My parents and grandparents would be classed as the first-generation Poles who came en mass to the UK due to the second world war. So when they came over there was a big Polish community in Bristol, Swindon, London – all the big cities had Polish immigrants, or political refugees as they liked to be called.
Even though I was born in Southmead, Bristol, for the first four and a half years the only contact I had was with Polish people. My parents, my grandparents, uncle and aunties, cousins. For the first four and a half years, all I knew was the Polish language. I didn’t know anything about English, apart from maybe a bit of English TV.
So I can still remember quite vividly going to my primary school on my first day and absolutely breaking down in tears because they were speaking this crazy English language! And I just didn’t know what to expect. But kids adapt very quickly, so within a month or so I’d picked up a few English words and sentences.
This English tongue, that I’m speaking in with you now, is not my natural tongue. It’s my second tongue, but it’s now become my dominant tongue. The Polish has been taken over by English, because you’ve got English TV, English Friends – “English wife” Maria reminds him – English wife, that’s very true. All of my Polish cousins and family had to learn English, because this was their new home. So they had to get by, and adapt to an English way of life. But, still keeping lots of Polish traditions.
I’m going to be – coughs – in a couple of days time – “For the benefit of the tape, how old?” “49-and-a-half” – and my mother is still alive; she’s 92. And I will always speak to her in Polish, the best that I can. So I still have a Polish language, though I understand it better than I speak it, and I can still have a fluent conversation with Mum. Occasionally I’ll chuck in an English word if I can’t remember the Polish one. My mum, she understands it. She has quite a strong Eastern European accent.
“Compared to your Auntie, who’s been here the same amount of time.”
Yes, my Auntie – she was here last Saturday – she speaks very good English, with a European twang, but she’s very fluent, very intelligent. Whereas with my mum, it’s more of a simplistic tongue.
But that hasn’t stopped her. She used to work over here, at Southmead hospital in the laundry. She can do shopping. She can get by, though it’s probably a bit more challenging now – Chris refers to his mum’s health, which has been getting worse in the last few years – but when she was in her mid twenties right up to her eighties, she was able to converse. You’d have to tune-in a little bit, just because of that Eastern European accent.
So did you learn to speak English before she did?
No, Mum probably already knew English as she was already working at the laundry in Southmead.
But she didn’t teach it to you?
Mum and Dad lived in Banner Road, in Montpellier, St Pauls. That was the family home when they moved to Bristol, and I think there were twelve people living there, as they had lodgers. It’s one of those old Victorian town houses with three or four storeys. But that was their family home. So Mum would have learned English then.
When they moved in – Montpellier back in the late forties was quite an affluent area, it was the place to be – they used to go to second-hand shops, and the people there knew they were Polish. And they’d trade, barter and bargain, say ‘I need a table and chairs’ or something. If they didn’t have the cash, they’d actually work to earn that value of money. So say now that you’ve done ten hours, for example, you can pick a table and chairs, or whatever you need for the house. You’d earned it, so you could have what you want. So that’s the way they lived, until they got established and got jobs and things like that.
That’s how they paid their way?
Absolutely. I’m not quite sure, back then, if there was any benefits or state funding or support – I can’t answer that. But they managed to get by.
As I say, Mum had twelve or fourteen people living there. There would have been my mum, my dad, my grandparents – none of my brothers and sisters would have been born just yet – but there could have been my uncles living with them. Everyone contributed, so the the more people they had in there the more food, vegetables, rent they would bring in.
Their place in Banner Road is one place I’ve been meaning to go and see, but I’ve never quite got round to doing it yet. But I will. One day Maria and I will pop down to Banner Road to have a look, knock on the people’s house and say who I am.
Mum and Dad met in a place called RAF ST. Mawgan, which is just outside Newquay in Cornwall, which would have been in the late forties/early fifties. But they moved to the family home, as it is now in Henleaze, in the earlier 1960s.
So the first family home was Banner Road in Montpellier, St Pauls. My eldest brother Richard, who is no longer with us, having tragically been killed, and my other brother Eddie and older sister Ursula were all born there. Then my family moved to Henleaze, in the early sixties, I think 62/63. And then I was born in the Henleaze home, which is still the family home as Mum still lives there.
How did they come to meet in Cornwall?
Because RAF St Mawgan – which is still there, on the side of Newquay airport, but I don’t think they do much RAF stuff there now – used to be a holding camp for political refugees. There were hundreds of thousands of Poles there, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, Czechoslovakians, Italians. That was one of the camps in the UK that would house all these political immigrants.
So my mum was there with both her brothers, Andre and Joe, and my grandparents. It was like a mini Polish community. That’s where my mum met my dad, within the camp.
My uncles worked in hotels as chefs and waiters. My dad retrained as a pipefitter/welder, as he wanted a skill. But he had to come up to Bristol to learn the trade, which was in Avonmouth. So he relocated to Bristol, lived in Caledonia Place in Clifton. He would stay in Bristol during the week, and then commute back down to Cornwall to spend time with my mum on the weekends. They actually got married in RAF St Mawgan, in a tiny little church there. My dad’s mum – my grandmother, who I’d never met – she’s actually buried in St Mawgan.
So there’s a close connection with the family and Newquay. We used to go there for family holidays. My dad used to always take us there on the weekend of their wedding anniversary, in a bed and breakfast for a couple of nights. We’d go to Newquay, Mawgan porth, then go to the church, to the cemetary, pay our respects.
That’s how Mum and Dad met. They didn’t know each other in Poland, as they were born on different sides of the country. My mum was born on the east side, my dad on the west. So they never would have met in Poland. But they met over in the UK, when they’d had a similar sort of journey, and they landed and met at this camp. That’s where a lot of Polish couples met. Even my Uncle Joe, my mum’s next brother down, that’s where he met my Auntie Irene. Uncle Andre – or Andrew – Mum’s youngest brother, he trained to be a chef and he lives in Birmingham. And he met his wife in the Midlands area, when they were both working in a hotel.
So as you were growing up you were speaking both languages. Did you or the family ever want to go back to Poland?
I think they had made their roots and established their life here. They had jobs, they had security. It was a better way of life. Even though – we’re talking the 1950s, just after the war – resources were quite sparse. It wasn’t an affluent time. But Dad had a skill now as a pipefitter welder, and he had done a lot of work around the south coast and channel islands. So he had a good job that paid well, a family home. Their family was born and bred. For them, it would have been too much upheaval. Even though there was still family in Poland, this was their new life.
It’s a bit like when people want to go live in Australia, or wherever. But for Mum and Dad, it was forced upon them. Yet they were happy here, they had lots of friends and family, and it recreated a mini Poland. You know like you get Chinatown in London? That’s like it was for them where they were in this Polish camp. And they stayed there for a good few years.