The building you see here is the Polish Centre, which was originally Leamington Spa’s Town Hall, designed for the Town Commissioners in 1831 by the architect Russell, who also designed the now demolished Warneford Hospital. The building, although small, housed the Commissioners’ meeting rooms and offices, a ballroom, a magistrates’ court, and a police station with holding cells.
The formation of the Polish community in UK was the result of population displacements, brought about by World War II. The war itself started in Poland in September 1939, with a co-ordinated attack by the armies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In Soviet-occupied eastern Poland, the Soviets almost immediately embarked on a policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Prisoners of War were massacred at Katyn Forest, and nearly 2 million civilians were deported to Siberia and Kazachstan. Within 18 months half the deportees were dead. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941 forced the Soviets to seek Western assistance, and resulted in the release of all surviving Polish detainees. 114,000 joined the Polish Armed Forces in the West, commanded in the Soviet Union by General Wladyslaw Anders, whose great historical achievement was to evacuate his army and its civilian dependants to safety in Iran. They then fought alongside the British in the Middle East and were victorious at the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, where they remained after the war, unable to return to Soviet-occupied Poland.
In the spring of 1946, the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, wrote a letter to every member of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, inviting them to settle in Britain. Some 250,000 were eligible, but only about 160,000 arrived, and enrolled for two years service in the Polish Resettlement Corps, where they underwent retraining and preparation for civilian life. They were housed in former British military camps throughout the country, and the intention was that they should move on to permanent housing in the towns and cities. In the spring of 1948 the first to settle in Leamington Spa were the family of A. Czarnecki and three single men: Sylwester Zakrzewski, Stanislaw Czarzasty and Antoni Chmiel. The following year, 103 Polish soldiers, including Walerian Przeniczka and Michal Piesik, were brought from camps in Yorkshire to work on nearby farms, and were housed at the former Bridge End War Agricultural Committee Camp, formerly a German or Italian POW camp. Here Polish religious services were held by Monsignor Celestyn Sowinski. This camp soon closed and the residents transferred to Greatheed Road War Agricultural Committee Camp in Leamington Spa. Although not an exclusively Polish camp, being also home to Latvians and Ukranians, it was here that in May 1950 the first Polish Sunday Mass in Leamington Spa, was said by Monsignor Celestyn Sowinski. This has been a religious and social focal point for the Polish community ever since. A significant group in the community at the time, were the former soldiers from Finham Park Hostel in Coventry, who had originally come to work at the electricity power station in Warwick in late 1947. It was to them that Stanislaw Czarzasty addressed a proposal to set up the first Polish organisation in the town. Two large rooms were leased on the first floor of 2, Victoria Terrace, a property owned by a man called Goebbels, ironically a Jew. The Syrena sports club became the first Polish Centre in Leamington. Unfortunately, the desire to win meant that players were brought in from outside the area, meaning that local men couldn’t get a game and therefore didn’t see the point in paying the fairly expensive membership fees. Consequently, after only a few years the Syrena club folded, and the teams associated with it disbanded.
The Polish community saw itself as an exiled political elite, and consciously rejected being labelled as ‘immigrants’. On a personal level this attitude manifested itself in a refusal to accept any form of citizenship or ID, other than United Nations Travel Documents. Ironically this meant that Polish people were less restricted in their foreign travel than British citizens, and quite a few emigrated. For those who stayed, political activity in support of the Government in Exile, became an important part of their identity. Although its power base was the Polish Socialist Party, the Government in Exile had an agenda, which did not endear the Polish community either to the British Left, or the Foreign Office. The principal political objective, the demand for Polish independence, challenged the legitimacy of the post-war settlement in Europe, agreed at Yalta. Specific campaigns which focused on exposing Soviet war crimes and undermining the Soviet-backed Warsaw regime, by publicising its human rights abuses, were highly controversial, and remained so, right up to 1990. Locally political activism began with the arrival of Jan Niedziolek, the Government in Exile’s delegate for Coventry and Leamington Spa. He was elected chair of the Leamington Spa “Skarb Narodowy”, a fund-raising organisation for the Government in Exile. In the mid 1950s, a prolonged dispute between supporters of General Wladyslaw Anders and those of President in Exile August Zaleski, divided the community. A new type of organisation was therefore needed, one that could be non-political, catholic and focused on preserving national traditions. However, despite efforts by individuals, until the arrival of Monsignor Jozef Golab in September 1960, the Polish community lacked such an organization. On 12 March 1961 the first AGM of the community accepted a proposal to create a new central organization, and elected the first “Zarzad” (committee), chaired by Antoni Chmiel. One member of this first “Zarzad”, Walerian Przeniczka, is still treasurer today. The “Zarzad” decided to call the organization “Polskie Kolo Katolickie w Leamington Spa”, usually abbreviated to “Kolo” or “Circle”. This is a reference to Poland’s republican past, and the tradition of parliamentary debates being held whilst standing in a circle, thereby emphasizing the equality of all.
