Forest Gate's first Polish community

Sunday 5 February 2017

The Polish Educational Society in Forest Gate was formed siixty years ago - in November 1956 - and became the first Polish organisation in East London.  It was the local branch of an organisation (Polska Macierz Szkolna), originally formed in 1905 in Warsaw. This is the story of the Forest Gate branch's early years.

The local society comprised 15 families - 30 members - when it was established. Jerzy Gradosielski was its first president. The Society's first task was to organise the Polish Saturday School, for Polish studies in Forest Gate. 

The school was named Queen Jadwiga's, at the AGM in 1968, after the first queen of medieval Poland. It had an initial pupil roll of 15, and began its life in St Anthony's church Lower Hall (see below for details of this and other school locations).

Queen Jadwiga - Poland's first medieval
 queen - after whom the local Polish
 school was named.
The school's main purpose was to teach the children of the members about Polish culture, faith, its 1,000 year history and traditions, in the Polish language.

This was important to the members, as many of them became partners in mixed marriages and their children did not necessarily speak the language at home, and certainly not at day school. A secondary purpose was to provide a social and cultural focus for the whole local Polish community, by organising events, outings and celebrations of the nation.

The Polish community that established the school had mainly arrived in Britain after the second World War, many having flown from Nazi persecution and others from Soviet domination, in a country that suffered the full ravages of that conflict.

St Anthony's church host to the first
 local Polish Catholic community
Danuta Gradosielska, wife of the first president of the Forest Gate Society (Jerzy, who had died in 1989) - see above - was interviewed in the Newham Magazine, in 2002,  about her original journey to the area and her local experiences here. She said:

We moved to London in April 1949, and then to Forest Gate in September 1949 with my husband and first daughter ... We are still here in Forest Gate, after 53 years! ...

When we came here in 1949 there was a large Polish community in West Ham and East Ham. Gradually it increased, mainly ex-servicemen who feared persecution if they returned to Poland. There were enough families to be able to organise social activities, centred around the Catholic Church, including a Saturday morning school to teach our children the Polish language and culture.

The school rapidly expanded its numbers, as other members of the ex-pat Polish community were attracted to it, and its aims. These were to encourage an appreciation of the Polish cultural heritage and traditions among their children, most of whom had been born in Britain.

Jerzy and Danuta Gradoslieska, stalwarts
 of the first local Polish community,
 reviewing the organisation's achievements in 1980
The school was the only Polish organisation in East London for the first seven years of its life, and embraced fellow countrymen and women from Poplar and Leyton to Romford and Upminister.

Thanks to the work of this Society, Polish masses were said once a month at St Anthony's from the summer of 1963 and a Polish Catholic parish was established in Forest Gate (covering the same geographic territory as the Society). Masses were soon said every Sunday, and the church appointed its own Polish priest, in December 1963. The first was Father Jerzy Frankowski. The parish supported a choral association.

By then, the Society had 148 members, with 54 children attending school, taught by four teachers. This school was supported by a small annual grant (in the region of £100) by the local authority - eventually Newham Council, after it had been incorporated in 1965.

The school's work was recognised in 1966 at the AGM of the Polish Educational Societies Abroad, as a centre where worthwhile work was being undertaken.

The school continued to grow in the 1960's, and by the end of the decade had 96 pupils, from the Society's membership of 155.

Second generation Polish children,
 celebrating the country's millennium
 in national costume, in Forest Gate,

in 1966
The Society, however, lacked a permanent base to call its own, so a building fund was started - supported, in its early days, by the proceeds from successful social functions.

In 1973 the parish bought a house - 2 Ashgrove Road, Goodmayes - and extension work was carried out. The resultant building provided a home for the parish priest, acted as a Polish cultural centre and later began to host Polish Saturday school classes.

St Chedd's catholic church in Goodmayes -
 now plays a more prominent role in
 the East of London Polish community
As the younger generation of people of Polish heritage grew up in Britain, they began to assimilate into the host community more (see later), their ties with the Polish Education Society began to weaken, and the organisation fell into decline. It did, however, try to foster organisations to cater for the young, including the establishment of a scout troop and a Plomien (Blaze) Youth Circle, teaching national songs and dance to its members.

Booklet, celebrating the first quarter
 century of East London's first Polish
 community organisation - based in Forest Gate
Danuta Gradosielska, interviewed by the Newham Recorder in March 1980, estimated that at the time there were around 200 Polish families in East London - about half of them in Forest Gate. She said:

However, there are a lot that we do not know about, as I discovered in my work as a social worker with the Polish community.

The editors of a booklet written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Polish Educational Society in Forest Gate (in 1981) - see illustration of its cover -expressed a little sorrow at the reduced impact of the Society, but noted with some pride what the resultant assimilation had meant:

Many ex-pupils of our school go on to higher education and obtain degrees and other academic qualifications and hold important positions in the life of this country.

The story of our school is a faithful reflection of the story of the Polish community in East London.

