Shelter & Community: Polish Post-War Resettlement Camps in the United Kingdom
small, Ignacy Paderewski Grammar School in West Chiltington, 1946/7, pictured: Władka Wrzesińska, Mirka ?, Tosia Jaroszyńska, Teresa Ferens & Stefa Wrzes, center, #000000, west_chiltington_school_01.jpg
The devastation caused by World War II left hundreds of thousands of Polish forces and individuals displaced from their homes and families by the year 1945. Loved ones had been lost. Houses, flats – and even whole villages – had been destroyed. And with the February Yalta Conference confirming communist control over Poland, many Poles became political refugees, unable to return to their homeland.
The British government, however, recognised the Polish contribution to the Allied effort during the war – which included Poles flying in the Battle of Britain, fighting at Monte Cassino, and breaking the early Enigma codes. As a result, Polish forces and refugees were allowed to find a new life in Britain. Many thousands started this new life in a Polish resettlement camp…
The Polish Forces & the first mass immigration legislation
The history of Polish resettlement in the UK of course began before 1945, with many Polish refugees seeking safety in the country at the start of the war, particularly after the fall of France in 1940. Indeed, that year, the Polish government-in-exile relocated from France to London, whilst other Polish institutions in the UK – including Ognisko Polskie, or The Polish Hearth Club, which is still going strong today – were formed and inaugurated in the early years of the war.
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But as the war ended, the British government realised there was a need to provide security to Polish forces and refugees who were now facing a dire future, particularly due to the results of the Yalta Conference. By that time, hundreds of thousands of Polish troops were fighting as part of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, under the high command of the British Army.
Many of these troops had originally lived in the eastern borderlands of Poland, and had been deported to the gulag in the early years of the war. In 1941, they were released and formed the Anders Army as well as the Polish II Corps. But with the consequences of the Yalta Conference shifting the borders of Poland to the west, these troops faced losing their homes.
In February, during the Yalta Debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill, then prime minister, said:
His Majesty’s Government recognise that the large forces of Polish troops – soldiers, sailors and airmen – now fighting gallantly, as they have fought during the whole year, under British command, owe allegiance to the Polish Government in London. […] Above all, His Majesty’s Government are resolved that as many as possible of the Polish troops shall be enabled to return in due course to Poland, of their own free will, and under every safeguard, to play their part in the future life of their country.
However, Churchill added that:
In any event His Majesty’s Government will never forget the debt they owe to the Polish troops and for all those who have fought under our command I earnestly hope it may be possible to offer citizenship and freedom of the British Empire should they so desire.
This pledge catalysed an effort to formally set up legislation to welcome Polish immigrants to the UK. Efforts increased after the British government formally withdrew its recognition of the Polish government-in-exile in July 1945, leaving Poles with no representation. With yet more forces and individuals seeking a new home, in 1946, the British government established the Polish Resettlement Corps, which supported members of the Polish Armed Forces who had been serving with the British Armed Forces in settling into British civilian life. By the time the Corps was disbanded in 1949, around 250,000 Polish troops and their spouses had arrived in the UK.
In 1947 came Britain’s first immigration law: the Polish Resettlement Act. This entitled Poles to government support, as well as employment and unemployment benefits.
The creation of resettlement camps
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As a result of the government’s legislation, Polish resettlement camps were created across Britain to house arriving Polish forces – although, writes Jordanna Bailkin, ‘initially Polish camps had little to do with family’. This temporary accommodation was often found in former army and air force camps, and military hospitals, which had been given up for Polish refugees by the Ministry of Defence. These included camps in the grounds of large country estates, as well as some under canvas. But despite the rather shabby, slipshod environment, these camps became newfound Polish communities in the UK.
According to Agata Blaszczyk:
By October 1946, around 120,000 Polish troops were quartered in 265 camps throughout Great Britain, mainly in former British, American or Canadian military camps. 160 camps were for the Second Corps and its dependants scattered all over the country. At the beginning, it was the War Office which took responsibility for these Polish Displaced Persons Camps; later, from 1947, the Assistance Board began to administer the camps.
