Polish Migration To London: A Drama In Three Acts

By Marysia Lachowicz | 21 February 2007
photo shows small boy and girl in traditional polish dress

A picture from the Annual Polish Festival held by the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. Courtesy of the Federation.

Since the 1940s there have been three major waves of Polish immigration to the UK. The different reasons for these mean that the Polish communities can be seen as distinct groups with very different aspirations who may or may not mix.

Marysia Lachowicz describes the history of these migrations, and talks to people from each wave about their relations with London and each other.

Read about Polish Culture in London and Famous Poles in London history

“The new arrivals are different, they dress, shop and think in a different way to us … but no matter we are all Polish at heart.”

WW2 refugee


In the region of 20 million people of Polish descent are living in the Polish diaspora: reasons vary from shifting borders and the political history of Poland to economic and social migration. The largest Polish population is undoubtedly in America (Chicago is recognised as the largest Polish city outside of Poland) but there are also large Polish communities in Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and the UK.

Once itself a mighty force within Europe, Poland has often found itself carved up and its borders moved following power struggles between the strongest nations of Europe. From 1772 pretty much up until the First World War in 1914, Poland as a country disappeared from the map under a series of agreements between Prussia, Russia and Austria, known as the Partitions. During this period, Polish refugees fled to other European countries. In 1834 there were estimated to be 400 Polish refugees living in Britain. Generally speaking these early emigrants were members of the Polish elite, intellectuals and artists, who fled Poland from fear of reprisals and renewed fighting.

However, during this period contacts within the field of the arts also flourished. For example, well-known Polish musicians such as Chopin, Paderewski and Szymanowski performed in England; paintings belonging to the last King of Poland (Stanislaw August) became the core of the collection at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Joseph Conrad (born Josef Korzeniowski) came to live in and work in Britain.

After the First World War, with the collapse of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Empires, Poland regained her land and independence. Many Poles who had been forced to fight with the German found themselves in prisoner of war camps in Alexandra Palace and Feltham and rather than return to Poland, stayed on in England.

photo shows cutout of polish eagle

The Polish Eagle. Photo: Marysia Lachowicz.

Second World War

By far the largest and most significant wave of emigration during the 20th century was following the Second World War when once again Poland’s borders were redrawn and the world recognised a Polish government under Soviet control. Some 25% of Poland’s population died during the war and many thousands more were displaced through the fighting and deportations; the majority of these people felt they no longer had a home to which they could return.

The invasion of Poland by Germany from the West in 1939 provoked the war but it was followed only a few weeks later by the Red Army moving in from the East, both nations intent not only on capturing land but also on destroying Polish culture. In 1941 Russia was forced into an alliance with Britain and the US against Germany, but during the previous year they had carried out mass enforced deportations of thousands of Poles from Eastern Poland into Siberia. Able-bodied men were sent to labour camps and women and children forced to eke out an existence in the harsh Siberian landscape. Many of these ended up in the UK after the war and would never forget their experience nor forgive the Russians.

In 1939, the Polish Government in Exile under the presidency of Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz was set up initially in Paris, moving to London when France fell under German control. General Sikorski was appointed Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces until his unfortunate death in 1943. The Polish Navy had left Poland prior to the German invasion and many thousands of Polish airmen and soldiers were forced to flee the country through Romania and Hungary. Most of these men ended up fighting in Allied campaigns such as Tobruk, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic and in Italy at Monte Cassino and Ancona.

painting shows pilot in military gear

A painting from the Sikorski Museum showing the 100th Polish airman to be killed during World War II

When Russia joined the Allies in 1941, Stalin released thousands of the Polish soldiers and young men who had been taken prisoner and deported to Siberia. They regrouped and trained in Iran and the Middle East before joining the Allied campaigns in Africa and Italy under the leadership of General Anders and became known as “Anders’ Army”. For the Poles, they were fighting for a free Poland; for the Allies they were an invaluable aid in the fight against the German tyranny. In Poland, 2007 is the Year of General Anders.

After the war, the Poles found themselves in a difficult position. Various agreements (Yalta, Tehran) between the US, Britain and Russia once again lead to the carving up of Poland, its borders shifted Westward, land and people were lost and a communist government installed. Most of the world recognised the new Polish regime but the Polish people at home and abroad felt betrayed. The Polish Government in Exile remained active in London campaigning for the removal of foreign occupation of Poland’s lands until 1991.

More about the Polish Resistance

The Polish War Memorial

History of the Polish War Memorial

Personal story of escape from Poland

Personal story of escape from Poland

The Polish diaspora in Iran

photo shows men in uniform during second world war

The author's father with other members of the parachute regiment. Courtesy of Marysia Lachowicz.