The Polish Centre
The second AGM on 18 March 1962 elected a new “Zarzad” chaired by Stefan Wincenty Librowski. This “Zarzad” continued the religious and social activities, organizing the traditional celebrations and dances, but its main aims were the creation, or rather re-creation of the Polish Language School, and the purchase of a centre for the community. To this end a covenant scheme was launched on 2 February 1964 . This was a system of reclaiming tax on charitable contributions (now known as Gift aid). It was the brainchild of Stefan Wincenty Librowski, and was run by him until his death in 1981. Leamington Spa’s original Town Hall, later used as a police station, was bought on 10 July 1968, during the chairmanship of Mieczyslaw Franciszek Lepkowski, and converted for use as The Polish Centre, using a loan from the Polish Benevolent Fund charity, but in reality this was Monsignor Jozef Golab’s personal compensation from the West German Government, awarded for the years he spent in Nazi concentration camps. On 15 November 1969 the Polish Centre was officially opened by Bishop Szczepan Wesoly, and the club was opened by the Mayor, Alderman O. Robbins, cutting a ribbon at the entrance to the club. In a speech made on this occasion, Prof Zbigniew Antoni Scholtz spoke about the last time a Polish person had set foot in the building: Our present Centre is located in a historic building, the former Town Hall. The hall in which we are standing has surely seen many celebrations, events and tragedies. For us, what matters is that 130 years ago, in 1838, one of the guests invited here for the official reception in honour of Prince Louis Napoleon, the future Napoleon III, was his friend, a Polish patriot and freedom fighter, Colonel Kazimierz Oborski. He was a recipient of the highest Polish military honour, the Virtuti Militari, and a commander of the French Légion d’Honneur. He had commanded Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal guard, the Krakusi, the 3rd Hussars at the time of the Duchy of Warsaw and the invasion of Russia, and had also fought in the November Uprising in Poland in 1830. He was a political émigré. After the Uprising, he settled in Leamington Spa, in a small house in Russell Street, where he died. He lies buried in the old New Street burial ground. While Louis Napoleon was in Leamington, Oborski was his constant companion.
Strictly speaking the “Kolo” never took part in any overtly political activity, because it was constitutionally prevented from doing so. Its charitable status, as part of the Polish Benevolent Fund, also forbade it. The reality however, was entirely different, because politics went to the very heart of the community’s identity. Members of the “Zarzady”, be it of the “Kolo”, Club or Parents’ Committee, followed events in Poland closely, and set up various ad hoc committees over the years. That is why no history of the Polish community in Leamington Spa can ignore this issue.
The first demonstration in the Polish Centre was a general meeting of the whole community, held on 22 December 1970 to discuss the events in Poland’s coastal cities.Stanislaw Czarzasty, then chair, suggested forming an Organisational Committee, chaired by Prof Zbigniew Antoni Scholtz, which included every single member of the “Zarzady” of the “Kolo”, Club and Parents’ Committee.
A year later the Leamington Spa Polish community sent a petition to the local MP, Sir Dudley Smith, asking him to raise the issue of the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre in Parliament. The petition was signed after mass, on 23 May 1971, and was part of a lengthy, world-wide campaign by Polish communities to raise awareness of Soviet war crimes. The Soviet government finally admitted liability in 1989, but until then it had made extraordinary efforts to cover this matter up. In the 1970s, when the Katyn Memorial was being built in London, the Soviets tried to stop this. They relied on state assistance, and help was given by local authorities and even by the Church of England. This in turn outraged those who had lost family and friends at Katyn Forest. The extreme sensitivity of Katyn Forest, is evidenced by a letter written on 19 December 1995 by former prime minister John Major, who argued that until the Soviets confessed, no amount of evidence would have been regarded as conclusive by the British government. In Leamington Spa a proposal to erect a plaque under the portico of the Polish Centre, was seen as too controversial to proceed with.
