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Polish flag
The Polish flag

Warsaw to West Yorkshire!

By Katie Binns
Katie from Bradford's fascinated by the many different people from across the world who now call this city 'home'. In the fourth of a series of articles, she's been finding out more about the Polish community!

Bradford's history has seen various waves of immigrants. In Victorian times the Irish, Germans and Jews came. In the 1940s it was immigrants from Poland who came to Bradford. They viewed themselves as political émigrés so it was important to maintain a national identity, traditional ideas, values and customs, all of which were being surpressed in their homeland which was under Nazi rule.

Listers Mills tower
Many Poles worked at Lister's Mills

It might be surprising to learn that in 1941 an English veteran of the First World War, a Mr Neal, formed the Anglo-Polish Society in Bradford. He'd been a Prisoner of War in Poland and remembered the kindness of the Polish farming family with which he had been lodged. He wished to repay his gratitude by forming a society so that Poles serving in Britain could have a friendly place to turn to. Many Bradford families took in Polish servicemen on leave, such as at Christmas and Easter. There are numerous stories about British kindness. Bradford quickly developed the reputation among Poles as being 'a good town' in which to settle.

The reaction of Bradford people appears to have been generally positive. There was some prejudice but that had a lot to do with the political climate of the time. First, it was as a result of ignorance. Many people had never met 'foreigners' before. Second, there was a fear of unemployment as 'foreigners were taking the jobs'. Third, many people resented the Eastern Europeans' hatred of Stalin and the Soviet Union, the Great Allies of the West in World War II.

There are many accounts of the goodwill which Poles encountered, with one woman remembering: "As long as we work and behave ourselves we never have a problem. Some people say we did but I've never had any problems. I worked with English people. I couldn't speak English, but they were so helpful. If I didn't understand they used to take me by the hand and show me how to do it."

While the goodwill of people in Bradford was forthcoming, jobs weren't. Many Polish people found themselves with work that did not meet their qualifications or aspirations.

Bradford's Polish Centre
Bradford's Polish Centre

One man remembers: "In Bradford there was work available in textiles…It wasn't the best kind of work, but it was work. And because on the whole we were good workers, we were offered better and better jobs. Some went up to become managers or overlookers. I remember a lot of people I would meet up with at the Textile Hall dances had bits of fingers cut off and it was like the norm to see that, it was industrial accidents. I remember one chap, his fingers were all at different levels. You know when you're small you're sort of fascinated by things like that, aren't you?"

Understandably, it was hard for many to adapt, as another man recalls: "Officers who had been fighting the Germans, they had been doing their best and then suddenly they were reduced to jobs such as lift men in the hotels. They were the 'Silver Brigade', silver-haired and polishing silver. Because in those days a man over sixty was considered to be old, he couldn't be retrained. How can you explain to a full General in the Polish Army that he can do nothing else but polish?"

"Many Polish people found themselves with work that did not meet their qualifications or aspirations."
Katie Binns

To this day, many Poles of the older generation can't speak English adequately. There are many reasons for this. Although the authorities set up English language courses, many did not take them up because they thought they would be here for a few years and soon return home. Others dropped out because, after a long day's work, taking a course was too much. Also many people worked among people of their own nationality so they just communicated in their native tongue, and the factory noise drowned out what little conversation was possible.

As with the other immigrant groups coming into Bradford, the Polish congregated together when it came to living space. Oak Lane in Manningham for example was very popular among Polish people when they first settled in the city. Like in many inner city areas, housing was cheap and close to places of work such as Lister's textile mill which dominated the skyline. However, this changed. A second generation Pole shares his memories: "I was born in Bradford. My Dad was working here…He managed to purchase a house with a £5 deposit on Clarendon Street, just off Lumb Lane. My most vivid memories are of that place, and I don't remember any English people at all. There were Polish families up the road, down the road. I remember going to each other's houses and they used to cook for each other at the beginning and everybody had lodgers at the time. Then we moved, as did a lot of families from that area. My Dad got a semi-detached house with a garden, which is where he lives now in Shipley. And I had this terrible feeling that everybody stays in their own home, nobody visits each other."

Solidarity (Solidarnosc) flag
Many Poles in Bradford helped Solidarity

The Polish community has proved itself to be very active. The two main groups are the Polish Ex-Serviceman's Club and the Polish Parish Club. Like the other groups, the Poles have organised Saturday Schools for the teaching of the Polish language, history and culture to the second and third generations, as well as for choirs, dance groups, dramatic societies and women's groups. The Poles also had a former Tory Parliamentary candidate and Bradford Councillor, Mr H. Wysecki, in the early seventies. They also established the Anglo-Polish Labour and Conservative Associations. There's the Polish Catholic Church and a Polish Lutheran Church, plus a priest from Leeds ministers to a small number of Polish Orthodox Christians.

The Polish community also helped to lobby international support on behalf of the Solidarity movement in Poland [a broadly anti-Communist trade union founded in 1980 credited with playing a part in the fall of the Soviet Union which happened a decade later]. In Bradford several truckloads left weekly with supplies of food, clothing and medical aid. One wonders whether, without the support of Polish organisations in the West, Solidarity would have been as successful as it was.

The community has been characterised by quiet diligence and some kind of self-imposed policy to integrate. Their arrival caused no controversy like the Irish influx. Nor did the Polish community take up leadership roles in industry or local politics like the Jews and Germans who came to Bradford.

Katie in Bradford
Katie Binns in Bradford

Perhaps the most controversial event to happen in Polish circles was the disappearance of a priest renowned for his strong opinions about the Communist government in Poland in 1953 after he received a telephone call at his home in Little Horton Lane. Father Henrik Borynski's disappearance has baffled not only Bradford detectives, but also Scotland Yard's Special Branch and even MI5, who investigated a whole host of conspiracy theories surrounding this drama at the height of the Cold War.

Even today – half a century after his disappearance – members of Bradford's polish community still debate his possible fate over drinks at their club in Edmund Street...

last updated: 11/07/06
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