you have memories of Polish communities across Staffordshire
& South Cheshire?
Polish Contacts in Staffordshire
Day Care Centre 1 Battisson Crescent Longton, Stoke on Trent
ST3 4DS. Tel: 01782 312864/397852
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1930s there were only a few thousand Poles in Britain, living mainly
in Manchester, London, Lanarkshire and Scotland.
The 'core' of the Polish community as we know it today is the direct
result of the migration of the Second World War.
Following World War Two Britain became home to thousands of people
displaced by war. Many of those people were experiencing feelings
and emotions connected with displacement, exile and a desire to 'belong'
somewhere – somewhere safe. Immediately after 1945 approximately 135,000
Poles entered the UK as refugees or displaced persons.
According to Tony Kushner and Katherine Knox in Refugees in an Age
of Genocide, a variety of reasons and circumstances resulted in this
Many Poles fled Germany and Poland and were unable to return because
the political changes affecting their homeland meant that their home
had become part of Soviet-controlled territory. Some fled from Nazism,
some from imprisonment by forces from the Soviet Union, and many fled
from camps in Germany, Austria, Italy and Russia.
The route to safety was hazardous, with many experiencing long and
arduous routes of escape and exile in the Middle East and African
colonies before eventually arriving in Britain. For many it had been
incredibly traumatic to leave their family, friends, home and community,
and it was often a leaving not made from choice but from circumstances
which meant they fled for their lives. In addition, many suffered
from the brutality of life as prisoners-of-war.
The Polish community in Britain
One of the differences between the Polish community of the 1930s and
the one post-1945 was that the post-45 community was by nature a patriotic
community and government (in London) in exile who were willing and
able to fight on behalf of the Allies.
Poland was one of the critical factors in bringing Britain into the
war and Poles fought alongside her forces during the conflict. For
that reason the Poles were seen in Whitehall, and perceived in the
wider community as a 'special case'. Churchill singled the Poles out
as 'special' when in a House of Commons speech he declared that:
| Her Majesty’s government will never forget the debt they
owe to the Polish troops who have served them so valiantly and
for all those who have fought under our command…
(See Kushner and Knox p. 221)
Polish Resettlement Act
On 22nd March 1947, the Polish Resettlement Act was passed which provided
entitlement to employment as well as unemployment assistance in Britain.
Poles were now clearly the responsibility of several government departments
covering employment, health and education, and the National Assistance
Board was in charge of Polish Corps Resettlement Camps. There were
about 40 of these camps in total and 3 were still in operation in
1959. There were also approximately 265 Polish Resettlement camps
which were mainly situated in rural areas like the one at Blackshaw
Moor, on the outskirts of Leek.
Poles were then identified as 'special' by the government of the day
and consequently were to be treated differently than other refugees
or displaced persons because of this. Certainly legislation such as
this was not used for other refugee groups and shows the importance
of the Poles on the national political agenda during this time.
Polish life in Staffordshire
The main areas of employment in Britain for Poles was agriculture,
coal-mining and the building industry - this is certainly confirmed
when we survey the range of employers of the Polish Community in North
Staffordshire as many worked in agriculture. Some also worked in the
local textile mills, although there is some evidence of 'resistance'
to Polish men by mill owners. Others worked in the local building
industry and a large number of men worked in the mining industry in
Cannock and Stoke-on-Trent until that ceased. The Polish Camp located
at Blackshaw Moor did, however, bring with it problems of transport
since it was remote from the centres of the industries in which they
The Polish Camp at Blackshaw Moor
Early camp life has been described as difficult and 'varied', with
the Poles being cut off from the local community in Leek and from
their place of work. The imposition of food and fuel restrictions
brought further hardships. The Poles were in exile from their mother
country and also missing and fearing for the safety of their families
and loved ones. They felt misunderstood by officials and therefore
mistrustful of authority and official bodies. The Poles experienced
'perpetual waiting' and what sometimes seemed to be the prospect of
a bleak future.
Despite a willingness, many found it difficult to find work. During
the war Poles were feted as Britain sole allies but after, many felt
they were at the receiving end of unfair criticism and unfounded rumours
– that they were maintained by taxpayers and taking British jobs!
Such feelings and accusations can be heard all to often today about
asylum seekers and refugees fleeing harsh regimes and political persecution.
But despite this difficult, traumatic and at times depressing start,
the Poles have been successful in coming to terms with their exile
and established strong links within the local community through various
organisations like social clubs, associations, and the Polish Press.
Catholicism has been a major source of strength and is seen as so
important that the Poles have their own network of priests and parishes
in Britain. Religion became an expression of nationality and the practice
of Catholicism helped them to retain some sense of identity and culture
within the community.
Polish integration into British society
By the 1960s Poles were seen as "good workers, solid citizens and
family men" according to Kushner and Knox. Evidence shows that the
Polish community have been extremely successful in blending in to
local life – marrying local people and entering trades and professions
in the local community. Many Poles married local girls and settled
either at Blackshaw Moor or in the town of Leek. They brought up families
who have since gone on to bring up a third and fourth generation of
Poles in the Staffordshire Moorlands.
In 2003, we have a diverse and dispersed Polish community, but it
is a community that has maintained a strong sense of identity. We
have in Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands many second, third and
even fourth generation Poles whose parents fled Nazi aggression and
effectively transformed their lives reinforcing Churchill’s identification
of them as 'special'.
If the Poles posed particular problems for the politicians of the
day then they have also continued to pose problems for historians.
At a national level, British history seems to omit these people, rendering
them invisible, and often it is left to the local historian to write
The project researched and produced by BBC in Staffordshire reflects
the increased awareness of the importance of the Polish community
to the history of Leek, highlighting the cultural diversity of the
people of the Moorlands and the ways in which the Polish community
has involved itself in and become part of the history of Leek.
Tony Kushner and Katherine Cox
Refugees in an Age of Genocide
London: Frank Cass, 1999
Senior Lecturer - History
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