Commemorative stamp, celebrating
 the first fifteen years of Forest
 Gate's Polish Educational Society

The Polish Education Society's 30th annual report, in November 1986, reported that due to a fall in numbers (only 21 pupils in 1984-5) and an increase in fees for using the school rooms at St Bonaventures, the society decided to switch to conducting the school in the Parish House, in Goodmayes.

By 1988, the Society was able to record that in addition to running the school, through which 260 children had passed, it had organised 270 events, published 75 newsletters and contributed towards the costs of publishing a book on Polish history.

Commenting on the activities of the first local Polish community, and its descendants, in 2002, Danuta Gradosielska, said:

Polish national holidays are celebrated with stage performances by children reciting poetry, singing folk songs and dancing in national costumes. Over the years, many people have moved away, but I still meet my Polish friends at church and other social functions, which nowadays mainly take place in Goodmayes.
According to the Polish school website (
The next stage in the life of the school was the start of the new millennium. In May 2004 Poland became a member of the European Union, with an influx of new families having children, the Queen Jadwiga School experienced the start of a new flourishing.
The numbers of children in the school grew, and classrooms were spread over three sites.  The Parents' Association decided to hire a building from a local secondary school.  In February 2006 the school moved to the Downshill Centre in Seven Kings, in buildings belonging to the Ursuline High School.

New generation of Polish migrants
 come following Polish membership
 of the European Community in 2004
In a quirky co-incidence, the local Polish school having started in Forest Gate, once it outgrew its original base has has moved into space owned by Ilford's Ursuline academy, which itself had grown out of Forest Gate roots (see here, for details).

According to the school's website; "In the school year 2015-16 lessons will be attended by some 500 boys and girls". There is now a teaching staff of 42 (teachers and assistants, under a director/headmistress), with 24 classes, including 2 infants.

In November 2016, the Polish Educational Society was proud to celebrate its 60th anniversary in East London.

Some additional notes on the Society's parish and locations, and some observations on the differences between the nature of the original Polish community and that of their latter day followers.

The Parish today

It is now the Parish of Forest Gate/Ilford with Waltham Cross, and it has a website (, but unfortunately there is no history section on this.

The Parish house continues to be at Ashgrove Road, Goodmayes.

It seems likely that Polish masses stopped being said at St Anthony's in the 1990's. They are now said at St Cedd's in Ilford on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

A note on Forest Gate locations and buildings used by the school

In its early years, the school used two parish buildings: St Antony's Hall and St Columba Hall.  The former was very large, on two floors, with high ceilings. It was situated behind the church on Lancaster Road.  The school used one or two rooms off the main staircase. St Bons used the main hall for assemblies. The building was demolished in the 1990's and the area is now occupied by housing.

St Columba Hall was very much smaller - a single story parish hall on the north side of Upton Park Road (no.99). It was set back from the road, with an entrance between the houses on either side. It has long since been demolished and its site is now covered by part of the Elmhurst school complex.

At times both halls were used by the school, as well as St Francis' hall, in the church. This created organisational problems.

From September 1966, the classes were brought together under one roof and on one corridor, in the old St Anthony's school, next to the hall on Lancaster Road. This building, itself was subsequently taken over by St Bon's school, with a new St Anthony's school opening on Upton Avenue.

That remained the site of the Polish school until its move to Goodmayes.

The older and newer Polish communities

Unlike most of East London's other substantial immigrations, the post-war Polish one was for political, rather than economic reasons (rather like the earlier Huguenots and post 1880's and 1930's Jewish settlements).

Two distinct migrant Polish communities,
 united by one national flag

Consequently, there was quite a large middle class element, and many went on to resume their careers and professions in London. Few returned to their homeland.

In contrast, the newer generation of Polish immigrants are primarily economic migrants, and their pattern of settlement may turn out to be very different.

Note If any members of the area's Polish communities would like to add detail, or anecdotes to this account, we would be delighted to incorporate them in the article, above.

We would be delighted to run similar features on the history of other migrant communities to Forest Gate, like this and our earlier one on the Jewish community (see here, for details), should any community wish to have its history and presence featured in this blog.

Update - November 2017 - the Gradosielka family today

Elizabeth Olsson, daughter of Jerzy and Danuta Gradosielka has been in touch with details of her mother's extraordinary life, which we will feature in a future article on this blog.

In brief, however, Danuta is now 92 and alive and well and living in Sprowston Road in the house she bought with her husband in 1959 (see here for a pen portrait of the street).

Builders' plans for the construction
of 23 - 25 Sprowston Road - 1876

23 Sprowston Road in 2005
Aged 14 she was deported from her home village in Poland, soon after the Russians invaded the country - in 1940. She later drove a truck during the Italian Campaign, during WW2 and fled to Britain at the end of the war. 

She ended up in Forest Gate and lived in Dames Road for 10 years, before moving into the house she still occupied in Sprowston Road. Having settled in Britain, she spent some time employed as an interpreter. Her full and remarkable story will appear later on this site.


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