Settling in London

For many Poles, particularly those who had fought with the Allies or came from the Eastern side of Poland, there was no possibility of return. Around 250,000 Poles had served under the British command and, in recognition of their support, the new Labour Government in 1946 announced the setting up of the Polish Resettlement Corps, a non-combatant arm of the British Army. In effect, this allowed the Polish troops to learn English and a trade and over a 2 year period make a smooth transition into civilian life in Britain. In the region of 114,000 Poles took advantage of this scheme; added to this were other displaced Poles from across Europe and from German prisoner of war camps so that by 1951 there were some 160,000 Poles in Britain, almost 50,000 of whom (men, women and children) were based in London.

The officer classes tended to migrate to the South East and London whilst others took up work in the north mainly in the heavy industries. London’s appeal was the lure of more work and the chance to study and change jobs more readily. Many had families still in Poland and no affinity with Britain - they had always intended to return to Poland after the war. Their assimilation into the British way of life was not so easy, they encountered racism and were not welcomed as readily as they might have expected given their part in the defeat of Germany.

As a result people tended to group together and form their own networks with the aim of maintaining their own cultural identity and always with the hope of one day returning to a free Poland. Despite retaining this fierce sense of national pride, often the Poles (like many others who served in the war) did not talk about their experiences so that second generation Poles (like myself) learned little of their family history. Perhaps these stories were too tragic or too ‘embarrassing’ as educated Poles took lowly paid unskilled work to survive or perhaps as time went by their struggle became less relevant to later generations.

My own father fought with the First Independent Polish Parachute Brigade under Col Stanislaw Sosabowski based in Fife in Scotland, he met my mother and married her in 1946. My mother talks about the excitement when the rather exotic and charming Poles arrived in the small fishing villages along the Fife coast, several of the local lasses ended up like my mother, married to one of them. But post-war the welcome was not so great as the local men returned to find their women and their jobs going to the Poles. Some remained in the area in the mining, farming and fishing industries, others, like my mother and father, made the move south and to London.

With no choice left to them, the majority settled and as one said to me:

"There is no difficulty going back now but most stay. I would not want to go home. I have relatives in Poland and I feel at home if I visit but I would not want to live there because it is so different. I have become accustomed to life here; my roots are here, my children and grandchildren are here, my football club is here; all those things that tie you down. And I think this applies to people who are here more than ten years – those ties develop and then you stay."

WW2 refugee

Post-war migration

With the Cold War in Europe, migration between Poland and Britain became more difficult although several thousand did make the journey to Britain. For the refugees already here, the political situation in Poland made return look even more distant and impossible. Contact was maintained by occasional visits, phone calls and letters. But these were countered by the very real possibility of being arrested if they returned - or at the very least long hours of questioning at border controls, and of letters or calls being listened into to and censored. It strengthened the resolve of many to maintain a sense of Polish identity within communities in Britain.

For those in Poland, some wanted to leave to re-join their families or to further academic studies or careers. Others expected to see the fruits of western life filtering through to them from family members abroad. In reality, these family members were struggling to re-create a new life and for many it added a new gulf between families. Immigration into Britain was only possible with official offers of work or study, short term visas and marriage. Many women coming to Britain during this period arrived as brides to first or second generation Poles already in the country.

It’s easy to conclude that both these periods of migration were based on political ideologies and fear of the political situation and reprisals in Poland if people returned.

However, the student communities in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s experienced a certain freedom that was not so easy in everyday life. Despite the difficulties young people did travel to see what life was like in the West. One person who came at this time said:

“we’d heard about English pubs so thought we’d come to see what they were really like!”

In December 1981, Poland woke up under martial law. The government was fearful of the strength and popularity of the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain, Solidarity, which had been established in 1980. The borders were sealed, airports closed, curfews imposed, mail censored, schools and universities closed, TV and radio suspended apart from the official government outlets and all trade union and independent organisations de-legalised. Although the Poles resisted martial law through strikes and marches, any form of resistance was brutally crushed and thousands were imprisoned.

In London, the Polish communities reacted by collecting food and clothing to send to Poland and by making representations to the British Government. Martial law ended in 1983 although elements of it remained in force throughout the 1980s until in 1989 Solidarity won a landslide free election and the Communist party was finally ousted from Poland.

For the Poles that left Poland during this time or found themselves in the UK, they were accepted as refugees and allowed to stay. Most of these people are now in their 40s and have assimilated into British life: many have set up successful businesses with a Polish bias, eg, bars, cafes, driving schools, florists, importers of Polish goods.

photo shows market stall with traditional Polish gifts

The annual Polish Festival. Courtesy of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain.

