How Prescot opened its doors to displaced Poles

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

Polish immigrants and their reception by the local Catholic community are mentioned in some documents recently unearthed in the Archdiocesan archives. They date from the end of the Second World War, when many people were displaced from their country of origin. Some 140,000 Poles were stranded in Great Britain, unable or unwilling to return to Poland, wary of sanctions under the Russian-backed Communist regime.

There were several camps in the Liverpool area that provided a temporary home for these ex-servicemen and civilian refugees, including one in the parklands attached to Knowsley Hall. Reports and correspondence in Archbishop Downey’s papers show that many local Catholic organisations made great efforts to help these uprooted people integrate into the life of their parishes.

There were some families among the refugees and military dependents, and at Christmas 1946 a children’s party was organised by Father Charles Horan, parish priest of Our Lady Immaculate and St Joseph’s in Prescot. In return, the camp’s Polish military choir sang carols in Our Lady’s Church and gave concerts in the parish schools. At the same time the Catholic Young Men’s Societies arranged for local families in Prescot to open their homes on Christmas Day to the bored camp-dwellers sorely in need of company: some of the hosts hoped to have someone ‘musically-minded’ or ‘keen on indoor games’, and the initiative was so successful that a few of the young Poles were more or less adopted by Prescot families. Major Nowakowski expressed the gratitude felt by his fellow Poles ‘who were desperately in need of a friendly fireside and the greater warmth of real friendship’.

The mutual entertainments continued into the New Year of 1947, and began to involve churches in St Helens and Wigan. The Catholic Teachers’ Society organised classes in English to assist the Poles in finding employment. Dances were organised by the Wigan Section of the Catholic Women’s League, and Winefride Boardman, their chairman, felt they ‘brought laughter and a little happiness into the grey lives of these brave and unfortunate fellow Catholics’. The camps were gradually closed as their occupants moved on, and although some of the Poles did eventually decide to return home to an uncertain reception, many more settled in England. The descendants of those on Merseyside and in Lancashire must still be grateful for the warmth of their ancestors’ reception some 70 years ago.