Barbara Roche: The vital history of immigration - and our failure to embrace the past

From a speech by the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, to the Social Market Foundation in London
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The Independent Online

Our history as a nation is fundamentally entwined with migration. Yet whereas the United States and Canada have grasped that reality and celebrate it as part of their history, there is no equivalent in Britain. We talk about dates and battles, kings and queens, but rarely does immigration through the ages merit a mention in our popular history.

However, there is an exception to this a couple of miles from here in a tiny street just off Brick Lane. Number 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields is a remarkable unrestored Huguenot silk-weaver's house. It was built in 1719 as the area became a new home and refuge to many Huguenot families. As later immigration patterns developed, a beautiful Victorian synagogue was built in the house by Jewish families. My mother grew up just a few streets away and her first job was in Princelet Street. Gradually, the area changed as a result of more immigration, this time from Bangladesh.

If you are lucky enough to pick of the few days each year that Number 19 opens its door, what you experience leaves you in little doubt as to the vital importance of immigration in this nation's history. Shifting from one age to another, the history of Princelet Street can show how important migration is to understanding our past.

Yet do we properly embrace that past? Whereas America has a cultural beacon in Ellis Island, we have no equivalent well-resourced museum. Nineteen Princelet Street is struggling against the elements; its very fabric is fragile. This magical building is Grade II star listed, recognised by English Heritage as in the top 4 per cent of all listed buildings in the country, but it is in desperate need of preservation and repair. In 2002 it was placed on the At Risk register.

Today I want to set a challenge to the cultural sector: It is time that there was full-scale support for a National Museum of Migration. Is our national heritage to be defined only in terms of castles and stately homes? It is time for action to support projects such as 19 Princelet Street and to create this museum of migration.