Polish Migrants in London23 minute read


The construct of the contemporary city can be perceived as a palimpsest; like a parchment, it is a site where intricate inscriptions are written, erased and re-written. While some inscriptions fade, new ones emerge, and through ‘a process of layering- of erasure and superimposition’ (Dillon 2007: 12), a thick fusion of complex strata that make up the urban fabric of the city is formed. The city as a palimpsest conflates numerous historical layers and obliterates temporal boundaries, inscribing itself in ‘a process of addition, amendment and perpetual alteration’ (Crang 1996: 430; Pleßke 2014; Bjur and Azimzadeh 2007).

One city that has had stratifications of the past, present and future imbued in its urban texture is London, a global city (Sassen 2001) and booming metropolis, which has for centuries been a highly contested site of growth, decay and constant transformation.

Much of London’s urban tapestry has been woven together by migrants to create what Benedictus (2005) has termed ‘the world in one city’ and as noted by Vertovec (2007), diversity in the capital has metamorphosed into an unprecedented ‘superdiversity’ over recent decades.

This paper analyses the inscriptions that Polish migrants have made over time and space, on London’s intricately crafted surface. It explores the ways in which Poles are re-writing their identities and increasingly negotiating their presence in the social and political stage of London, whilst also considering reasons for an increasing ease of integration over time. What it is about the city that has enabled Poles to establish such a vast, timeless community and weave convoluted social networks into London’s rich urban fabric?

Thesis: ‘While the first two waves of Polish migrations to London were relatively detached from the host society and lacked the means to live transnational lives, over time, the capital has enabled Poles to integrate with increasing ease, whilst also providing them with a space to retain deep, rooted connections with their homeland.’

The paper is structured as follows: First, research considerations and methodology will be outlined, followed by a brief discussion of the three main waves of Polish migrations to London. The main thesis of the paper will be presented in the context of London’s increasingly ‘convivial’ society (Gilroy 2004) and its growing tolerance for ‘superdiversity’ (Vertovec 2007). First, the metaphor of ‘London as a Monopoly Board’ will be used to demonstrate how London has enabled Poles to settle and move around its surface over time. Secondly, the ways in which the city has allowed Polish migrants to both retain their national identity and integrate into London’s society through language and education will be explored. Thirdly, the paper will examine the abundance of economic opportunities offered in the capital and the ways in which Polish migrants construct and distinguish themselves (Bourdieu 1984) as they negotiate their place within labour hierarchies in London. Finally, London’s capacity to ease transnational living will be explored, focusing specifically on the creation of Polish sites, which facilitate the exchange of social capital (Bourdieu 1986).


Semi-structured and unstructured interviews were used to facilitate a deep understanding of the experiences, aspirations and feelings of identity among the Polish participants, allowing for flexible, open-ended answers (Longhurst 2010; Cloke et al. 2004; Flowerdew and Martin 2005). In total, 6 interviews were conducted and a focus group of 7 people was carried out at a Polish Saturday School (Polska Szkola Im. Marii Konopnickiej) in Willesden Green. 2 interviews were organised through personal networks, while the rest were a result of snowballing. Interviews were conducted in Polish and later translated into English; I am aware that some information may have been lost or inaccurately translated in the process. Children were not interviewed in order to limit ethical issues, and the research was not covert (Jackson 1983). While the brevity of this investigation has meant that interviews have only been quoted explicitly on a few occasions, the data collected has richly informed its findings.

Secondary data sources, which included academic papers, archives and news articles, as well as creative forms of expression, such as music and poetry, were triangulated and compared against the participants’ oral histories and interviews, in order to identify trends and analyse changing perceptions of the Polish migrant experience in London. While tempting to make assumptions about these experiences throughout the investigation, it was crucial to appreciate that migration is a truly personal experience and that whatever conclusion I ultimately drew from my research could not be a generalisation of all Polish migrant experiences in London.

Most importantly, reflexivity was a major consideration throughout the study. It was crucial to be aware of various features of my identity, such as class and gender, and particularly nationality in this case, that would shape both participant responses and my views on the research (Malterud 2001; England 1994).

