Between 1974-1981, Czesław Siegieda documented a polish community in the East Midlands
Now published for the first time at RRB PhotoBooks, the photographer’s work depicts a small yet important part of history – the life of a Polish community residing in post-war England.
- Ayla Angelos
- 24 March 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
“I’m an ‘old-school’ documentary photographer seeking a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events,” Czesław Siegieda tells It’s Nice That. “My approach to taking photographs is don’t stop to ask permission, and fill the frame.”
Indeed faithful to his subjects, what Czesław is referring to here is his representation of the Polish community that resided in the East Midlands between 1974 and 1981. Having grown up in a Polish resettlement camp in Burton on the Wolds in Leicestershire himself, Czesław turned to the medium to document those around him – a community that was largely hidden from the public view – as a means of understanding his surroundings.
Many years have since passed and this collection of over 300 photographs has been hidden deep in the archives, stored away in order to respect the privacy of his parents’ generation. Now uncovered and brought into the public sphere, this series has been curated and compiled into an 80-picture publication, titled Polska Britannica and published by RRB PhotoBooks.
When these photographs were taken, life was difficult; after the end of the Second World War, there was a “thorny” question put forward: what should happen to the thousands of Polish citizens in the UK who had loyally fought for the allies but had nowhere to live? Czesław states how it was the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act which granted Poles who had served in the British armed forces, and their families, the right to permanently settle in the UK. “To facilitate their entry into British life, they could join the Polish Resettlement Corps, a quasi-military organisation which would give them a salary, accommodation and training for a period of up to two years,” he tells It’s Nice That. A camp in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, is where his mother, Helena, had met his father, Mieczysław. They got married, later moved to another camp in Burton on the Worlds (where Czesław was born) and in 1957 moved again to a terraced house in Loughborough, “which is where many of my photographs were taken.”
These settlements were bleak. Blistering cold in winter and hot in summer, they weren’t an ideal place to settle for long periods of time – and many families would move on to pastures new. Because, despite the removal of the barbed wire that kept in prisoners of war, not much had been upgraded for their welcoming. The accommodation was dotted across the country, and was structured as the former army and RAF barracks consisting of Nissen huts. Czesław refers to these iconic buildings as “beczki śmiechu, as they were swiftly nicknamed, meaning ‘barrels of laughs’.” Because they spoke little English, his mother and younger sister worked in factories while his father was a labourer in a foundry in Melton Mowbray. In 1964, his father was sadly killed in a motorbike accident, which meant that Czesław stepped in as the household interpreter.
Despite a tough way of life, “like all immigrant communities,” the residents brought with them the rituals and customs that they kept as a reminder of their previous lives. This included “the Catholic rites of mass, confession, confirmation, Easter, Christmas, Baptisms and burials,” says Czesław, plus “Saturday schools where children were sent to learn about Polish culture from teachers whose earnest desire was that the next generation should not forget their heritage.” Scouts, commemorations of important parts of Polish history – such as the death of General Sikorski and the 1940 Katyń Massacre – are all rituals that “formed the background to [his] childhood.”
These traditions also serve as the focal point of Czesław’s pictures. Striving to tell a story in the most inconspicuous of manners, Czesław would use an unobtrusive camera “with shiny parts concealed with black gaffer tape,” to approach his subjects. This meant that he could move around without being noticed – “I stayed alert to what was going on around me, and I didn’t impose myself on the material. I was patient, I hunted for photographs, and the real world rewarded me with rich and revealing incidents and characters.”
Each image is as emotive as the next. Honest compositions and telling scenes fill the frame, with every picture revealing a small but important part of history. As for why these photos have only now risen to the surface, Czesław says it was a matter of self-preservation. “Nervous of their position as ‘guests’ in a foreign land, they were determined not to draw attention to themselves,” he says. “This initial impulse of discretion soon gave way to the more prosaic demands of life and work.”
“For decades, my negatives sat unheeded in a drawer until, in 2018, two years after my mother’s death, I decided that it was time to bring them out into the world."
Polska Britannica is available to pre-order at RRB PhotoBooks.
GalleryCzeslaw Siegieda: Polska Britannica
Tadeusz, Józef and Helena, Loughborough, England, 1976 © Czesław Siegieda RRB Photobooks