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The Polish Camp at Burton on the Wolds
Joan and Peter Shaw
'It was just my mother, my three-year-old brother and myself, I was eighteen months old. In the middle of the night they came and told us to pack the things... '
'They gave my mother half an hour to get ready, that was at 4 o'clock in the morning... '
'We had two solid weeks going by train in the cattle trucks to Siberia.. After we arrived in Siberia we were just thrown out of the train onto the snow and were told by the Russians, "here you live and here you die".. It was very snowy, the snow was over a metre deep, frost was very severe, 10th February 1940.. there was no food, no shelter, people were freezing to death.'
From 'Migrant Memories, Migrant Lives'
Britain's involvement in World War II had been the direct result of Germany's refusal to withdraw from Poland, and Polish forces had fought valiantly alongside her own during the conflict. Their country had suffered terribly as a result of German and Russian occupation and partition, and many of their compatriots had endured years of harsh exile.
As preparation for combat became less urgent, the British Government was able to reallocate some of its military resources. Huts that had served the Wymeswold Airfield became surplus to RAF requirements and these were offered as a hostel for Polish refugees.
Wymeswold Airfield had been opened in 1942 as an operational training unit for Bomber Command. Very little of it was actually in the parish of Wymeswold; the main runway was in Prestwold and Hoton, landing strips and parking bays extended like fingers across the Wymeswold to Hoton Road. The community buildings and living accommodation lay within the parish of Burton on the Wolds.
Leicestershire had several military bases during the Second World War. Their buildings were mostly prefabricated, never intended for long-term use, with little in the way of foundations. A few are still standing, but within the next few years the physical traces of this period of the County's history will be lost.
The 1951 census lists 3,214 Polish-born people in Leicestershire; there are no exact figures for Burton. The populations of Wymeswold, Hoton and Prestwold were roughly the same in 1951 as they had been in 1931 whereas the population of Burton had risen from 297 to 938. The Air Ministry had estimated that they would continue to retain up to 550 servicemen at the Airfield and expected a similar number to move into the Polish Hostel; the 1951 census suggests 180 servicemen and between 400 and 450 Poles.
The first documentary evidence of Polish refugees living in Burton comes from the minutes of the Barrow Rural District Council. At the meeting on 27th September 1948, the clerk reported that there had been a request for the collection of refuse from part of Wymeswold Aerodrome being used as a Polish resettlement camp. At this stage very little had been done to make the old service quarters suitable for their new role; in the words of one resident, 'they were very meagrely fitted out'. Up to eight families were crammed into the larger huts, blanket partitions providing the only privacy. The old RAF lavatories and washing facilities had been brought back into service and part of the canteen on the RAF communal site set aside for the newcomers.
A view of the Burton Polish housing estate from the Loughborough Monitor August 1951, identified as Site No.9, Koscielna.
By January 1950, there were approximately one hundred families living in the camp and it was proposed that Barrow RDC should take it over. The Council agreed to accept responsibility for the camp, together with three other sites, and the huts were converted into separate units, the Ministry of Health paying up to £200 per dwelling and the Ministry of Works supplying the cooking stoves. It was estimated that the dwellings would be required for a period of five years, an estimate that proved somewhat optimistic.
By the following January, 43 families had been transferred to the new Burton on the Wolds Polish Housing Estate.
Burton on the Wolds in 1948 drawn from RAF maps and aerial photographs. Most of the wartime buildings still stand. Site No.6 was probably the first to be occupied by the Poles. The canteen and church on the communal site were used at that time.
From the 17th February 1951 the Council also took over management and collection of rent for both the hostel and the newly converted accommodation and the following rents were approved:
Bedsitting room 10s.0d. per week
Of the ten accommodation sites for the aerodrome situated in Burton, eight were converted for housing the Polish families. Type and construction of the buildings varied, Thorne, Laing and Nissen hutments being used, and there were roughly twenty units on each site.
The huts converted by Barrow RDC for the use of Polish people were mainly of the Laing type shown here. (Illustration after British Military Airfield Architecture by Paul Francis; publ. Patrick Stephens 1996.)