Accession to the European Union in 2004

On 1st May 2004, Poland joined the European Union. The UK opened its borders without restriction and the media fuelled stories of the huge economic migration that would put our own people out of work: the mythical Polish plumber came to symbolise this fear. In Poland, the media painted a rosy and equally inaccurate picture of Britain:

"The first to arrive were often very naive because the press and media generally in Poland painted the UK as a land of milk and honey. In 2004 it was not unusual for me to pick up the phone and someone say 'I’m in Victoria now what should I do next?' People were arriving in Victoria without a word of English and virtually expecting prospective employers to be standing there in a queue to pick them up. All we could do was to say, “Have you a return ticket to Poland? Well use it.” Some of them would follow that advice but very many didn’t and they would end up working in the black economy, working for £2.50 or £3 per hour. The worrying thing is that this exploitation goes on and not only with Poles but with other seasonal workers such as the Portuguese. "

Jan Mokrzycki, President of Federation of Poles in Great Britain

photo show lots of advertisment cards for polish jobs and services

Polish jobs and services being advertised informally in London. Photo: Marysia Lachowicz.

According to the Federation of Poles in Great Britain (ZPWB) “there are about 750,000 people with Polish connection living in the UK with about one third of those being British citizens of voting age”.

The ZPWB was set up in February 1947 at a time when the British government withdrew recognition of the Polish Government in Exile and an organisation was needed that could speak in the name of the Polish community to the British government.

It became a conduit between the various organisations and the Polish Government in Exile which Poles in Poland and those in exile still recognised as their legal government. It organised demonstrations outside the Polish Embassy against events in Poland or if state visits to the UK were organised. No self-respecting Pole would set foot inside the Polish Consulate or Polish Embassy until post-1989. Visas and passports were also obtained by post, never in person. Up until 1989 ZPWB represented the “free Poles” and spoke for them outside of Poland. Post 1989, they started to work with the Polish government and formed an organisation called Poland Comes Home – campaigning for NATO and EU membership. They are currently seeking funding from within Poland to employ extra staff to deal with the new influx of Poles to Britain, particularly to encourage them to join trade unions or to take action re employment or racial/anti-Polish undertones.

New arrivals now tend to be better informed and on the whole more realistic about their expectations here. The third edition of How to Live and Work in Great Britain (in Polish) containing basic but essential information, from how to register and get a national insurance card to how to get your child into a school, will soon be published by ZPWB.

photo shows newspaper

A London Polish newspaper. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

Most who come here integrate reasonably well although there is, and no doubt always will be, a small percentage who are being exploited or are homeless and jobless. Some, particularly those with no skills or poor English, would undoubtedly be better off returning home but pride often prevents it. By far the majority (the current guesstimate is 80%) plan to stay for a limited length of time and are prepared to work at minimum wage and live in cramped conditions, eating and spending frugally so they can save as much money as possible to send home and return to set up a business, or buy a house, etc.

"If you haven’t a skill, if you are an unskilled labourer, if the wages are low in your country of origin and you hear that the wages somewhere else are higher you go there. But then of course reality hits you that yes wages are higher but so is the cost of living and then you get really dishonest employers. There is rumour of a labour camp in the Midlands … but it’s just a rumour"

Recent arrival, 2006

As a starting point, Poles head to where Polish communities already exist but if there is no work they go elsewhere which encourages others to join them, so many new Polish communities are appearing around the country. A higher percentage of men than women are coming in and finding work within new light industries, eg, meat packing. The women often end up in restaurants, hotels and as nannies and cleaners. But a complete cross-section of society is arriving, including students, unskilled and highly skilled. Some of the latter take lower unskilled jobs until their English improves and then seek work to suit their skills. More and more Poles are moving into managerial positions.

Those arriving without official job offers are encouraged to register with proper agencies and the Job Centre to avoid any exploitation. Yet within days of arriving in areas like Tooting, Ealing or Hammersmith, every Pole knows which Polish deli or corner shop has the best bulletin board where jobs and rooms for rent are posted daily. The Polish Daily Paper (Dziennik Polski) and free magazines (eg, Goniec Polski, Cooltura and Tylko jeden podatak?) also carry advertisements and advice. There is no shortage of offers. Indeed, the Polish Express newspaper sponsored a recruitment fair in West London last year which attracted companies and employment agencies from across the UK and almost 5,000 eager Poles looking for new opportunities.

  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
Museum Crush digest sign up ad
We are culture24