by Esther Freeman
This story starts on a holiday to Krakow, Poland. Standing outside a synagogue, staring up at its vast walls, I wondered if it was where my great-grandparents got married. Newly wed myself, I was fascinated that my relatives might have exchanged vows there before embarking on new lives, in a new world.
Like many Polish Jews, my great-grandparents fled Poland for Britain in the mid-1800s, probably because of religious persecution and economic hardship. I know little about them, except that they settled here, while most quickly returned to Poland.
Although short, the first wave of Polish migrants left its mark on Britain. One couple set up a little shop you might have heard of – Marks & Spencers. A generation later, the son of a Polish migrant founded Tesco’s. Oh, and fish and chips – that was theirs too. Lesser known today, but influential in his time, was Polish migrant Harry Lebus. His factory in London’s East End produced the must-have furniture of its day. Linked to the William Morris Arts and Crafts movement, Lebus was hugely successful, employing many other Polish migrants.
I live in Waltham Forest, less than a mile from where the Lebus factory was. If Polish migrants were employed there, I wondered whether others locally had a similar heritage to me. Waltham Forest has a growing Eastern European population, Polish making up the vast majority.
Most came here in the third wave, which began in the 1990s. But why did they settle in Waltham Forest? Did the first wave establish foundations for them? Quite a bit is known about the second wave in the early 1940s, especially in West London – but what were its effects on East London?
Of course, third wave Polish migrants are different to my family. Most are Catholic, and are seeking employment, not fleeing persecution. But could there be common ground?
To answer these questions, I started From Poland to Waltham Forest, a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It’s still in its early stages, but our team of research volunteers have already unearthed some fascinating information. For instance, during World War II, Harry Lebus began manufacturing Mosquito aircraft, the only fighter plane to be made out of wood. It was considered a triumph of technology and the envy of the Germans. We’ve also discovered a local cemetery full of Polish names.
Through the project, we also hope to interview Polish people, and those of Polish heritage, to discover what brought their families to the area.
This isn’t a political project. It’s about understanding Polish influence on the area, and how far back it dates. It’s also about enabling recent Polish migrants to feel a greater connection to the community.
Of course, it’s hard to completely ignore the political context. The likes of Nigel Farage talk about our communities becoming “unrecognisable” because of migration. Yet, some of our most British things – from fish and chips, to Mosquito fighter jets and Tescos – we have the Polish to thank for.
If you’re interested in volunteering on the From Poland to Waltham Forest project, visit www.frompoland.org.uk
- A day in the life of Polish nurse Honorata Szuba