Grantham has seen an increase in people moving here from Poland. John Hiley looks at the shared history between the two countries.
Britain and Poland go back a long way. King Canute, who ruled England for almost 20 years from 1016 was said to be of Polish ancestry. During the Middle Ages, Poland became the largest supplier of grain to England. Poland Street in London was so named because it was at the heart of a Polish community even then.
Shakespeare made several references to Poland. Polonius, a character in Hamlet, is the latin name for the country. At this time Poland was the only country in Europe in which there was genuine religious tolerance, attracting settlers for this reason, including some from England.
So there was already a bit of history between the two countries when Britain declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland in 1939. I’ve been to Poland twice, to Warsaw and Gdansk, and was struck by the fact that modern Poland was shaped by the destruction that took place there during the Second World War and by how conscious Poles are of the war today, even those who were born long after it ended.
It was no surprise that Poles escaping their defeated country wanted to make their way to Britain to fight alongside us. In total there were 250,000 Poles under British military command during the war, more than 10% of whom died. The RAF Polish Squadron 303 had the highest strike rate of any of the 66 RAF fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain. Other Polish airmen were based close to Grantham. The Polish War Cemetery at Newark commemorates over 400 that died. In all 1 in 12 RAF Battle of Britain fighter pilots were Polish.
A large Polish contingent of over 50,000 fought under Montgomery in North Africa and Italy. It was a Polish unit that finally captured Monte Cassino, raising their own flag when it fell. During the Normandy invasion Polish troops played a major part, most notably in the battle of Arnhem.
After the war, with Poland falling under communist rule, a Polish Government in exile remained in London. Many Poles moved on after the war, especially to Canada and Australia, but about 120,000 stayed in the UK. I had a close school friend of Polish origin during the sixties. I cannot recall any animosity towards the Polish community then.
Ties between the two countries have been revived since the fall of communism, an example being the twinning arrangement between Grantham College and Juliana Tuwima College in Poland as well as Grantham Museum hosting a Polish First to Fight exhibition.
Many people in Grantham feel uneasy at the growth in the Polish community in the town, especially at a time when finding work is difficult and Britain is fighting a different kind of war against recession.
Economists disagree about the long term economic effects of immigration, but are agreed that migrant clusters such as the Polish community in Grantham provide a short term economic boost.
The truth is that Britain still has relatively low levels of unemployment by European standards. The real problem is the imbalance of our population in terms of age and the cost to the economy of pensions and healthcare.
20% of all British public spending is on pensions (source) with another 18% on healthcare. As more baby boomers reach retirement age spending on pensions at the current level will double in the next decade. With the largest group of the population in their forties, it looks likely to continue rising beyond then.
When the state pension was introduced in 1909 it was at the modern day equivalent of £40 a week and for every person claiming there were ten working and paying taxes. Now for every recipient there are less than three people working. More people of working age paying taxes and the growth generated by the clusters would help Britain pay our pensions and healthcare costs.
Our baby boom started in the 1960’s. In Poland the population grew rapidly in the early 1980’s. Most of the Poles coming here have 30 or 40 years of their working lives ahead of them and have a strong work ethic.
Another migration from Poland was to the South Wales coalfields after the war. After some unease among the local population these Poles proved themselves – as always – able to effortlessly integrate themselves into Britain and make a contribution to our society and economy.
We would like to thank the Polish Squadrons Remembered website for use of the two wartime photographs used in this article.