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THE WINDRUSH POLES

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My husband's family on board the Windrush at Tilbury Docks with other Polish refugees,

prior to disembarking in June 1948.  Ewa is at the very back, Janina is in front of her and to her right in the cardigan. Mila is below Janina and to her left, wearing a floral dress with white collar.

The story of the Caribbeans on board the Windrush is well known. There is another which Jane Raca, whose in-laws were Polish passengers, is determined to reveal…

When I uncovered a rare picture of the Polish refugees on the Windrush, they looked happier than I had expected. Apart from a hint of apprehension and some tears, their exuberance matched that of the Caribbean passengers in the now iconic images from 22 June 1948. The back story of the 66 Poles on board however, was totally different.

In contrast to the Caribbeans the Poles were principally female and white, and departing from a refugee camp in Mexico where they had spent the war years. They hadn’t planned to end up in England; their voyage on Windrush was just part of a harrowing odyssey starting 9 years earlier.

 They and their families had been snatched from their homes in the early hours and deported to Siberia by Russian soldiers, after Stalin invaded eastern Poland in 1939. They were put on cattle trucks along with 1.5 million compatriots and sent to forced labour camps and collective farms, where many died horribly of starvation and disease. They were only released when Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and Stalin wanted more troops to fight the Nazis. The men joined the Polish Forces, eventually operating under British command. The women and children were sent to refugee camps all over the world. When the War ended, new boundaries were drawn for Poland at the Yalta peace conference and Russia was allowed to keep eastern Poland, which became part of the Soviet Union. The rest of Poland was controlled by a puppet communist government. The deported Poles had no homes to return to and feared persecution by the same brutal regime that had sent them to Siberia.

In response, the British Government brought them to England in a fleet of ships during the 1940’s, including the Windrush. They were placed in temporary settlements across the UK; a total of over 220,000 people. They were the Polish Windrush Generation.

Despite being white, many had a Slavic appearance that marked them out from the local population. Few spoke English. My mother-in-law, Janina Folta, was a Windrush Pole and told me that she and her friends would try to remain quiet when out in public, so that people wouldn’t hear them talking in Polish and think them 'foreign'.

The Trades Unions did not all welcome the Poles’ competition for labour either. It was only in May 1947 that they agreed that the ex- Polish forces could work in England at all. The Poles found that the jobs open to them were often limited to those that local workers did not want do. Janina’s first husband, Stanisław, worked at British Celanese in Derby. He had fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino, a pivotal victory in WW2. He started civilian life in the UK handling vats of corrosive chemicals used to make the newly discovered artificial fibres.

The Poles did not have the automatic right to live in the UK, since unlike the Caribbeans they were not British subjects. The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 was passed to set up a post-war Polish corps, enabling the troops to continue under British command for two years. It provided for them and their families to reside in the UK and to receive healthcare, education and benefits. The Poles remained legal aliens however and Janina had to notify the police if she left the area or moved house.

Paradoxically, it may have been an advantage for the Poles that they did not have citizenship when they arrived in Britain. Their immigration status was established and recorded. By contrast, the fact that the Caribbean passengers had an automatic right to enter and live in the UK as Commonwealth citizens contributed to the appalling events of 2018.  Then, the Home Office alleged that they and their descendants had no proof of the right to be in the UK and illegally tried to deport them. The scandal was uncovered by the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman.

A sense of being betrayed by the British Government was not limited to the Caribbeans. When it became clear in 1945 that Poland would remain entirely under Russian control, a collective roar of disbelief had gone up from the Polish diaspora, then 5 million strong [i]. In the eyes of the Poles, their soldiers, sailors and pilots had died helping Britain to defend its home territories from the Nazis, but Poland had been lost. The War had only been half won.

The jubilant West did not have the will to focus on Poland’s loss and in time the Poles who were still in Poland themselves became less aware of it. The deportations were not included in the syllabus under the communist education system.

Janina’s own impressions of England were positive, perhaps because she had left Poland when she was only three and had spent her childhood travelling across thousands of miles before finding a permanent home. She lived in the East Midlands until her death in 2020, and she remained deeply grateful to Britain for giving her refuge.

She always identified strongly as Polish, however, and would talk wistfully of the family farm where she was born and life in 'Old Poland'. In common with other Poles of that generation, her heart remained in the old country; a place that, in reality, no longer existed.

 

[i] Clare Wills Lovers and Strangers 'An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain page 23

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