Inside Brick Lane's Mosque That Was A Synagogue That Was A Church

By Len Williams Last edited 51 months ago

Last Updated 17 February 2020

Inside Brick Lane's Mosque That Was A Synagogue That Was A Church
Image: Brick Lane Jamme Masjid

I'm on the top floor of a mosque, studying a Hebrew prayer, in a building that was first conceived of as a church.

First constructed in 1743, the building that houses the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid (also known as the Brick Lane Mosque) has passed through the hands of three major religions during its near-300 year history, and stands as a symbol for the history of migration to London's East End.

The handsome building that stands on a corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane is a landmark in the area, thanks to a steel tubular structure that forms a minaret on the street outside (It was added in 2009.) Sajjad Miah, the president of the mosque's governing committee, is giving me the tour.

A Christian beginning

The south side of the mosque, with its sundial

Viewed from its south side on Fournier Street, the two-floor building is topped by a triangular pediment with a sundial feature. This contains the Latin motto Umbra Sumus ("We are but shadows"), an accidental metaphor for how diverse communities have passed through here.

The roots of the building are tied to migration from France. From the early 1700s, tens of thousands of Huguenot refugees began arriving in England. Huguenots were protestants and were unwelcome in Catholic Europe at the time. They were also renowned weavers and many of them settled in the East End where they set up cloth factories. As they became wealthy in the trade, the Huguenots built themselves the Neuve Eglise on Brick Lane, probably designed by Thomas Stibbs, who had built an earlier French church on Threadneedle Street.

Over time, the Huguenots moved out of the area and the building was temporarily leased by the London Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews, an organisation founded by one Thomas Frey, a Jewish-born Christian convert.

A Jewish community grows

A Hebrew prayer plaque, left from the time the mosque was a synagogue

From 1819 the church passed through the hands of a series of Christian denominations. Then, in the 19th century, a wave of Jews arrived in London, fleeing violent anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire. In 1897, the building was acquired by a group of orthodox Lithuanian Jews called the Machzike Hadath ('Strengtheners of the Faith'), who found established English Judaism too relaxed for their tastes.

In a 1953 biography of the building, Bernard Homa explains that his grandfather Abraham Werner was the first Rabbi of the Machzike Hadath from the 1890s until his death in 1912. The book claims that his grandfather's funeral was the largest in England at the time — reportedly, some 20,000 people lined the streets of east London to see his coffin make its way from Brick Lane to Edmonton Cemetery.

The Bangladeshi era

Brick Lane in 1977 © Paul Trevor and taken from this article

Eventually, London's East End Jews followed a similar pattern to the Huguenots — working in, then running, their own textile firms before eventually moving out to wealthier suburbs. The synagogue appears to have fallen into disuse by the 1970s.

However, from the 1950s a nascent Bangladeshi community was starting to settle around Brick Lane (although the history of Bengalis in London stretches back much further). You might have guessed the story by now; they began working in and then taking over textile factories, and converted the synagogue into a mosque. According to Mr Miah, the building was purchased in 1976 and opened in 1978, in its third religious iteration.

Image: Brick Lane Jamme Masjid

"There is a big Bangladeshi community living nearby," says Miah, "so it has always been their place of worship". While he stresses that the mosque is open as a place of worship to any Muslim, the majority of worshippers are Bangladeshi, or of Bangladeshi descent.

Inside the mosque

The minbar - the pulpit where the imam preaches

"It is a vast building" says Miah. Today, the main entrance is on Brick Lane through a separate three-story Grade II Georgian house attached to the north side of the mosque. Male visitors remove footwear and enter a washroom where the faithful perform the necessary ablutions (in the past the entry was via two doors on Fournier Street).

To the right and on three floors above are administrative and teaching rooms while in the basement are three barrel-vaulted storage cellars. To the left of the entry hall, you pass through a door into the mosque itself. It's a cavernous yet peaceful space, laid out over two floors; the first floor opens onto the ground floor via a cut-out in the ceiling. A handful of worshippers are seated on the floor silently counting prayer beads in contemplation. You could easily forget the hustle and bustle of Brick Lane is just outside the door.

Image: Brick Lane Jamme Masjid

I take a photo of the wooden minbar (the platform where the imam delivers his sermons) built into the southern eastern corner of the room which faces Mecca. Miah points out the carpets which are replaced every few years at great expense. I ask a rather silly question: do they change the carpet because it gets worn out from people praying on it? "Not really!" he laughs, "it's more that people like a change in colour and design every few years".

Where ablutions are performed before prayer. Image: Brick Lane Jamme Masjid

Today's interior would appear very different to its earlier occupants. The Historic England website says that when it was a church, the chapel was a single large hall (unlike today's split-level design), with a series of timber galleries facing a pulpit on the south wall. Then, when it became a synagogue, the east part of the gallery was removed in order to house a bimah and ark in the centre of the east wall. It was only in 1986 that the current two-level structure was built. That said, there are still traces of its past; most notably the Muslims retained a Hebrew prayer plaque.

"It's like churches in this country"

The mosque receives around 2,000 worshippers most Fridays according to Miah, not to mention the two Eids and Ramadan, when numbers swell, and worshippers come to break the fast and share a big meal in the mosque's barrel-vaulted cellars.

The building offers more than just religious services too. One important project for the community is a mother tongue programme, where kids of Bangladeshi origin come to learn Bengali after school. The mosque also hosts madrasas — religious evening and weekend classes where youngsters learn about Islam. There are also a handful of students who spend several years learning the text of the Koran off by heart in Arabic. No mean feat.

Community and learning are at the heart of the mosque's ethos. Image: Brick Lane Jamme Masjid

Nevertheless, Miah does worry about the future of the building. "It's like churches in this country," he sighs, "when I first came to England, all the English people would go to church every Sunday, but nowadays they're stopping. The same is happening at mosques". Attendance numbers might also be dropping due to the simple fact of migration. Like the Huguenots and Jews before them, the Bangladeshi community is diffusing further out into London's suburbs. If there are mosques closer to where they live, there's less motivation to make the slog to Brick Lane.

"It's becoming very expensive"

And while a walk down Brick Lane is still satisfyingly eclectic, Miah points out that the make-up of the area is changing fast. "There are a lot of city people moving into Brick Lane now, and it's becoming very expensive". I can confer, having gallingly paid £2.20 for an espresso prior to our meeting at a nearby café.

The cost of upkeep for a Georgian building isn't inconsiderable either. "It is a historical, listed building," Miah explains, "we are not allowed to make any changes to the outside or to the structure, and any repairs need to be made using the original materials". From brick work to the window frames, maintenance doesn't come cheap.

Image: Brick Lane Jamme Masjid

All that being said, the mosque still seems busy. When I visit on a Wednesday lunchtime, there's no doubt this is still a working mosque — plenty of people, young and old, enter and exit the building for prayers, the office is bustling with staff and there are posters on the notice board for upcoming talks, and even a matchmaking event.

If its history is anything to go by, the building that houses the Brick Lane Mosque will certainly have an interesting future.