-mortar correction to those Britons who think that immigration is a new and harmful phenomenon. It is a symbol of the way history is packed as tightly into poor neighbourhoods as their residents. And its past suggests that while everything changes in this most chameleonic part of London, some things stay the same. Disparate groups of strangers have looked for a better life in this neighbourhood, have faced the same difficulties and reactions, and have found their solace under the same roof.

Models in the making

The Huguenots have long been extolled in Britain as model immigrants, in contradistinction to the feckless hordes that followed them. But most people's perceptions of them were very different when they first arrived.

The first mass migration to Britain since the Normans took place in the 50 years after 1680. French Protestants, known as Huguenots (the name may derive from eyguenot, the term in Genevan dialect for an opponent of Geneva's annexation by the Roman Catholic Duke of Savoy), had first trickled into London in the 16th century, along with some of their Swiss and Walloon co-religionists. Later, after 1681, the Huguenots became subject to a form of persecution known as the dragonnades, in which rowdy soldiers were billeted in their houses, and in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had given them a semblance of security. Most stayed in France, officially abjuring their faith, but around 250,000 fled, illegally. Many slipped out by sea, hiding their children in beer barrels. Customs officers slid their swords between the planks of the decks to skewer anyone concealed below.

Some 40,000-50,000 came to England, giving the country a new word—"refugee", from "réfugié", one who seeks sanctuary—and a largely new industry, silk-weaving. Around half settled in Spitalfields, close to the Thames, where raw silk from Italy and China was unloaded. Lying just outside the bounds of the City, the area was free of the restrictions imposed on craftsmen by the City guilds. They built broad windows in their weaving lofts, planted mulberry trees to sustain their imported silkworms, and installed canaries to ameliorate the racket of their looms.

In 1742 the ministers, elders and deacons of the Huguenot church in Threadneedle Street petitioned King George II for a licence to erect a new church to accommodate their overflow. Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Christopher Wren, had only just completed Christ Church, at the other end of Fournier Street. It may have acted as a spur, because when work began on the Huguenot church in 1743 only the very finest materials were used. The Neuve Eglise, as it was known, was a brick building with a stone cornice and plenty of windows, its austere yet elegant classicism contrasting sharply with its neighbour's Baroque exuberance. Its founders stipulated that it was not "to be used for any other purpose but for the worship of God", but leased its vaults to brewers and vintners, who occupied them until late in the 19th century.

The Huguenots had two main advantages over subsequent immigrants: they were white, and they were Protestants. England was in a frenzy of anti-popery, and their devotion to their faith was widely admired. The lord mayor of London organised a collection for them in 1696, and both Charles II and James II donated cash to help them resettle.

A plague of Frogs

Unfortunately, they were still foreigners, a class of people widely (and wrongly) believed to have started the Great Fire of London of 1666. Just as any spending on newcomers does today, royal and mayoral charity embittered the indigenous poor. And worse than simply being foreign, they were French, the very worst type of foreigner to be. A wretched French visitor to London in the 18th century recorded how "at the corner of every street" he suffered "a volley of abusive litanies...The constant burthen of these litanies was, French dog, French b—." An MP described the Huguenot influx as a "plague of Frogs". In 1702 a commentator labelled them "scum", a term that has been popular with anti-immigrant demagogues ever since. Natives complained that English was barely spoken in Spitalfields.

Like their successors, the Huguenots were accused of doing to the city what in reality the city had done to them. London's population grew tenfold between 1500 and 1700, mainly because of migration from the English provinces, creating overcrowding and squalor. The Huguenots took the blame, and anti-French riots broke out in 1675, 1681 and 1683. The immigrants were also ridiculed for their funny eating habits and effete dress—though, with the perennial duality of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to France, the locals also copied their clothes, flowers and recipes.

For a while, these habits, and the bonds of trade, religion and language, preserved the Huguenots' sense of separateness. But in time many changed their names, especially when regular wars with France made them a liability, just as Germanic names would be changed during the first world war. The immigrants' grandchildren married English men and women, and eschewed weaving for the professions and Calvinism for the Church of England. Rich Huguenot families moved out of Spitalfields (sometimes returning to be buried in the grounds of Christ Church), leaving behind their street names—Fleur-de-Lis, Leman, Fournier—and their enlarged weavers' windows.