Brief historical discussion of Polish migration to London

There have been three main waves of Polish migrants to London: post-WW2 migrants, pre-enlargement migrants and post-enlargement migrants (Trevena 2009). Each have made their own imprint on the social and political discourses of the city (Kershen 2015), characterised by different aspirations, experiences and relations both with London and with each other. Each migration wave will be briefly outlined below in an attempt to ground this study in some context and to reveal the foundations of London’s present migrant community:

1. Post-war migration

Poland’s first migrant wave is associated with a romantic narrative of exile and loss of homeland in the wake of World War 2 (Galasinska 2010). Made up mainly of former soldiers, officers and their families, this group of migrants, who fought alongside British troops during WW2, were prevented from returning to their homeland from fear of torture, imprisonment or death in newly communist Poland. Consequently, many retreated to London with great reluctance, in the hope of soon returning to Poland. By 1951 there were around 50,000 Poles in London (Chojnacki 2008).

As political migrants, this first wave of Poles were characterised by a deep sense of belonging to their homeland (Burrell 2006). A Guardian Archive article from 1963 states that this wave of migrants was ‘articulate, opinionated, and politically minded’ and had ‘no wish to merge into their British background’, taking ‘pride in their apartness’. As noted by Galasinska (2010: 942), ‘creation of such a narrative was achieved by repeated patterns of a community-bounded dialectical production and consumption of their cultural needs’, typically taking place in Polish churches and cultural centres. The intricate networks formed and sites created among post-WW2 migrants began to form the base layer of Polish migrants’ mark on London, upon which countless more were to be superimposed in successive years.

2. Post-1989/Pre-Enlargement Migration

The second wave of migrants to London can be contextualised with reference to post-communist transformation and to the reality of closed borders among Eastern European countries. Visas and work permit restrictions in the West for Eastern-bloc citizens were implemented strictly, causing difficulty in crossing borders. Due to Poland’s turbulent history of oppression, particularly at a time of Soviet occupation, many pre-enlargement migrants developed an ‘anti-state habitus’, resting on a ‘deeply entrenched perception of the Polish state as hostile, alien, unfriendly and made to restrict freedoms rather than facilitate human development’ (Garapich 2015). In contrast, London became a legend, a source of melancholic hope, highly mythologised in their eyes and perceived as a ‘neoliberal, free, individualised paradise’ (Garapich 2015; Chojnacki 2008), to which many endeavoured to escape the ‘backwardness’ of the East. However, social capital was crucial; most successful migrations during this period were facilitated by existing contacts and networks in London.

Thus, the general narrative of pre-enlargement migrants is based on a construction of space as fixed and closed. As a result, this wave was not attached to any specific Polish locations, often experiencing problems of being accepted in centres dominated by the post-war migrants. While they used the church and cultural clubs for socialising, most interactions and social exchanges were superficial, with migrants tending not to be emotionally involved in these places. In addition, this generation of migrants did not have enough power or capital to organise new transnational migrant sites such as shops or restaurants. This isolated them from society, making integration and their overall migration experience difficult.

3. Post-enlargement migration

Mostly made up of economic migrants, the final migration wave to date began when Poland entered the EU in 2004. While post-1989 migrants often relied on existing networks of fellow Poles, post-enlargement arrivals acted relatively independently and became well-adapted transnational actors, increasingly negotiating their presence in both the social and political discourses of the city, as well as developing their identity with stronger emphasis on ‘individual achievement, human agency, self-determination and flexibility’ (Garapich 2006: 4). The post-enlargement group have discursively constructed themselves in opposition to the previous two waves of Polish migrants and have established a wide range of multifunctional Polish spaces, such as shops, cultural centres and restaurants, using them for socialising and cultural exchange. Poles in London today are able to lead transnational lives, but also integrate with ease into London’s society, increasingly weaving Polish markings into London’s contemporary urban fabric.

London’s increasingly ‘convivial’ culture and tolerance of ‘super-diversity’

Gilroy (2004) proposes the notion of ‘conviviality’, a condition rooted in the human psyche, which forgoes the melancholic attachment to ‘British culture’ and recognises the value of ‘everyday virtues that enrich our cities, drive our cultural industries and enhance our struggling democracy so that it resists operating in colour-coded forms’ (Gilroy 2005, 438). Urban conviviality, especially among younger generations in London, has promoted a mode of interaction in which differences are embraced and ‘superdiversity’ (Vertovec 2007) is increasingly being considered an asset to the capital. Thus, London’s budding convivial culture is enabling Polish migrants to integrate into society, while also retaining their national identity. This will be further explored through language, education, economy and transnationality.

