In a city like London, change seems to be a constant thing and many of the places of the Victorian era are long gone. However, a highlight of any walk around Spitalfields must be the streets behind Nicholas Hawksmoor’s majestic Christ Church, which was completed in 1729; indeed, many of the houses in Fournier, Wilkes and Princelet Street predate the church! Many of these properties were built in the early 18th century for French Huguenots, talented and successful protestant refugees who brought their silk-weaving skills with them, a trade which Spitalfields became synonymous with thereafter. The townhouses that survive still retain their weaver’s lofts where the looms were kept in a bid to retain as much light as possible to work by.
When the weaving industry fell into decline in the 19th century, the houses became increasingly dilapidated and many were turned into shops or places for fruit and vegetables to be stored for nearby Spitalfields market. Others became sweatshops where the rag trade still flourished. By the 1970s, with many in a seriously bad condition, there was the very real risk of demolition, but local campaigners who saw the historical value of these properties got together to restore them. In time, other buyers moved in and proceeded to renovate the handsome homes, many of which still had their original panelling and staircases. The shop fronts were removed from several and sympathetic frontages were reinstated, in keeping with 18th century styles.
Today, the area is a preservation area, with strict rules about what can and can’t be done with these homes. In turn, they have become desirable residences for the successful and even famous: artists Gilbert and George (who have lived here since the 1960s) and Tracy Emin have homes in Fournier Street and actress Keira Knightley also had a property here at one time. Today, they command handsome prices, with some of the larger houses in Fournier Street fetching in excess of £3 million. At the junction of Wilkes Street and Puma Court are a number of houses which are modern by comparison, built in the 1990s, but even these have had to conform with the prevailing style of the area.
Only a few are yet to be restored to their original splendour: no.2 Wilkes Street still gives us a glimpse of how these houses would have looked at their most neglected. Famously, 4 Princelet Street, with its still decaying frontage, is privately owned not as a home but as a filming location for movies, photo shoots and TV documentaries. Many period dramas are filmed here, both inside the house in Princelet Street and outside, and therefore, it is not unusual to occasionally stumble upon movie trucks, lighting rigs and cables scattered around the area and sometimes period cars or other forms of transport are parked up by the kerb.
19 Princelet Street houses the Museum of Immigration and is a significant place as its back garden was built on in the 1800s with a Synagogue, which still survives, and is believed to be the oldest one in the East End, although it stopped being used many decades ago.