Rare photos of Poles in 1970s Britain chronicle a forgotten first generation of Eastern European migration

In the 1970s, Czesław Siegieda turned his lens on his family and the wider Polish community living in England’s East Midlands. Discover the stories behind his extraordinary private archive, collected and published as a book for the first time.

2 April 2020

Czesław Siegieda was born in 1954 in a Polish resettlement camp in Leicestershire, UK. The son of a Polish couple displaced by the Second World War, he lived in former RAF barracks until he was three years old, when the family moved to a terraced house alongside many others in a similar position. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Poles sought refuge in the UK in this era: the first 20,000–30,000 arriving in 1940 after the Nazi invasion, and a second wave of about 250,000 arriving after the war had ended, by way of Soviet prison camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan.

In 1947, Poles who had fought alongside the British were granted the right to stay in the UK along with their families, and another 120,000 settled, creating the community in which Siegieda was deeply embedded. In school he was Jan and spoke English; at home he was Czesław and spoke Polish, ate Polish food, and attended Catholic church. Just before his 10th birthday, his father was killed in a motorbike accident and he took on the task of translating the world around for his mother. Realising how fragile both his family and his community were, he also started taking photographs.

“My interest in publishing a book was to make a visual record of what Poles of that generation did”

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After going on to study art, then Visual Communications at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham, he started photographing the Polish community for an assignment that tasked him with photographing his family. Encouraged by his fellow students, who immediately recognised the value of what he was doing, he kept going until well into the 1980s. “My approach was, don’t stop to ask permission and fill the frame,” he says. “The only time I got ticked off was for the way I treated my cameras. I had a Nikon SLR and a Leica rangefinder, and the cameras would bang into each other, so one elderly gentleman told me off for not looking after my equipment.”

Siegieda had some early success with this work, touring it around the country with London’s respected Half Moon Gallery. But when the tour reached Loughborough Public Library in the heart of his community, he realised how uncomfortable it made some of his parents’ generation feel. “They just wanted to keep their heads down after the war,” he explains. “I realised it was too much too soon, and I didn’t want to add to their anxiety and stress.”

So he put his images away until 2018, two years after his mother’s death, when he posted them online, expecting to attract a niche following of people with a similar background. Instead, he ended up attracting Martin Parr, a distinguished documentary photographer with his own gallery in Bristol, who helped Siegieda get an exhibition and introduced him to the publisher RBB Books. The resulting photobook, Polska Britannica, comes out in April.

“My interest in publishing a book was to make a visual record of what Poles of that generation did,” he says. “It’s another reminder that Britain is made up of lots of nationalities. The older generation in the UK remember the contribution the Polish made during the Second World War, but many others just don’t know.”

Tadeusz, Józef and Helena, Loughborough, England (1976)

“Two years after my father died, my mother was introduced to Tadeus, and they married and had two sons. Here they are with my half-brother Jozef in their bedroom — we had a Polish priest as a lodger, so Jo had to share a bedroom with them. This is the only staged photograph in my archive, all the others were candid. My mother was deeply religious, and I wanted a picture showing that. I just took one shot. I’m fortunate: I have the sense when I see a picture and I know when I have it.”

Józef waiting to go to church for after his First Holy Communion, Loughborough (1976)

“This is Jo just after his First Communion. We are back at the house waiting for guests to arrive. The terraced house we lived in had a yard and Jo was a keen footballer, so he’d been kicking a football about and broke the kitchen window. My stepfather, Tadeus, had told him off, so he was in a sombre mood and standing in the light coming from the window upstairs. It was just a gift of a picture. I later found out that Tadeus had half a dozen panes of glass set aside because Jo did it so often.”

Laxton Hall, Northamptonshire (1978)

“This was taken at Laxton Hall, Northamptonshire — every year there was an event in which hundreds of Poles took part in a Corpus Christi Mass and a procession in the grounds. It had religious significance but it was also important socially. I was hunting for pictures, then I saw this priest taking pictures of someone with the car behind him and thought ‘That’s my picture’. My sense of humour can be a bit black, and that’s very Polish. Poles can always see the other side.”

Pitsford Hall, Northamptonshire, England (1978)

“This was taken at an event that happened on Whitsun, the eighth Sunday after Easter. Polish communities across the UK made the pilgrimage and, after mass, everyone went to Pitsford Hall, a school for Polish girls educated by nuns. These three guys played together every year. I took four or five photographs because they were moving all the time. If you look carefully, you can see a glass of vodka on the bonnet of the car.”

Polish priest on his way to a funeral, Loughborough, England (1975)

“The boy is holding holy water that’s been blessed; the little stick is a brush that the priest will use at the grave. He’s an altar boy and it’s his grandfather’s funeral — I knew the guy who had died, which is one of the reasons I was able to take pictures at his funeral. People knew me, and they knew my hobby was photography. When they wanted more formal pictures, I would take them as a favour. It’s not usual to take photographs at a funeral, but if you look in most Polish family albums, you will find pictures taken around graves on All Souls’ Day, 1 November, when people go to visit graves and remember people. Deaths and funerals were a big part of my life, so it felt quite natural to take photographs of them, and I’m a bit glad. It records part of the life of a Polish community.”

St Briavels Polish Scout House, Gloucestershire, England (1979)

“This shrine was a favourite spot for Polish people to say their prayers, but it’s not something you see every day in an English town or village, a Virgin Mary in the car park. I could see there was potential for a picture so I was just waiting, and by luck the girl looked up and grabbed the younger child. All the elements were in place.”

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