London as a Monopoly Board

Since the mid-twentieth century, London has allowed Polish migrants to occupy spaces all over the city. While these spaces have historically been somewhat clustered, with a few particular areas of the capital hosting the majority of the Polish population, today Poles have dispersed spatially, occupying a greater range of the city and progressively leaving their mark across new parts of London.

Currently, the highest concentration of Poles is in Ealing, West London, where the population rose from 3,695 in 2001 to 21,507 in 2011 (Kershen 2015). Boroughs including Hounslow and Haringey are also increasingly popular among Polish migrants. This 10-year period saw a significant increase in the overall Polish migrant population in all boroughs; overall growth rose by 136,064 from 2001 to 2011 (Census 2001, Census 2011; Kershen 2015).

Fig.1 depicts the spread of Poles in London in 1968, with the majority concentrated in West and North West London. While Fig.2, which shows the spaces in London occupied by migrants with Polish as their first language (Lowther 2015) suggests that the highest concentration remains in these areas of the city, there has been significant growth in both the North and South, as well as more dispersed settlement in East London.

Polish settlement in London
Figure 1. The Settlement of Poles in London 1968 (Source: POSK ‘Komunikat Informacyjny’)
Polish Londoners
Figure 2. Settlement of Poles in London 2015 (Source: BBC 2015)

While boroughs such as Ealing and Haringey are home to the highest Polish population today, this has not always been the case, as suggested by a Guardian Archive article from 1963 titled ‘Poles Apart- London’s Little Poland’ (Fig.3). It notes that bus conductors on the 74 route would occasionally call out “the Polish Corridor” at any stop along the Cromwell Road between Exhibition Road and Earls Court and refers to this area as ‘Little Poland’; ‘If anyone wants to find Polish restaurants with Polish waitresses, eat Polish cakes, visit Polish hairdressers, doctors, dentists, or chemists, do business with a Polish architect, lawyer, estate agent, or type-writer salesman, or talk with Polish writers, publishers, artists, or actors he need only walk a short distance from South Kensington station’ (The Guardian 1963). Many attribute this clustering of Poles in South Kensington to the establishment of the Polish Club in Prince’s Gate in 1940.

Guardian Archive Polish London
Figure 3. Extract from 1963 Guardian Archive Article (Source: The Guardian 2015)

While some post-war Polish migrants and their families continue to reside in South Kensington, subsequent migrant groups have taken advantage of London’s vast Monopoly Board, settling and establishing communites in more affordable areas where jobs are more readily available.

However, as with any migrant group, the risk of ethnic enclave formation and ghettoisation exists (Massey 2001; Marcuse 1997). While geographic proximity to fellow Poles and active involvement in an enclave may develop systems of interpersonal relations, through which migrants can exchange valuable resources and knowledge, such as information about employment opportunities, or affordable housing, it may also impede interaction with London’s wider society and seclude individuals from the vast array of opportunities London has to offer. Brimicombe (2007) further suggests that ghettoisation is not necessarily spatial; dense networks of co-ethnics may be spatially dispersed but linked by language, culture and nationality, rather than physical location. Migrants may live in ethnically diverse areas of London, yet still only socialise and work within exclusively Polish groups, which becomes problematic as it generates tension among natives, who are left feeling foreign and isolated in their own city.

Retaining National Identity and Integrating into London’s Society through Language and Education

While language and education have both played a role in the coherent effort to preserve desired aspects of national identity among Polish migrants in London, they have also acted as means through which Poles have woven their culture into the city’s urban fabric.

A key way for Poles to preserve and cultivate national consciousness is through language, as Dorota, 35, who migrated to London in 2006 explains:

“Speaking Polish with friends and family is what keeps Poland close to me. The most important thing now is to make sure that my children, who were born here, grow up speaking the language.”