With families arriving, notes Bailkin, ‘the question of what could be expected from camp life – and how to create privacy and intimacy within the camp – were transformed’.
And as well as the camps, there were also hostels for single working men and Polish Hospitals. Of the latter, one of the best known was Hospital No.3 in Penley, North Wales, which was founded in the early years of the war, and eventually became a home for field hospitals used by the Polish II Corps. Hospital No. 3 went on to serve Polish ex-servicemen and their families – at its peak, the facility treated 2,000 people. Many second-generation Poles were born there, and the hospital became its own community, including a chapel, recreation rooms, a nursery, and cinema.
Conditions in the camps
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West Chiltington Sussex, some of our teachers: Dr Maria Felinska, Majory Wood, Jadwiga Żmigrodzka, Bogna Domańska & Romana Sochocka, 1947, photo: northwickparkpolishdpcamp.co.uk
The Polish resettlement camps also became little corners of Poland in the UK. But there were some issues, too. Though there were hundreds of camps across the UK by 1946, many were in rural locations, a few miles from nearby towns. The accommodation consisted of Nissen huts – which despite having electric lights, had poor ventilation and little natural light.
Inspections of the camps took place during the 1940s and 1950s, to gauge morale and establish settlement policies. In some inspections, notes Blaszczyk:
Sanitary facilities were found to be of a crude and primitive type and were housed in central huts or blocks which were not, in the inspectors’ opinion, suitable for civilians.
Hot water was available on one or two days a week. Furthermore, huts like those in the West Chiltington Camp, were heated only three or four days a week, which gave the inspectors particular cause for concern:
It is appreciated that the inhabitants spend most of their time in their own huts and thus they should be adequately warmed.
There were also concerns that Polish refugees were not adequately prepared for assimilation into British life:
In the inspectors’ opinion, the main common problem for all the residents, but particularly young people, was that of acquiring an adequate knowledge of English in order to be able to meet the normal needs of everyday life. At both camps, there was a secondary school; however its curriculum was geared to preparing these young people to pass a Polish university entrance examination in Polish. Consequently, they would not have been able to gain admission to British universities. In addition, the poor standard of teaching and a lack of any obvious methodology caught the inspectors’ attention. Unsurprisingly, the teaching and schooling equipment came under severe criticism.
There were limited quantities of books, and those in use were found to be out of date. Work went uncorrected. Teachers were seen to be inadequate and unqualified – although the inspectors note that ‘this is difficult to judge in another language’.
Boys were also reported to have learnt more English than girls – although girls saw the value of the language for future work. Nevertheless, many boys from more well-educated backgrounds, writes Blaszczyk, expressed desires to enter specialised professions.
The camp community
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A bit of fun with an egg & spoon race, from left: Jerzy Mordak, Leszek’s uncle, two Wierzbicki brothers & Andrzej Byczyński, photo: polishresettlementcampsintheuk.co.uk
However, for many Polish refugees, time in resettlement camps was in fact one of happiness and close community ties. According to Blaszczyk:
In general, Polish exiles temporarily residing in the camps felt ‘at home’ in their local communities. Despite of difficulties associated with the everyday life in the resettlement camps, they felt secure, reassured and reasonably comfortable living in their temporary dwellings. A sense of personal safety remained paramount. Polish refugees clearly valued continuity after their post-war difficult journey, and a sense of the existing community made them feel at ease. This would later become an important facilitator of integration.
The camps became a home away from home for many Poles. In many, entertainment – such as sports races and theatre shows – and religious services were available, whilst others were visited by esteemed Polish figures. At the Burton on Wolds camp in Leicestershire, the 10 aerodrome sites were given Polish names: Ulica Poleska (Poleska Street), Ulica Wileńska, Ulica Lwowska, Ulica Szpitalna, Ulica Kościelna, Ulica Polna, Ulica Słoneczna and Ulica Centralna.
At Seighford camp in Staffordshire, Poles cultivated the local land, including as a communal venture. Other camps offered visits to English theatres and concerts, whilst Poles were encouraged to play in local football leagues.
Many individuals in the Polish diaspora in the UK remember their childhood experiences in the camps with happiness, recalling the close community spirit, and the continuation of national traditions.
