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Polish Poppies

Sally Davies
in conversation with Sue Elliott, Jenny Marson and Peter Harrison

'They were the most independent, self-supporting, hard working group of people. I never remember anyone saying – oh that one was awful, or that one was unkind, or that one, you know, was a thief. There was none of that.' Sue Elliott has lived in the small north Leicestershire village of Burton on the Wolds all her life and she and her sister Jenny Marson have vivid memories of an influx of refugees which more than doubled the population of the village.

In 1948, when the present Queen was a young bride, Burton had a population of approximately 300. It also had a number of empty barracks within its boundaries, which had been used by the RAF during the war to house servicemen and women attached to the nearby Wymeswold Aerodrome. Over the next few years approximately 100 Polish refugee families were moved into the vacant billets, which the local authority had converted into homes with the aid of a Government grant of 200 per family. Many of the refugees had been released from concentration camps.

The Polish estate had its own hospital and ambulance, two nurses and a doctor, a chapel and a priest, a gym, a mortuary and a cinema. The cinema showed films twice a week and the locals were invited. They showed mostly English films – Laurel and Hardy and the like. Peter Harrison, who was a teenager at the time remembers how exciting that was:

'The nearest cinema before that was in Loughborough (about 5 miles away) – and we had to walk there and back on a Saturday morning if we wanted to go to the pictures.'

The sisters were small children when the Poles first came to Burton and teenagers when the last family moved on in 1960. They still occasionally see people who lived in the Polish camp and who remember them from those days.

Jenny tells of a recent meeting with an elderly English woman. 'She'd been invited with her sister to have dinner with one of the Polish chaps and his friend and, to cut a long story short, she'd married him. They lived up on No.1 site for about four years. Well, her husband had died last year and she'd come back to where their house had been (in woodland now) to scatter his ashes.'

The sites all had Polish names – Polesie Ulica, Wilno Ulica, Szpitalna, Koscielna, Sloneczna and Centralna, but the locals knew them differently.

'How we knew them in the village was No.1 Site, Cricket Pitch Site, Sewerage Site, Hospital Site', remembers Sue. 'And there was a shop – the deli – where they could buy the Polish sausage and all that – all their type of food – and the lovely sweets! We weren't allowed to go in the shop, but when I used to go round [the estate] delivering papers with my Mum, people gave us tips and sweets. I asked a Polish man I know to bring me some of the sweets when he went to Poland a year or so ago and I sat in the sun up by where the Hospital Site was and ate the lot – I can taste them now. They were so lovely.'

As the last of the huts was vacated the sites were bulldozed, but the remains can still be seen all around the village as well as more permanent memorials. The village burial ground contains several Polish graves, including one of a widow, Eleanora Bacz, who was brought back to Burton in 1973 to be buried with her husband who had died in 1956. There are other reminders.

Polish graves in Burton on the Wolds cemetery. Photographs by Peter Shaw.

'When the lilac's out,' Jenny recalls 'there's a purple one in the woods where No.1 Site was and there's still daffodils that come up there, because they always had their gardens planted lovely, even though it was only a row around the house. They grew poppies and the poppies are everywhere – purple, lilac or pinky, even white. And not just here, you can see them in the gardens in Loughborough – Polish poppies. I've always called them Polish poppies.'

'That's it', says Sue. 'That was the first time I'd seen poppy seed bread. They baked their own bread and that's what they used the seeds for.'

The sisters don't recall there having been many children on the sites – there was Josef, who used to whistle through his teeth, and Bronislav, who was handsome and had a racing bike, and Sue remembers a family with twin boys and a baby – but they didn't mix much with the village children.

At first such children as there were were taught on the camp as the Poles hoped that they would soon be able to return home, but as they began to realise that this would not be possible, at least in the short term, they applied to send them to the village school. There is a record in the school log of a visit by the Polish Headmaster and Headmistress in December 1949 asking if the school would be prepared to accept eight Polish children in the following September and 'I was informed that these children would be able to speak English'. However, things do not appear to have gone smoothly – there is mention of poor attendance by the children and on 29th June 1950, the record reads:

'Another visit from Polish Education Officer. I pointed out that all Polish children were absent. Reason given, 29th June was a Saints Day.'

There is no further mention of these children and Sue only remembers there being one Polish girl when she was at school. The sisters believe that, as the Poles were Roman Catholic, the children probably went to the Catholic school in Loughborough.

Many of the refugees were highly qualified professionals, unable to follow their professions in England. The Loughborough Monitor of 17th August 1951 tells of lawyers and engineers working as farm labourers. The article goes on to say:

'There are countless stories of personal tragedy to be told – of homes wrecked and careers ruined.'

Sue remembers one woman in particular.

'Big Alice, we called her, because she was so tall. She used to ask me in a lot – this was when I was delivering newspapers – and she had photographs of three very blonde, very beautiful girls – the eldest would have been about nineteen – and they had all been shot and all she had left were those photographs. Her children and her husband had been taken out and shot at the front wall.

Oh yes, they'd had bad times. I think that's why they were so happy living in the accommodation they'd got. They were always singing.'

Jenny remembers how clean the houses were.

'I can see it now – looking in through the windows – the shine on the lino.'

I ask if there were ever any problems between the two communities.

'I've thought about this. Say if the same thing happened today?' wonders Jenny 'How would people feel? Well people don't like it, do they? All these illegal immigrants and nobody really likes it, but I can never, ever remember feeling like that [about the Poles] not ever. I can never remember anything being said.'

Originally published in the 2000 Years of the Wolds 2003.

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