The Independence Day celebrations in November, were the main expression of the political attitudes of the community. Keynote speakers at these occasions, included Prof Zbigniew Antoni Scholtz, Zygmunt Szadkowski, chair of the SPK Federation (Polish Ex-Servicemen’s Association), Colonel Roman Czerniawski, and Kazimierz Sabbat, prime minister of the Polish Government in Exile, who visited on 13 November 1977 and 18 November 1979. A full account of his second visit appeared in the local press. The Leamington Spa Polish community, organised through the “Kolo”, was an active participant in the central political institutions of the émigré establishment in London. Various local individuals played a leading role. Chief among them, was Prof Zbigniew Antoni Scholtz, chair of the “Kolo” and the Polish Centre for 20 years, who was also a minister in the Government in Exile. He supported every local initiative to improve the situation in Poland, using the widest possible definition of the term. The period of martial law in Poland was a period of intensified efforts to help the situation there. In an effort to appeal to a wider British audience, in the summer of 1983 the Polish Centre organized an exhibition of sculptures by Dr Czeslaw Kelsey-Kolodynski. The exhibition was opened by the Mayor, and the guest list included influential local figures. Profits from the exhibition went to the Medical Aid for Poland Fund. A visit by Krzysztof Turkowski, a Solidarity activist from Wroclaw, in February 1989, enabled members of the community to gain an insight into the thinking of the Polish opposition, at a public meeting held at the Polish Centre. 1989 was a year of great change in Poland, and interest was high. In April 1989 the last elections to the National Council in Exile were held, coinciding with the “33% free” elections in Poland. In Leamington Spa 72 votes were cast, which was seen as a local verdict on the less than democratic process in Poland. Dr Stanislaw Jan Librowski was elected to the National Council in Exile, for the Midlands constituency. A few months later Witold Niewiarowski was elected delegate to the Conference of Free Polish People, held in London. Unfortunately, in June 1990, just months before the collapse of the communist regime in Warsaw, and the first free elections, which he and the Polish exiles had worked for, for so long, Prof Zbigniew Antoni Scholtz, long-serving chair of the “Kolo”, Club and Polish Centre, died aged 73. His funeral was the biggest political event ever held in the local area, and was attended by the highest authorities, including the President in Exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski. In December 1990 President Kaczorowski returned to Poland, to be recognized as the legitimate head of state, and to hand over power to the newly elected Lech Walesa.
The Polish Catholic Club
Since its opening in 1969, profits from the Club, transferred to the “Kolo” under the agreement of 29 August 1971, enabled the Polish Centre to function. For the wider British community, the Polish Club was also the most visible Polish presence in Leamington Spa. Although the Club was always legally separate from the “Kolo”, and initially held its own committee meetings, important issues affecting the Polish Centre as a whole, were always discussed at joint committee meetings. As the presidency and the chair of the Club were always held by the parish priest and the chair of the Polish Centre, respectively, actual responsibility for the Club lay with the Club Secretary, a post held over the years by Stefan Wincenty Librowski, Sylwester Zakrzewski, Wladyslaw Reszka, Mieczyslaw Franciszek Lepkowski, Robert Ogorek and Boleslaw Rutkowski. From the very beginning the Club depended on non-Polish members. English, Irish, Italian and Lithuanian members outnumbered the Polish membership. They were attracted by low subscriptions, low bar prices and nominal ticket prices to dances where live bands performed. Although the Club’s success was based on price competition, the “Zarzad” was also interested in attracting a respectable clientele, and was therefore concerned with safety and security. There was also a stringent dress code at the dances, for both men and women. The Club closed in September 1998.
European Union accession 2004
By 2004, the Polish community in Leamington Spa had declined in numbers, to no more than 10% of its peak. However, the signing of commercial leases for the two lower floors of the building, secured the financial viability of the organization. Therefore, when Poland joined the European Union in 2004, and large numbers of Polish immigrants settled in Leamington, it was possible to face the challenge that this posed, particularly with regard to the Polish Language School.
Copyright Dr S. J. Librowski, 2013