Polish Londoners: past, present and future

As a blog concerned with the Baltic region whose editors are mostly located in London we are naturally particularly interested in the relevant diasporas living in the Big Smoke. It is therefore our pleasure to invite you to invite you to the conference in Polish community heritage at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) on 28 March 2014 (polishlondoners.eventbrite.co.uk) and read our new article on the Polish diaspora by Marta Łomża from LMA’s Development Office.

The imminent 10th anniversary of the EU expansion to Central and Eastern Europe is a good time to ask the question about the practical impact this political change had on the lives of individuals and communities. Academic papers and seminars have been exploring the questions of migrant identities in this new fluid reality; but as it is, I’m personally and professionally concerned with how the way in which we understand our past is shaped; and how we, living today, can influence the way we will be understood in the future.

In more practical terms, I am interested in the question of how these new migrant communities that have already become part of London’s townscape will be remembered once they inevitably diminish, transform, and, perhaps, disappear.

For a Polish person living in London, a natural ‘sample’ to look at is the Polish community in the British capital. I am quite conscious of the fact that part of the reason why London feels like home to me is because of the rich links between Poland and the UK: from Polish items in my corner shop to inexpensive parcel shipping (i.e. Babcia’s homemade jam delivered on demand), to a range of affordable options for transport (if flights are inconvenient, there are always a number of car share ads going round at any given time!), all this enables me to benefit from everything London has to offer without missing all my childhood comforts too much. Image

I am really appreciative of all the business activity that creates this ‘Polish London’. But at the same time, I rarely seek out opportunities to engage with other members of the Polish community while I’m here. In fact, it wasn’t until I started a project at London Metropolitan Archives, where I work, that I discovered a vibrant community, with its own calendar of events and network of organisations. It struck me that if I can live here and now and not be fully aware of this community, with time it may become forgotten almost completely.

But then, what is a community exactly? Certainly, in terms of the Polish people living in the UK, I’d sooner say ‘communities’ as I’m alert to the huge diversity within this group. There are a range of professions and trades, different educational backgrounds and, quite crucially, different levels of English, a characteristic which definitely impacts on how one understands the society around her. There are also different reasons for coming here: the economic factor is what is usually cited but then there are people who come here in search for professional or personal development opportunities, those who follow their partners or families, and so on. There are different attitudes towards long-term plans: for some, this is an investment and they plan to go back after a few years, while others plan to stay indeterminately. Not to mention the generational gap between the different periods of more intensive immigration: the wartime refugees and exiles, the post-war immigrants, and the EU migrants.

Interestingly, London has already seen something similar. The 19th century saw political and military refugees coming in as Europe was gripped by a wave of revolutions and wars. While the numbers were much lower than the ones today (it is estimated that about 2,600-2,700 Poles came and went between 1831 and 1862), they were sizeable and visible enough for specific organisations to spring up, such as the Literary Society of Friends of Poland or the Committee for Charity Ball in Aid of Polish Refugees, and for the government to grant them financial aid that became the subject of parliamentary debates (available here: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/search/polish+exiles?century=C19).

The archival evidence of that group is quite scarce, and there are a number of reasons for that which I won’t discuss here for lack of space. The most complete documentation is actually kept in Paris. But even the little information we have hints at the fact that the community was far from uniform: there were people in abject poverty who lived in overcrowded slums of Clerkenwell, but then there were those who actually bought property in London and lived quite nicely, staying with their aristocratic cousins in West London. There were also Jewish immigrants and refugees who came from Polish lands towards the end of the 19th century.

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So while the group was not that large, it must have been fascinating in its diversity and the range of its activities. Records of parliamentary debates give us a glimpse of their life – the various business activities of Polish people in London are mentioned as is their struggle to earn a living in a new country without the necessary language skills. Census returns show where and how these people lived.

But it is still a rather difficult area to research, because the records that must have been created by those people themselves are not readily available, if they have survived at all. The story of those who fought in various uprisings across Europe and then were forced to seek refuge in England is incomplete, pieced together from other people’s accounts and official records – it’s almost impossible to create a coherent narrative, difficult to ascertain numbers, tricky to map it out and decide if and when it was a distinct feature of London’s social space.

And that brings me to think about the Polish Londoners of today. We may not be a cohesive entity, and perhaps not all of us think of ourselves as belonging to the same group, and yet in the future, all of us can potentially serve as examples of ‘members of the Polish community’, like the one mentioned in a recent short article on BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-26315789). We are here in great numbers, engage in so many activities, and many of us hope to make our mark, a contribution to this society; and many of us do. But 50 years from now, how will this be remembered? Will this vibrant, incoherent, multi-faceted Polish London be recorded in any way other than our own memories?

These questions led me to initiate a conference at LMA which hopes to achieve two goals. On the one hand, it will act as an introduction to the history of Polish immigration to London across the centuries. On the other hand, it aims to raise that awareness amongst Polish people and organisations in London of the need to preserve their legacy, thus conserving our common heritage, and to think about how we want to shape this heritage – how do we want to be seen now, and in the future?

In this way, the conference will link the stories from the past – our history – to the stories of the present – our identities. The way in which something is recorded and presented shapes the way in which it is portrayed and seen, now and in the future. In the years to come, records created by organisations and individuals in the course of their day-to-day activities will become the testimony to what the community once was. If we want our Polish London of the early 2000s to be remembered for what it is now, it is our responsibility to make sure some of our legacy is preserved.

Join the debate on the Polish community heritage – come to the conference at the London Metropolitan Archives on 28 March 2014. Booking essential: polishlondoners.eventbrite.co.uk

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