The Laing huts were the most numerous. They were of light timber-frame construction, covered with plasterboard and felted, roofed with corrugated asbestos sheets, all internally lined with plasterboard, and they were erected on a light concrete base. They measured roughly 18 feet wide by 60 feet long with a height of 8 feet at the apex. The Thorne huts were of similar design. The typical War Office Nissen hut was semi-cicular in section, 16 feet wide, 36 feet long, with steel ribs, timber purlins, covered and lined with corrugated steel sheeting on a concrete floor.
The sites were given Polish names: Polesie Ulica, Wilno Ulica, Lwow Ulica, Szpitalna, Koscielna, Polna, Sloneczna and Centralna. In 1955 local residents asked if the sites could have English nameplates in addition to the Polish ones, but this proved difficult since in some cases there was no direct translation. For the benefit of tradesmen etc the former site numbers for each group of huts were brought back into use and fixed next to the Polish nameplates.
Four of the huts on the Centralna site were handed over to the Polish Relief Society at rents ranging from five shillings to two pounds a week. Hut No.4 became a dance hall, No.5 a shop and canteen, No.6 a recreation room and No.7 a reading room and library.
Liaison Officer Mr S. Sadowski buys sausages from Mr Trybocki at the Polish shop on Site 4. From the Loughborough Monitor August 1951.
Most of the maintenance work was carried out by Loughborough companies, but occasional payments were made to local builder R.G. Shaw. Doubtless the condition of some of the huts was worse than others because there were spasmodic demolitions from 1954.
Accommodation was simple, electricity and water was laid on and the units were connected to the main sewer, but the streets of the Estate remained unlit until 1953. It should be remembered that most residents of Burton did not get piped water until 1949 and electric street lighting was not installed in the village until November 1950. Not for another twenty years were all the permanent houses connected to a main sewer.
Local people received payments of rent for the sites, among them the Countess of Huntingdon from Burton Hall and farmers Walter Sleigh, Harry Seal, Samuel Towle and A.T. Brickwood.
For most of the newcomers, Burton was their first settled home since the outbreak of war. However, no sooner had the project to upgrade the huts got under way than plans were revealed for the auxiliary squadron based at the Aerodrome to be replaced by three permanent fighter squadrons and the Poles were faced with the possibility that they would once again be moved on. Their fears proved to be unfounded.
The Polish people got on well with their English neighbours, but remained a self-reliant society. National customs were maintained and the Polish language continued to be used but there was a will to integrate into the local community.
To begin with, the headmaster at Burton School was instructed not to accept children from the camp. The school was old and cramped with two small playgrounds badly in need of repair, pail closets were still in use, washing facilities were minimal and the heating system was far from efficient. Children whose ages ranged from under five to eleven plus were taught in three classes by the head and two assistant mistresses. However, the teachers at the Polish school were making every effort to prepare their pupils for mainstream education (at the end of 1949 they were running nineteen English classes at the camp) and when school reopened in January 1950 seven Polish children were admitted. Initially, language and lack of cultural understanding did present a few difficulties, but the Burton headmaster and the Polish teachers and education officers continued to work together and there is no evidence of further problems.
The actual number of Polish children who attended Burton School is not recorded. Most if not all of the Polish people were Roman Catholic and some parents preferred their children to have a Roman Catholic education.
The Polish estate had its own church with fittings and furnishings made by the congregation. In the words of a visitor it was 'beautifully decorated'. An adjacent hut was converted for the use of their priest. Marriages were conducted in Polish fashion and usually took place at the Roman Catholic Church in Loughborough with the Polish priest officiating.
Despite early doubts on the part of a few local residents, there quickly grew a mutual liking and respect between the two communities. This was helped in no small way by the kindly local postmistress Mrs Briggs and Harry Seal, one of the village farmers (it was Mr Seal who smoothed things over when the Countess objected to all the washing hanging out in full view of Burton Hall). Burton villagers learnt to appreciate such delicacies as gherkins pickled with dill, poppyseed bread, and creamy Polish sweets and their children managed to master some of the common Polish words and phrases. Polish ladies still enjoyed wearing traditional dress at their dances but also embraced that most English of traditions, the Women's Institute. Local children joined their Polish peers at the camp cinema and in the Centralna recreation room, the Union flag flew alongside the Polish national flag. Under the guidance of Mr K. Pagacz, a theatre was created, and in January 1953 the Poles put on their first production with liaison officer K. Sadowski providing English translations for the benefit of the audience.
