19 January 2011

59 Brick Lane Spitalfields: Christian, Jewish, Muslim

By the mid-late C17th, the long street in the East End of London called Brick Lane was being built up from the south. The Huguenots were fleeing religious persecution by the Catholic Church and Catholic government in France. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, tens of thousands of Huguenots sought sanctuary in Britain and brought with them their weaving and silver-making skills.

Traders & weavers lived near, not necessarily in Spitalfields. Their late 17th and C18th domestic buildings were well appointed terraced houses, perfect for housing the French weaver families once they became successful; fine city mansions were built around the newly created Spital Square.

substantial  houses, built since 1700

59 Brick Lane, corner Fournier St, was a plain but quite elegant, rectangular dark brick building with tall arched windows. Even in a heavily built up street like Brick Lane, natural light could flood into the spaces inside. The building was described as having 2 storeys with a plain band between floors, 6 windows with red brick gauged arches and stone keys, recessed windows, a central Palladian window with semi-circular headed windows at sides (1st floor) and 4 segmental headed windows on the ground floor.

How was this building used over the centuries?

today 59 Brick Lane is an elegant mosque

The first community to use 59 Brick Lane were the recently arrived Frenchmen. The Huguenot community built La Neuve Eglise as a Protestant Church in 1743, along with a small school. As these Calvinists worked hard and prospered, some of them could afford to build large and handsome Georgian houses around Brick Lane, with glass-ceilinged workshops in the attics, where they set up their weaving looms. They didn’t forget their religious values either. In 1700, there were nine French churches in Spitalfields, although by the end of two generations of English born Huguenots, the French-speaking community was clearly being assimilated through inter-marriage.

Interior of 59 Brick Lane, when used as a Methodist chapel  (above)

Interior of 59 Brick Lane, when used as a Jewish synagogue (below)

The next group to use 59 Brick Lane were a different people. The London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews used The Jews’ Chapel, as they called the building in 1809, to encourage the physical restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and to encourage the Hebrew Christian Messianic movement. The Society only lasted for one decade in Brick Lane.

John Wesley himself had lived not far away on City Road and preached his first covenant sermon at a chapel, just off Brick Lane. The simplicity and plainness of The Methodist Chapel, as the Wesleyans called it in 1819, would no doubt have suited them well.

When the local silk-weaving trades went into decline, the abandoned properties in this suburb were sublet and in the C19th the East End became a cheap place to live. Waves of impoverished and rather desperate immigrants arrived over the decades, slowly prospered and then moved out of Spitalfields as soon as they could. So as Icons Of England has shown, the building changed a number of times as each community established its own place of worship here.

With the huge influx of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe flooding into the East End in the 1880s and 1890s, our Methodist Chapel was converted into The Spitalfields Great Synagogue in 1897. Brick Lane was the heart of London’s Jewish community and this was the principal synagogue of the area. Plus there were schoolrooms under the roof for children of the masses of impoverished, hard working refugees. From the 1960s, the Jewish community in the East End dwindled, many moving into more salubrious north London. The building eventually closed.

Since 1976 this building, Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, has been one of the largest mosques in London; 4,000 worshippers can fit into the prayer hall. The mosque has particularly served the religious needs of the large Bengali community which arrived after World War Two. The non-structural fittings like pews were removed, the opening in the centre of the gallery was reduced in size, made octagonal and moved eastwards, while retaining the columns on the ground floor supporting the gallery. A partition wall was inserted around the western end of the ground floor, and a qibla was constructed on the ground floor under the SE corner or the gallery. The northern and central vaults were also converted to prayer halls. Rooms adjacent to the prayer halls were adapted for washing.

Once again there is an school for religious instruction here, on the first floor, but this time it is an Islamic school. The former Huguenot chapel and former Great Synagogue in Fournier St and the adjacent former school buildings, now used as ancillary spaces for the mosque, are Grade II listed buildings.

Princelet St Synagogue, behind this Huguenot house

Another of the handsome Georgian houses in Spitalfields that were built by the Huguenots eventually became the Princelet St Synagogue. The front of the building is a former Huguenot house built in 1722, but at the rear was a synagogue, built in 1862. Like the other 38 synagogues in the City and the East End, Princelet St Synagogue lost its Jewish population in the two decades after WW2 ended.

