Immigrants in Spitalfields festival to show ‘melting pot’ on eve of EU referendum

Sandys Row Synagogue venue for 2016 Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival

Sandys Row Synagogue venue for 2016 Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival - Credit: Archant

Preparations are under way in London’s East End for a festival of immigration showing the ‘melting pot’ of cultural heritage just days before next month’s EU referendum with migrants as a key issue.

Immigrant children of Spitalfields at turn of 20th Century [Bishopsgate Institute archive]

Immigrant children of Spitalfields at turn of 20th Century [Bishopsgate Institute archive] - Credit: Bishopsgate Inst

The three-day Immigrants of Spitalfields festival runs June 19 to 21—in a run-down City fringe district that was historically a gateway for newcomers—to celebrate 300 years of cultural heritage.

It includes walking tours, genealogy workshops, textile demonstrations, ethnic music and dance, films and talks, concluding just two days before the polls open when Britain’s voters decide if they want the UK to quit the European Union.

Three major religions are represented—first by the Huguenots of Spitalfields charity keeping alive the heritage of French Protestants fleeing religious persecution in the 18th century, then Sandys Row Synagogue in the heart of what was the Jewish immigrant East End with the next wave if refugees from pogroms, and lastly the Swadhinata Trust promoting today’s immigrant Bengali culture.

The Immigrants of Spitalfields festival starts June 19 at the Whitechapel Gallery with films from the Jewish East End, sound recordings, excerpts from literature and music from the Klezmer Klub bringing Yiddish songs to life.

Immigrant children of Spitalfields in1912 in Sandys Row and Frying Pan Alley [Bishopsgate Institute

Immigrant children of Spitalfields in1912 in Sandys Row and Frying Pan Alley [Bishopsgate Institute archive] - Credit: Bishopsgate Inst

The Water Poet pub in Folgate Street celebrates Irish immigrants who passed through Spitalfields escaping the early 19th century potato famines, while the Kobi Nazrul centre in Hanbury Street has an evening of Bengali culture with poetry, music and dance.


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One of the iconic buildings involved is Sandys Row Synagogue (pictured, top), Britain’s oldest Ashkenazi synagogue first opened in 1854 by Dutch traders in a building converted from a chapel originally built by the Huguneaots in 1763. It is still home to the last active community in the heart of what was the Jewish East End.

Another iconic landmark in the festival is the Brick Lane Mosque, built in 1743 as a Huguenot chapel for Protestant refugees which became a Wesleyan Methodist church in 1819, then the Machzike Hadath synagogue in 1897 and finally sold to the emerging Bangladesh community in 1976 when it was turned into a mosque.

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The 273-year-old building on the corner of Fournier Street is packed with 4,000 worshippers at Ramadan today—as it once was on Yom Kippur and Easter Sunday in times past.

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