In Loughborough the Anglo-Polish Society, with Sir Robert Martin as President and Dr Schofield of Loughborough College as Vice President, worked with the wider English and Polish communities to organise sports and social events and exhibitions.
Mr Sadowski had been an economics student when Poland was invaded. He had escaped after three months in a concentration camp, and joined the free Polish Air Force. He had acted as liaison officer since the foundation of the resettlement camp and was in charge of the invoice department at Petters to the east of the village. Some of his neighbours also found work at Petters but many of the men had to travel to Loughborough or one of the surrounding villages in order to earn a living. Mr Chris Mills of Woodhouse Eaves recalls driving to Burton each day to collect Polish men who worked at Wrights of Quorn. Seldom were the men able to make full use of their skills or qualifications, and lawyers and trained engineers were forced to take jobs as labourers or factory workers.
Margaret Marshall speaks of an old Ukranian living at the camp who enjoyed helping her father with the harvest 'perhaps he liked the bit of money, but I think, more, he just liked the smell of the hay and the corn'. Some of the women also took advantage of seasonal work on the farms and Sue Elliot has memories of them singing as they returned from the fields clad in their traditional black dresses and headscarves.
The first wave of large-scale demolitions probably started in 1955 with Lwow Ulica. By mid-1955 eight dwellings on the site had been cleared and by the spring of 1956 another fifteen. In June 1956 the Clerk told the Council that arrangements had been made to transfer families from 'Site 2' to other properties as and when they became vacant and that the site was now completely cleared.
The Ministry of Health and Local Government decided that all such camps should be closed by the end of 1958. In January 1957 the Burton estate still had 122 families, and the Council turned their attention to the ways open to them of housing those who did not or could not make their own arrangements. Gradually families were drifting away, some settled in Loughborough, others further afield. Charlie Noja was just one of several men to take his wife and children to America.
In September 1957, the Clerk reported that houses at Sileby had been offered to five Polish families on the estate and three English families (although basically a Polish community, in the latter years the estate also housed several English families). These allocations allowed two more sites to be derequisitioned and cleared. Later that year, people employed at Quorn were granted accommodation at Rothley and Woodhouse Eaves, but despite 62 people being employed in the Borough of Loughborough, Loughborough Council was unable to offer assistance.
Barrow RDC contracted with Mr Reeder of Chilwell to demolish the remainder of the huts as soon as they became vacant. They received £10 for each shell plus £5 for the fittings.
For some time the Council had been deliberating on the question of providing permanent homes in Burton for some of the Polish families. In April 1959 approval was given for the erection of four Gregory type houses and four Gregory type flats at a cost of £13,428.0s.11d. In the meantime, Mr Bailey from the Greyhound Inn invited the remaining Polish people to a meeting to discuss the possibility of employing a private contractor to build houses in the village. There is no evidence that any of the Polish people took up residence in the Council's new houses and flats, and Mr Bailey failed to get sufficient support to make his proposition viable.
The last entry in the Barrow Rural District Council minutes was made in May 1960 and concerned an empty property; it is unlikely that many units remained occupied by that time.
Site No. 1, on the Loughborough Road, has now reverted to woodland although lilacs and other flowers have survived. The Somerset Close houses were built on Site No. 2, parts of Springfield Close on Site No. 3, and the upper section of Sowters Lane and Seals Close on Site No. 6. The sick quarters and Sites 4, 8, 9 and 10 have returned to agricultural use.
Barrow Rural District Council Minutes
We are grateful for the help given by the Loughborough Polish community, residents, ex-residents and friends of Burton on the Wolds, Loughborough Library and the Record Office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.
Originally published in the 2000 Years of the Wolds 2003.
Copyright the author