Sandys Row Synagogue, men on the ground floor, women section in the balcony

The Sandys Row Synagogue site had been bought by Huguenots in 1763 and dedicated as a church in 1766. It is fascinating for two reasons. Firstly the synagogue was established in 1870 by a society of Dutch Jews, not Russians, Ukranians and Lithuanians. Secondly the synagogue, formerly a French Chapel, is the only extant, functioning synagogue in the East End today. A photographic exhibition of Spitalfields, taken in 1912, will remain open in the synagogue throughout 2012.

Two projects based on Spitalfields have recently come to my attention. Firstly a BBC programme called Saving Britain's Past was shown in Dec 2009. It did not ask whether the old Huguenot chapel cum synagogue should now be a mosque - that is beyond dispute. Rather it asked how today’s Bengali families could make the area their own, while not destroying the heritage value of old Spitalfields.

Georgian home in 27 Fournier St, restored by the Spitalfields Trust

Secondly The Spitalfields Trust bought crumbling Regency (1809-15) houses in Whitechapel, selling them on to Londoners who then let the Trust rebuild them observing strict conservation rules. Homes & Property has followed the story of the horseshoe of homes in a run-down part of East London. In this year’s Georgian Awards, presented by the Duke of Gloucester, the restoration work was highly commended. Plus The Spitalfields Trust project won first prize in Country Life’s national restoration competition.

One renovation stands out in particular. Fournier Street was the last street to be laid out on the Wood-Michell Estate and was originally known as Church St. 27 Fournier Street was built by Peter Bourdon of Spitalfields, who was granted a 98 year lease in 1725, the date that appears on the rainwater head on the front of the building. The weaver Mr Bourdon was believed to have been a prominent member of Spitalfields society. I assume from his surname that Mr Bourdon was a Huguenot. He would be delighted with how 27 Fournier St looks today.

Tired of London, Tired of Life recommends visiting London's Museum of Immigration at 19 Princelet Street. The museum's home page says that 19 Princelet Street is a magical unrestored Huguenot master silk weaver's home, whose shabby frontage conceals a rare surviving synagogue built over its garden. The staff are working to save the building and to create a permanent exhibition documenting the history of the Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Bengalis, Somalis and others who shaped this Spitalfields.

As an afterthought, readers might like to examine Philip Davies' book, Panoramas of Lost London: work, wealth, poverty and change 1870-1945. It would be interesting to know which Georgian and earlier terraces, houses and shops in London were photographed, before they were razed to the ground and rebuilt in a more modern style. I would also like to see the bustling street scenes, full of shops, awnings, advertisements, horses and carriages and street lamps. The book was republished by Transatlantic Press in 2011.

Jewish London Walking Tours, led by Stephen Burstin, start at Aldgate tube station and cover the schools, soup kitchens, synagogues, Petticoat Lane markets, Brick Lane restaurants, Yiddish theatres and houses of people who went on to become famous.


Hermes said...

I visited a few years ago - thanks for the reminder.

You've probably seen this but though not Jewish I was interested in your section on the change of faiths over time.


I can still remember the fantastic bagel shops round Petticoat Lane when I was but a lad.

Kent Today & Yesterday said...

Nice post Helen. I used to work about half a mile from Brick Lane in the early 80's. At that time there were still a few Jewish businesses hanging on (Blooms restuarant and Tubby Isaacs jellied eels stall are ones that come to mind). Now practically all businesses are Bangledeshi.


Hels said...

Thanks for the Cohen article. I am fascinated by the changing populations as well.

Firstly spouse and I moved to (N.W) London in 1972, and although it was way too late for the thriving Jewish communal life of earlier decades, the East End was still a place of endless fascination to us.

Secondly my honours thesis was about the Huguenots in England, after the 1685 expulsion. I crawled all over public and private silver collections to find every large Huguenot piece in England :)

Alas I wasn't interested in architectural history back then. And it is now quite tough to find photos or paintings of what buildings looked like in previous incarnations.