In 1855 there were still old women in London who had been born there yet spoke only French. But the Huguenot community's departure from the Neuve Eglise in 1809 was the symbolic end of the Frenchness of Spitalfields. For a short time the chapel was occupied by the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, which proselytised in it (not very successfully) to the small Jewish community in the district. In August of 1819, a Methodist congregation moved in; John Wesley, the father of Methodism, is said to have preached in the church in 1760. The building was "restored to Beauty and Comfort" at a cost of £1,300.

Huguenot assimilation was both a cause and a consequence of the decline of the Spitalfields weaving trade, which in the 18th century was undermined by mechanisation and cheap imports. The area became notorious for its unemployment and poverty. In 1851 Charles Dickens wrote about its "squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches...where sallow, unshaven weavers...prowl languidly about, or lean against posts, or sit brooding on doorsteps." The weavers were joined by refugees from Ireland's potato famine. The Irish were already in London: in 1736, a mob of weavers protesting at their cheap labour stormed two Irish pubs, yelling, "Down with the Irishmen!" Then, a century later, they came en masse.

The City of Dreadful Night

This was the period in which Spitalfields and the neighbouring parishes became "the East End" of the popular imagination: liminal, lawless, deprived and depraved. To visiting writers and sociologists it was "the Abyss", "the Empire of Hunger" and "the City of Dreadful Night". All the bad publicity made it an affordable place of settlement for the Jews who began to arrive in droves in the 1880s.

Jews had trickled back to England since Cromwell readmitted them in 1656. But between 1881 and 1914 they came in a gush. New restrictions governing where they could live and work in the Russian empire, plus pogroms, war and revolution, drove more than 2m Jews out of eastern Europe. Many came to London only to make their way to Liverpool and re-embark for New York. But some stayed, and London's Jewish population exploded.

Like other communities that were later to cluster around London's airports and railway stations, the Jews mainly settled in Spitalfields and Whitechapel, close to their point of arrival in the docks. Today the only mementoes of their sojourn in Brick Lane are an always-open bagel bakery and the odd fading Jewish name above a shop. But gentile visitors of a century ago felt they had been transported to a foreign country. Charles Booth, a sociologist, wrote that "[the Jews] live and crowd together and work and meet their fate independent of the great stream of London life surging around them." They ate strange foods, spoke a foreign tongue, and made their livings from the markets, from boot-making and cabinet-making and, especially, from tailoring, toiling in small workshops, which, like the Huguenots, they crammed on to or into their homes.

These days the east European Jews are often extolled as model immigrants, in contradistinction to the feckless hordes that followed them. But most people's perceptions of them were very different when they first arrived.

The Jews had one main advantage over some later arrivals: they were white. At first, that availed them little. As the Ripper murders of 1888 illustrated, they were convenient scapegoats for the ills of their adopted city. Jack ("the Ripper") met some of his victims at the Ten Bells pub, at the other end of Fournier Street from what is now the mosque, and opposite Christ Church. He attributed his handiwork to "the Juewes" in graffiti scrawled near the scene of his fifth evisceration (the scribble was removed by the police lest it ignite a pogrom). The Huguenots, it was agreed, had been "profitable strangers"; but the Jews stole the natives' jobs and, at the same time (an impressive trick), were a burden on the rates. They were "flotsam" and "vermin", as well as "scum". Their admission made Britain a laughing-stock. The strength of these feelings led, in 1905, to a law restricting immigration, the ancestor of the stricter ones in place today.

Beggars and barbarians

There were also divisions within the Jewish community: between bosses and the workers who plotted in the pubs of Brick Lane, as journeymen weavers had done 200 years previously; between sub-groups of Litvaks, Galizianers, Romanians and Polacks; and between believers and atheists. A two-day riot took place in 1904 after Jewish radicals invited the rabbis to a concert on the Day of Atonement, provoking worshippers in the Brick Lane synagogues by smoking and brandishing ham sandwiches. There were also tensions between the old, established Jewish families and the newcomers. As one of the new arrivals put it, the "English" Jews thought of their co-religionists as "ignorant beggars, as barbarians, who must be civilised through Sabbath sermons, soup kitchens and such like". For their part, the devout immigrants considered the English Jews doctrinally lax to the point of apostasy.

