That Fournier St and Princelet St still exist is nothing short of miraculous. The ancient closebuilt houses with their improbable wooden shutters, cobbled yards and weavers lofts are finally safe from the developers, having endured long enough to be fashionable again, though they are being prettied up at an alarming rate and risk losing their character yet.
Phil and I were there with a guide from the Huguenots of Spitalfields festival to learn more about the Huguenot silkweavers who found refuge here after fleeing religious persecution in France. Up to 50,000 settled in London and the Spitalfields silk trade was a vital part of the East End economy for nearly 150 years. My own ancestors were among them and my great great grandfather was one of the last of the silk weavers. I remember my grandmother talking about ‘yoogenos’ and ‘Spitalfilled weavers’ long before I had a clue what the words meant.
The guide was excellent, explaining why the silk weavers had settled there, how the trade had grown and the work organised and also how Londoners had reacted to the immigrants: on the one hand complaining that they were ‘stealing our jobs and houses’ but on the other hand eager to profit from the skills and business expertise that they brought. Anything sound familiar?? Also familiar was the story of economic shifts, new technology and the challenge of constantly changing legislation, with pay disputes, strikes and riots thrown in for good measure. London really has seen it all before!
We ended up with home made cakes and coffee in the basement kitchen of The Townhouse a fascinating gallery /art and craft/ antiques/ tea shop definitely worth a visit! Only open occasionally but again totally recommended is the unique museum house at 19 Princelet St celebrating the many refugees and immigrants who have made the East End home over the centuries.
For many years my Huguenot ancestors were just an interesting fact of family history but as I get older and being in business myself I think about them in a different way. What was it like to start out all over in a new country? You’ve left all the tools of your trade behind, maybe everything but the clothes on your back. Your only assets are what you carry inside – your knowledge, your skills, a willingness to work hard and adapt, maybe an ability to see change as opportunity rather than disaster, a kind of can-do attitude and a hope for tomorrow. In today’s world of increasing change, and fewer economic certainties, those assets are as valuable as ever.