However, as noted by Cheshire et al. (2011), new creolised forms of language have started to form, particularly among youth, who are ‘approaching the host language through a new, secondary route, and by doing so, are adding yet another layer to the super-diversity of the language scene in the capital’. Polish migrants in London have formed a hybrid language known as ‘ponglish’, which combines English and their native tongue (Booth 2013). For instance, Poles today will go ‘szoping’ to buy a ‘tiszert’. This hybrid language has filtered deeply into London’s urban fabric and has even made its way back to Poland. It is not only used among young Poles; Magda Pustola, from the Polish Cultural Institute in London explains: ‘We mix the two languages together all the time. We find that more and more English is creeping into our Polish, even in meetings at the Institute’ (de Quetteville and Leidig 2008).

London offers a range of education facilities, which allows Poles to keep in touch with their native language, in addition to studying their own literature and history. As well as the chance to join the Polish Scouting Association, established in Poland in 1910, the ‘Polish Education Society’ gives the 25,000 children of Polish origin attending mainstream education in London the opportunity to sit Polish at both GCSE and A-level (Tomchak and Mastela 2015). Children are able to attend the 19 Polish Saturday schools available in the city in preparation for the exams. In 2015, however, the examination board which offers Polish-language exams announced that it would no longer be able to do so at A-level, which led to a petition with over 13,000 signatures set up by the Polish Education Society, who claimed the decision would pose a major problem for the identity of young people of Polish origin in London. The successful outcome resulting from the Polish population’s resistance is evidence of Poles’ increasing impact on the social and political stage of London.

Economic Opportunities

London’s main appeal is no doubt the economic opportunities it offers Poles, enabling integration into London’s political economy. May et al. (2007) argue that in cities, migrants tend to occupy low-wage, low-skilled jobs, however among Poles in London, there exists a more complex reality.

Many initially experience deskilling, as their qualifications and diplomas are not recognised by employers (Kershen 2015), thus, many accept downward mobility in the short term, with the aim of acquiring linguistic and vocational capital that will ultimately enable them to ascend the employment ladder. Low-skilled jobs such as cleaning or building are perceived simply as early stepping stones in an upwardly mobile career path. In this sense, London can be viewed as a city with an abundance of possibilities and countless ‘stepping stones’, which Poles have utilised to their advantage. Robert, 32, who completed a Masters in Law in Poland, shared his experience:

For 3 years I worked on various building sites around the city. Because I couldn’t speak much English I enrolled in an English language course, which helped me find a better job as a teacher. I knew the first job was only a temporary stage in my life

However, much of what Poles would regard as economic success is often countered by antagonism from Londoners, an example of which is the rise of nationalist parties such as UKIP and BNP (Fig.4). When the UK opened its borders in 2004, British media coverage exaggerated claims of the huge economic migration that would put Londoners out of work (Ryan 2015), with popular imagery of the mythical Polish plumber emerging as a symbol of this fear, while the century-old saying ‘they are taking the jobs of Englishmen’ became synonymous with the word ‘Pole’ (Kershen 2005).

UKIP Billboard Campaign 2015
Figure 4. UKIP National Billboard Campaign 2015 (Source: http://www.ukip.org/ukip_national_billboard_campaign)

It is perhaps this bitterness that has caused Poles to develop such a strong work ethic and distinguish themselves (Bourdieu 1984) within labour hierarchies in the city. As Jordan (2002:15) notes, Polish migrants in London carve themselves as ‘excellent market actors, [who] have adapted to the new culture as mobile, flexible workers’ and construct themselves as individual agents, who actively pursue different opportunities of upward social mobility in the capital (Garapich 2007). For instance, Datta and Brickell’s (2009) study explores how male Polish builders mark themselves as ‘superior’ to English builders through their versatile skills, work ethic and rich ‘individual capital’ (Morawska 2001), revealing a new understanding of these work spaces as sites where difference is negotiated and redefined through the politics of ethnicity and nationality in the wider labour geographies of London. It can be argued that Poles today form the backbone of the capital (Fig.5) and are constantly weaving new layers into the city’s urban fabric by carefully constructing both its physical and emotional landscape.


Not only has time-space convergence caused by innovations in communication had a positive impact on the ease, speed and affordability of maintaining transnational ties (Ryan 2010) among Polish migrants in London, but London has facilitated transnational living for Poles by allowing various sites of transnational exchange to exist.