This hostility led to the next mutation of the Neuve Eglise. In 1891 the Machzike Hadath ("Upholders of the Law") Society was formed to promote religious orthodoxy. In 1895 its members occupied the schoolhouse adjoining the Fournier Street chapel, a house that, since the Wesleyans left, had become "a common lodging-house, and the resort of thieves". In 1898 they moved into the church itself, marching down Brick Lane in procession with their scrolls and a band. They reorganised the pews around a central prayer platform, and made a shrine on the eastern wall. The organ, which had been given to the Huguenots by George III, was removed. The building became known as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. The piety of its congregation was proverbial.

In time, the Jews, like the Huguenots, left Spitalfields for less cramped parts of London. Most who had not gone already were bombed out by the Luftwaffe. The Spitalfields Great Synagogue was damaged, then done up, but by the 1970s it had fallen into disrepair. It seemed it might be demolished or—against the Huguenots' wishes—become a theatre. Then, in 1976, it was bought for the Bangladeshi community by the Jame-e-masjid Trust.

London's Bangladeshis form one of the largest minority groups in the capital, and one of the oldest. Like the Jews, its earliest members arrived by boat. Sailors from the Indian subcontinent, some of them from the region that is now Bangladesh, were recruited by the East India Company from the early 18th century. Some jumped ship in the London docks; a few later found work and lodgings with the Jews of Spitalfields. More came during the world wars.

But the big boom in Bangladeshi migration—mostly from the eastern Sylhet region—came in the 1950s and early 1960s. Though natural disasters and political instability played a part, the influx was driven more by economics than were the Huguenot and Jewish ones. Families or small villages pooled resources to send a young man to the bidesh (foreign land). Villages that prospered through their remittances became known as Londoni. The advent of new immigration rules in 1962 induced a last-chance rush; since then more Bangladeshis have come to join (or marry) those already in London. Like the Huguenots and Jews, the Bangladeshis started work mainly in textiles—at first in the rug trade, later in leather and suede—and sewing machines once again hummed in the Spitalfields sweatshops.

Tower Hamlets, the borough that now contains Spitalfields, plays host to the largest community of Bangladeshis outside their native country. The streets around Brick Lane once known as "Petty France", then as the "ghetto", now comprise "Banglatown". In place of the kosher butchers, fish-fryers, boot-makers, furriers and tailors who lined Brick Lane itself a century ago, and the weavers and cheese-makers of Huguenot days, there are now sari centres, halal restaurants and vendors of exotic produce. And at the corner of Fournier Street stands the Jame-e-masjid mosque.

Apart from a sign in Arabic, Bengali and English, the building's exterior looks much the same as ever. Inside, things are different. The gallery in which Jewish women once prayed behind lace curtains has been removed, and another floor installed. (A plan to add a minaret was scotched by the local council.) Except for its chandeliers and the ornate carving around its doors, the main prayer hall is much more austere than in its Christian and Jewish phases. A Hebrew plaque outside one of the upstairs classrooms, now used by the madrassa (Islamic school), is the only reminder of the Jewish occupants. The church minister's house next door is home to the Bangladesh Welfare Association. The defunct Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor is round the corner.

The same again, but different

The Bangladeshis have the disadvantages of being neither white nor Christian. Like the Huguenots and Jews before them, they have been lambasted for stealing jobs, poor hygiene, monopolising housing and spongeing from the state. In 1993 a racist councillor (slogan: "Do you want to end up like Brick Lane?") was elected nearby, and his supporters rampaged through the streets in celebration.

The Bangladeshi experience has also been affected by the fact that, like some Huguenots, many of the first arrivals from Sylhet intended to go home once their fortunes were made. Compared with other immigrants, they have rarely married outside the community and have stuck together geographically, suffering grave poverty and unemployment.

The world, however, has come to them. Because the area's poverty has inhibited redevelopment, the streets around the mosque now comprise one of the best-preserved Georgian enclaves in London. This architectural time-warp has attracted well-heeled artists and yuppies, and some of the old silk-weavers' lofts are now pricey apartments. Meanwhile, like the adventurous Victorians who used to day-trip to the Jewish ghetto, visitors now flock to Brick Lane. Bangladeshi entrepreneurs have tarted up their restaurants to provide them with sustenance.

Because it is a human entrepot, Spitalfields remains one of London's poorest and most conservative districts; but now, for the same reason, it is also among the hippest. When old men in traditional dress congregate beneath the mosque's prophetic sundial, immodestly clad young women weave between them.

Back to top

Back to journalism