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You are in: Stoke & Staffordshire Polish Community »
April 2003
The Polish community in the
Staffordshire Moorlands - a history
Aleksander Jablonski (far left) with friends outside the Polish Club in Leek
Aleksander Jablonski (far left) with friends outside the Polish Club in Leek, Staffordshire
Dr Pauline Elkes, senior lecturer in history at Staffordshire University, researched how Poles came to be established in the Moorlands...

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In the 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.

Polish migration
According to Tony Kushner and Katherine Knox in Refugees in an Age of Genocide, a variety of reasons and circumstances resulted in this migration.

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:

quoteHer 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… quote
Winston Churchill
(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 worked.

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.

Difficulties
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 their history.

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.

Acknowledgements:
Tony Kushner and Katherine Cox
Refugees in an Age of Genocide
London: Frank Cass, 1999

Article by:
Pauline Elkes   Dr. Pauline Elkes
Senior Lecturer - History
Staffordshire University

If you can tell us more, click here!
Top | Polish Index | Home
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Audio archive
Community Audio Archive
We're building up an audio archive of interviews with members of the Polish community...

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