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The Huguenots of Spitalfields, walking tour, and visit to Dennis Severs' House with Sue Jackson Tuesday 8th November 2016

Photographs by Roelof Bakker

Such an interesting day. As we all travelled independently to Spitalfields – just a short walk from Liverpool St Station – we met our guide, Sue, at Christ Church. This imposing Nicholas Hawksmoor church in the English Baroque style was completed in 1729, has been much altered since and completely restored in the past 50 years. The organ was once the largest in England and is believed to have been played by Handel.

Sue spoke about the Huguenots who, fleeing religious persecution in France, migrated to the area from the late 17th century, bringing in particular their expertise as silk weavers. Large terraced houses were built to accommodate the master weavers and merchants and the area must have taken on an elegant look. Over time these have fallen into disrepair; sadly, many have now been bulldozed to build shiny office blocks but thanks to the indefatigable work by the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust many others have been saved. We walked along a few streets that are undergoing conservation and on the more complete Fournier Street the homes of several writers and artists were identified. Indeed, we thought we had lost one of our members as she stopped for a chat with the historian Dan Cruickshank.

We examined many of the original doors, complete with interesting door furniture, the spindles which hang high on the houses where a weaver was known to have lived, roundels on pavements commemorating such as the 18th century English silk designer, Anna Maria Garthwaite. We heard that the only detached house in the area is the rectory for Christ Church – 3 inches separate it from the next.

The Old Spitalfields Market remains but the fruit and flower market, once used by the Huguenots, has been moved away.

In the afternoon we visited Dennis Severs' House in Folgate Street . A unique experience. Dennis Severs, who died in 1999, lived in the house and created a living museum around him along with an imaginary family called Severs. Visitors are asked to remain silent as they progress round the house, to better absorb the atmosphere and sounds (and smells) of each extraordinary room. The rooms are all furnished as they might have been through the generations. Candles light the rooms, wood fires crackle, but the family members appear to have just left the room, leaving some food or drink on tables or a jacket cast aside. The house has a motto: "You either see it or you don't".

In 1743 a Protestant church was built on Brick Lane for the Huguenot community. As they began to move away Jews came to live and work in the area. The church became a Wesleyan Chapel to promote Christianity among the Jews. After just 10 years it was a Methodist Chapel. From 1891 for 70 years it was a Synagogue. Then in 1976 it was completely refurbished for the recently arrived Bangladeshi community. It is now the Jamme Masjid Mosque.

Many thanks to Stephanie for organizing the day.

Hilary Payne

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