Hels said...

oh I LOVED Blooms :)

I suppose this story is true for every large city in the world. Communities struggle, make some money and move on, then new communities of migrants move in and stamp the area with their own taste.

In Melbourne, the inner urban suburb of Carlton had tons of kosher butcher shops, synagogues, challah factories and bar mitzvah caterers. By 1960, only the elderly Jews hadn't left Carlton for greener suburbs. And then tens of thousands of Italian migrants moved in. The synagogues closed, and Italian shops and clubs popped up all over the suburb.

For the last 20 years, the migrant intake into Melbourne has utterly changed, so I imagine inner suburbs are much more likely to be Indian or Vietnamese these days.

Chudex's said...

Nice read, thanks for shared.

Hels said...

thanks :) It is not often in the history of an individual building that we find Christian, Jewish and Islamic usage.

architect17 said...

I would love to see the interior spaces of the Brick Lane building, now that it is a mosque. Do you have any photos?

Hels said...

no I don't. Perhaps a reader will email me a photo which I will definitely add onto the post.

What I will add onto the post now are some architectural details of the building.

R Francis said...

Gilbert and George, the artists, live in a restored Huguenot house in Fournier Street. You maybe able to find references and pictures for it.
It is pretty wonderful.

Hels said...

R Francis,
many thanks for that reference - I will follow it up. I still think that the best part of blogging is when readers add more information to a topic that already fascinates the writer of the blog.

Mandy Southgate said...

Hels, I so love your blog. I just get to learn a little more about history each time I visit and it is always incredible and fascinating (thus me being awake at midnight on a Sunday night reading it).

It seems amazing to me that this area has seen Hugenots, Jews and Muslims all pass through it. I must try visit that area of London one day; I wasn't too far from it on Friday!

Hels said...

I used to live in London and would not have been familiar with Spitalfields, if it hasn't been for my beloved Huguenots. Of course I am 310 years late, but historically minded people always live in the past :)

Anonymous said...

thankyou for all this very interesting information. im very historically minded indeed, its a huge interest. im in australia ,my kids are descendants of the eastend jews, huguenots and irish in the eastend, they still have the jewish surname. Their grandparents came to australia in 1965 from the east end and my childrens father was born in the royal london hospital eastend aswell.Its all very interesting including cockney rhyming slang, some of the rhyming slang is still with us here in australia

Hels said...


I am not remotely surprised. If your partner and his parents were East Enders themselves, then your children could very well descend from the East End Jews, Huguenots, Irish and every other large group that settled in that part of London. I envy them their rich inheritance :)

Hels said...

I have added a reference to The Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields. The listed building was a 1719 house built for the Huguenot silk merchant Peter Abraham Ogier. Alas, while the building is still fragile, the museum is not open to the public very often.

Hels said...

I added a reference to Caroline's Miscellany blog for an interesting post on Sandys Row Synagogue.

Hels said...

Since so many old buildings have disappeared without good historical records and cityscapes have changed beyond recognition, I have added a reference to Philip Davies' book, Panoramas of Lost London: work, wealth, poverty and change 1870-1945.

Hels said...

This weekend (Jan 2013) 19 Princelet Street Synagogue in Spitalfields opens for just a few hours. If you're in London, Caroline's Miscellany recommends a visit.

גדעון חרלפ , אדריכל said...

what is the littel building on the pavement?

Hels said...


do you mean the large white cube in front of the 59 Brick Lane mosque? Good question. It doesn't look like storage or rubbish, so I wonder who I can ask. Give me a week or two to search for an answer.

Hels said...

I noted that the Sandys Row Synagogue site had been bought by Huguenots as late as the 1760s. So it would have been my original (1690s) Huguenots' grandchildren or great grandchildren who were using that site in the late 18th century.

The timber panelling might have made Sandys Row interiors too dark. But see photos in "Spitalfields Life" show that plenty of natural light gets in and that the light seems to reflect off the timber beautifully.


Hels said...

For excellent photos of Petticoat Lane, go to
Spitalfields Life