27 March 2015

Who were the Windrush Poles?

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Stefania Nowak was 28 years of age on 21 June 1948 when she disembarked the MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury Harbour.  Journalists were on site to interview the ship’s passengers.  Not Nowak, but 494 West Indians who’d made the journey to seek jobs in the post-war economy.  Those first news reports were early wordings of the Windrush Narrative, which posits that these arrivals, in taking a step that greater numbers from the colonial West Indies and postcolonial Caribbean would follow, are progenitors of today’s African-Caribbean community.  Nowak belonged to a different migration concurrently underway.  Hers was the result of a government-sponsored scheme to gather Polish nationals scattered across the globe and reunite them with partners and families in the United Kingdom.  This slice of British-Polish history is well documented and celebrated.  However, the unique significance of Nowak’s specific journey – its intersection with another community’s historical trajectory – has received little attention.

In the summer of 1943, some 1400 Poles, mostly women and children, amongst the thousands displaced from Poland by Soviet aggressions during World War II, were transported to Colonia Santa Rosa, a refugee village near the city of León, Mexico.  Four governments – Polish, Mexican, British and American – had taken part in the negotiation of their safe haven.  The group remained at Santa Maria beyond the end of the war, until, on the 27th of March, 1947, sixty-eight years ago today, Britain passed the Polish Resettlement Act. This legislation granted Polish troops who’d contributed to the Allied war effort permanent stay and assistance to integrate in Britain.  Additionally, arrangements were made to bring their dependents in exile throughout the world to join them.  In from every continent save North America and Antarctica sailed qualified displaced persons.

Windrush at Olympic Opening Ceremony
Windrush at Olympic Opening Ceremony

The Empire Windrush, on its route through Kingston, Jamaica, docked in Mexico to collect Nowak and another 38 adult women, 26 children and one adult male of Polish nationality.  Their names, travel details, and certain other particulars are preserved on the ship’s manifest beneath the heading ‘Alien Passengers’, as opposed to ‘British Passengers’, where the vast majority of the vessel’s other occupants were recorded.  Nowak’s entry is the thousandth of a total 1027.  It states her ‘country of last permanent residence’ as Mexico, her ‘country of intended permanent future residence’ as England, and her ‘proposed address in the United Kingdom’ as ‘Shobdon Camp, Near Kingsland, Hereford’.  These place names had relevance beyond Nowak’s personal itinerary; they were a cartography of the preceding series of enactments.

The Polish Resettlement Act was Britain’s first mass-immigration legislation designed to enable, not restrict, foreigners’ entry.  To absorb the newcomers, the Act provided for the maintenance of residential camps across England, Scotland, and Wales.


The addresses Polish passengers aboard the Windrush put down as their future domiciles in the UK read as a virtual index of these camps.  Nowak was headed to Shobdon; Jadwiga Dubicka, 43, and her sons Czesław, 15, and Jozef, 11, were en route to Camp Blackshaw in Staffordshire; Anna Jucha, 39, and daughter Janina, 18, were bound for Lynn Park Camp in Aberdeen; Irena Procinska, 46, along with daughter Lucyna, 16, and son, Mieczysław, 17, would go to Roughan Camp, near Bury St. Edmunds; and on and on.

Perhaps the most crucial bit of information to be found on Nowak’s passenger list entry concerns gender.  In the column for ‘profession, occupation or calling’ is the curious notation, ‘H.D.’. These initials stood for ‘Household Domestic’, a bureaucratic classification encompassing a variety of roles in the line of servitude, including, as pertained to Nowak, housewife.  H.D. appears in the entries of all the Polish women on the manifest.  While the Poles were not the only female (and a couple male) passengers aboard the Empire Windrush who were classified in this way, for most of the Poles it was this very designation that secured their admittance to Britain.  They were likely the wives of Polish servicemen.  In the UK, Nowak was reunited with her husband, 35 year-old Andrzej Nowak.

Most of the Windrush Poles put down roots in the UK and lived out their lives as British citizens.  Lucyna Procinska, for example, made her home in Manchester, twice marrying Englishmen.  Her brother, Mieczysław, went on to marry a resettled Pole like himself whose first name was the same as his sister’s, and resided in Northamptonshire.  For almost as many of the ones who became British, there were others – at least twenty-seven, according to available records – who moved on to Canada or the United States.  Amongst this batch was Stefania Nowak.  The Nowaks departed Britain on 24 November 1948 for Canada aboard the Empress of France.  Their entries on that ship’s passenger list give their ‘last address in the United Kingdom’ as simply ‘c/o War Office, London’.  For Stefania’s occupation: ‘Housewife’.  She died in Hamilton, Ontario, on 17 December 2012, age 92.

Locating Stefania Nowak and her fellow travellers as historical actors is not only insightful of the immigration measures, like the Polish Resettlement Act, that Britain designed to reconstitute itself after the Second World War.  It shows how, owing to those measures, ethnic and racial groups one might not immediately imagine as belonging in the same historical frame – in this case, West Indians and Poles – were continually brought into contact in the immediate post-war years, such as aboard the Empire Windrush.

If you personally know any of the 66 Polish passengers on the Empire Windrush, please contact Nicholas.Boston@lehman.cuny.edu

Nicholas Boston teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York.  He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Cambridge and is author of The Amorous Migrant: Race, Relationships and Resettlement, forthcoming from Temple University Press. 

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