Cooltura Magazine
Figure 5. March 2010 edition of ‘Cooltura’- Polish Magazine in London. Translation Pg.1:’ Immigrants have built and will continue to build Great Britain’. Pg 2:’ Immigrant- Enemy, Problem, Blessing’. (Source: http://cooltura.co.uk/archiwum.html)

As well as serving as sites for the exchange of cultural and social capital (Bourdieu 1986), shops, restaurants, media, organizations, newspapers, schools and churches, to name but a few, have enabled Poles to maintain deep-rooted connections with the homeland, challenging the assumed linearity of the migration process from one discrete space to another and acknowledging the fluid relationships that are at play. Beata, 47, who moved to London in 2005 commented:

“Of course I miss my country, but because I have Polish shops where I can buy Polish food, Polish magazines I can read, Polish radio I can listen to and Polish church where I can practice my faith, I feel a lot closer to home.”

While Vertovec (2001: 576) argues that ‘transnationality’ has ‘become over-used to describe too wide a range of phenomena’ and Portes et al. (1999) similarly render the term too vague and lacking a well-defined theoretical framework, it aids an understanding of why post-enlargement Poles, as opposed to 20th Century Polish migrants in London, have experienced their migration process with relative ease. By superimposing quintessentially Polish sites onto London’s dense mass of historical layers, Poles are etching transnational markings onto the capital’s urban fabric, creating a ‘Polish London’.

However, while Polish culture has been constructed through distinct forms within the city, it has also managed to weave its way into mainstream London culture. Below four such examples are presented:

Polish Poems on the Undergdound
Figure 6. Polish Poem on the London Underground (Source: http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk)
St George's Drive Sign Polish
Figure 7. Road sign in London translated into Polish (Source: http://www.gettyimages.com)
Polish Food TESCO
Figure 8. Polish Food section in mainstream supermarket TESCO (Source: http://www.tesco.com)
Days of Poland Festival
Figure 9. Cooltura magazine advertising ‘Days of Poland Festival’


This paper has argued that while the first two waves of Polish migrations to London were relatively detached from the host society and lacked the means to live transnational lives, over time, the capital has enabled Poles to integrate with increasing ease, whilst also providing them with a space to retain deep, rooted connections with their homeland.

Over the years, London’s increasingly ‘convivial’ society (Gilroy 2004) has lifted vast numbers of Polish migrants from a state of insecurity and marginality, into a visible public and political sphere, facilitating their overall upward mobility and creating a somewhat symbiotic relationship between the two. However, the ease of integration that post-enlargement migrants have experienced and the ability to live transnationally would not have been possible without the previous two waves of Polish migrants, who over time have built up layers in the social and political stage of London, providing current Poles with a solid foundation upon which to construct their identity and contribute to the palimpsestuous nature of the city.

Poles owe much to the city that was once only a source of melancholic hope; highly mythologised and out of reach for many. But is London, a space that has offered them so much and embraced them with open arms, about to turn its back on a population that has for decades weaved a vortex of convoluted social networks and established a vast, timeless community into its rich, urban fabric? The forthcoming EU referendum poses questions about the future trajectory of Polish migrants in London, leaving many wondering whether it has reached its peak and whether the inscriptions Poles have left on London’s surface will remain forever or eventually fade away.


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Fig.1. Accessed 12/04/16 from: POSK ‘Komunikat Informacyjny 1968’.

Fig.2. Accessed 12/04/16 from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-1e4fbcb9-5bd6-4e14-adf5-bf3ab1ba79bb

Fig.3. Accessed 16/04/16 from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/28/polish-immigrants-london-1963-archive

Fig.4. Accessed 19/04/16 from: http://www.ukip.org/ukip_national_billboard_campaign

Fig.5. Accessed 20/04/16 from: http://cooltura.co.uk/archiwum.html

Fig.6. Accessed 22/04/16 from: http://poetrysociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Adam-Zagajewski-Star.jpg

Fig.7. Accessed 22/04/16 from: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/pictures/london-united-kingdom-a-road-sign-written-in-polish-is-news-photo-73392450

Fig.8. Accessed 22/04/16 from: http://www.tesco.com/groceries/product/browse/default.aspx?N=4294779172

Fig.9. Photograph of advertisement in ‘Cooltura Magazine’- Aprill 2016 issue.


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