Polish Londoner

These are the thoughts and moods of a born Londoner who is proud of his Polish roots.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

1834 - The Polish "Windrush"

180th anniversary of the arrival of Polish revolutionaries in Portsmouth Your Worship the Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen, Most British schoolchildren now know about the vessel Windrush which arrived in 1948 in Tilbury from Jamaica with 492 passengers who were to be the precursors of the large West Indian community that settled in this country over the following decades. In the case of the large Polish community in this country their first vessel of 212 settlers arrived in Portsmouth on the vessel Marianne more than a hundred years earlier in 1834. However these were not workers but warriors, beaten but unbowed, who had survived the failed uprising against the Russian Tsar in 1831 and more than 2 years of beatings, torture and occasional killings in Prussian prisons. Because their Polish prisoners were largely without officers the Prussians had tried to get them to surrender to the Russians. When these attempts failed they placed their remaining 650 obstinate prisoners on 3 vessels bound for America. They set sail from Gdansk but a storm in the North Sea scattered and damaged the vessels. The Elisabeth reached Le Havre and the soldiers disembarked there in support of the Polish government in exile much to the alarm of the French government. The Union, the second vessel, reached Harwich and its passengers wanted to sail to France too but in the end the French Government diverted them to Algeria to join the French Foreign Legion. When the damaged Marianne anchored in Spithead the Polish soldiers, still technically prisoners, refused to allow the vessel to sail to America and demanded passage to France. The French urged them to go to Algeria as well but the Polish freedom fighters refused to serve in an army of occupation in North Africa against rebelling Arabs. After 5 weeks’ stand off, thanks to great pressure from the citizens of Portsmouth, a reluctant British government agreed to allow them temporary stay. Within 3 days of their disembarking the citizens of Portsmouth had set up a Committee for the Welfare of the Polish Soldiers, headed by the lawyer Nathaniel Griffin who sent a public appeal to Parliament entitled “The Case of Poles now at Portsmouth”. The Treasurer was Augustine Creuze, architect of the local Naval Arsenal and an active member was the writer Amelia Opie and the Quaker Anna Cruikshank. The Literary Association of the Friends of Poland in London also raised money for them and under the influence of Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart and great pressure from Portsmouth citizens the British Government gave the Portsmouth Poles a single subsidy of £10,000 and an annual grant which amounted to a payment of 5 shillings and 3 pence a week to each soldier. Initially the soldiers were put up in the local customs warehouse near Bath Square and later they were moved to a wooden barrack in Portsea which had previously been a hospital for victims of cholera. It was near Unicorn Gate and served as their communal home until 1846. The building was pulled down in 1870 but the site is now covered by the walls of the shipyard alongside York Place. Many of the soldiers worked in the fields, especially at harvest time and in neighbouring factories. “All residents having contacts with them praise their conduct and diligence”, said an article in “The Times” in 1834. They had a communal kitchen and shared their property. This was not only to save money but also because it reflected their radical social views. They were largely of landless peasant stock and many of them were initially illiterate. They were very critical of the Polish landlords and officer class, who, they felt, betrayed them, and they had set up a political groupings called Lud Polski – Polish People which was seen as an idealistic socialist organization. Yet they had all been soldiers from different branches of Poland’s Army, cavalry, infantry, grenadiers, artillery and engineers and several of them had the Virtuti Militari, the Polish equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The largest contingent came from the crack 4th Infantry Regiment, called the Czwartacy. They retained military discipline amongst themselves and continued to wear uniforms. Some actually went on to America, their passage paid by a generous donation from Portsmouth citizens. They were still keen to fight for Poland’s freedom against the 3 occupying powers Russia, Prussia and Austria, who had divided Poland between them and in 1848 when the opportunity came a number of them returned surreptitiously to Poland to fight the Austrians and Russians in support of the Hungarian uprising. In 1848 there were still 78 soldiers left in Portsmouth, and by now they had integrated well into the community and married English women. A descendant of Joseph Sosnowski is Len Goodman, one of the judges of Strictly Come Dancing. They retained their radical views; strongly supported the Chartists in their fight for democracy and social justice in Britain and their delegates were at the First Socialist International where they defended Poland’s right to independence. The last of the 212 from the Marianne survived in Portsmouth until 1899. When Poles arrived here in the 1940s after Poland was again divided between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia they fought alongside the British while Portsmouth, London and other cities were bombed, took part in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic and participated in the reconquest of Europe from under Nazi rule. But like their predecessors in 1834 they too found in 1945 that they had lost their country and they too had to settle in the UK which welcomed them, though not perhaps always with the same enthusiasm. With the help of the Polish Resettlement Corps Poles were able to learn the language and find a trade and integrate into the British social and economic fabric. But like their XIXth century precursors they retained their loyalty to Poland and campaigned for its independence. They did not forget about the survivors of the “Marianne”. In 1970 they set up a fund supported by members of the wartime 4th Infantry Division, who saw themselves as the heirs of the Czwartacy of the 1830 rebellion. Otto Hulacki was one of the prime movers. A monument was erected in Kingston Cemetery but after a few years the funds ran out and the half-finished monument decayed. Now with the new Polish intake, equally proud of their 1834 forbears, the Polish community has successfully sought to renovate this monument. A new Committee to restore the monument was revived in 1998 and the monument unveiled in 2004 in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth and the Polish Ambassador. As we can see from those here present today, the new XXI century Polish intake still carries on the traditions and pride in their troubled history even though Poland is now free and independent and they have arrived here primarily as free EU citizens without the need to fight as soldiers for their countries’ freedom. Yet that “Times “article about the positive conduct and diligence of the Poles in 1834 could just as easily be a description of the hard-working Poles of today. Today we honour the soldiers of the Marianne for their courage steadfast loyalty to Poland and we honour the citizens of the City of Portsmouth for their bold support and their generous hospitality to their Polish visitors. Wiktor Moszczynski 23rd February 2014