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Family and friends, from left: Mr Wietrzyk, Mr & Mrs Sikora, unknown, Mr Mańko with his children Czesiek & Alina, man at the end unknown, photo: polishresettlementcampsintheuk.co.uk
But despite the strong Polish community in the camps, the inspectors’ worries regarding assimilation – particularly for younger generations – point to some obstacles faced by Poles in their new homes. Bailkin notes that some Poles – those who had spent the war in Lebanon – settled more easily than those who had been living in Kenya or Tengeru.
It was evident to the inspectors that most of the residents were not prepared to return to Poland. Clearly, life in exile, however under-provided for, had become the more attractive option. The refugees hoped that their predicament would be soon resolved and they were ready to accept uncomplainingly the temporary inconveniences in the camp. Importantly, it became increasingly evident to the inspectors that these young people needed some form of stabilization and some basic guidance and help from the host society along with the social training, so that they could blend smoothly into their new society.
But these concerns were ameliorated by new government legislation. After the Polish Resettlement Act, writes Blaszczyk, the Ministry of Education and the Secretary of the State for Scotland took over responsibility for the education of Poles in the United Kingdom, with expenses ‘defrayed out of monies provided by Parliament’.
As a result, the Committee for the Education of Poles was established. In a memorandum, this committee was shown to be designed ‘for [Poles’] absorption into British schools and British careers whilst still maintaining provision for their natural desire for the maintenance of Polish culture and the knowledge of Polish History and Literature’.
In short, this encouraged Poles to learn English, which would support their assimilation into British life. Polish boarding schools were established, whilst Polish teachers were taught English, to be able to educate students in a variety of subjects the English language.
However, on a more personal and family level, assimilation was to a certain extent forbidden. Bailkin writes that British women – or British wives of Poles – were discouraged from entering the camps, as it was felt they did not need extra family reunification support.
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Mira Rzemek, Stefa Wrzesińska, Tosia Joroszyńska, Halina Wieczorek, Zosia Hałas (Wojtkiewicz), Teresa Ferenc, Wanda Rada & Jadwiga Groszek, photo: northwickparkpolishdpcamp.co.uk
The objective of the camps, as previously mentioned, was to support the new Polish immigrants in the UK in their assimilation into British life. Although education went part of the way towards this aim, there was another problem: finding jobs.
The Polish Resettlement Corps had a Polish military structure, and was designed to help train former Polish troops in new occupations, including mining, heavy industry, agriculture and construction. With members of the PRC also registered at job centres, as soon as they were employed, they were demobilised at regional PRC Administration and Payroll centres, and encouraged to leave the camps and seek accommodation elsewhere.
But this was difficult to achieve in practice. In some cases, the locations of jobs did not have any accommodation nearby, whilst some job centres offered positions to British labourers first. Trade unions also refused to register some Resettlement Corps qualifications.
Some Poles, however, did move away and find work, whilst others emigrated. Although menial work was sometimes the only option, there were still routes for those keen on more specialised occupations, reports Blaszczyk:
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Two prominent examples must suffice. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, a Polish-British physician and immunologist [was] the 345th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Sir Leszek’s parents arrived in the Britain in 1947 and settled in Wales, where he was born and brought up in a small, Polish-speaking community. He was knighted in 2001. Then there is Waldemar Januszczak, the well-known British art critic and broadcaster.
The end of the camps
second world war
Polish Air Forces in Britain
polish culture in great britain
With Poles eventually finding work and moving away, or the buildings eventually deemed insufficient for families to reside in, many of the camps had closed by the 1950s and 1960s. Today, in many cases, there is little sign of their existence at all – except in the memories of those who lived and grew up there.
However, Penley went on to serve Poles until 2002, when it housed only six patients. After this, a new building for Poles was erected in 2004. Campaigners have since been trying to protect the hospital site and the now derelict former buildings from demolition, particularly since applications to build houses in the location were submitted.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Sep 2020
Sources: ‘Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain’ by Jordanna Bailkin (Oxford 2018), northwickparkpolishdpcamp.co.uk; fmreview.org, polishresettlementcampsintheuk.co.uk