Mr Boleslaw Dobski came to Highfields in 1947/48.
9th January 1995. Valerie Lea recording an interview with Mr Dobski.
Mr Dobski, do you mind starting off by telling me your name and your age and where you were born.
I was born in Poland, near Gdansk of course, that was 1920. I just passed 75 two days ago so I am rather an old chap! I came to England through the Polish forces from Italy, and we settled here in 1946. We landed in Scotland and from there we have been slowly preparing for the Polish civil life through the Polish Resettlement Corps, we couldn't go back to Poland where we left some 5,6,7 years ago. So we had been stranded, we had no option. We had to start some civilian life and that was it.
I was stationed several miles from Leicester. Leicester was a focal point and there was plenty of work so we settled here in Leicester. Me and about a thousand Polish families settle here at that time in 1947/1948/1949. But of course, I say families, there were only perhaps a hundred families, and the rest were just single fellows. I was single then.
Yes. Did you speak English?
Well, only a few rudimentary words and so on. I was working for the quartermaster in the army, and we had to go to depots, so we had more or less been forced to learn some English in connection with the job. But in general, there were a few of us who mastered English, or had some knowledge of English before. English was not very popular in Poland before the war. French, German and Russian perhaps, but not English. Now everybody is trying to learn English, 90 percent of people in Poland (according to some survey), would like to learn English because English is an international language. Before the war, England seemed far away.
When you left the army, were you looking for a job, did you know enough English to be able to find work?
Yes, you see at that time, we hadn't been offered any other jobs, only the lowest of the low. That was a problem. For example I've got 2 friends, one finished Law in Poland and then he was in Oxford for a year or two, and he could not get even the job of a clerk. So he had to start sweeping the floor in the factory, that was our beginning, you see. That was politic of the government at the time, and well, this was it. So it was a hard time. I could start work perhaps because my trade was as a merchant, and you need perhaps a better knowledge of English than I had at that time. Besides I wouldn't even get the chance to get any other job than in a factory. I started in the factory as an engineer and learnt my trade there. I went to a college and picked it up there and that was it.
So we more or less started at the same sort of level, except for the younger generation because many children which had been dragged from Poland to Kazikstan. When they finally found their way out of Russia through Persia, the Polish Army, under the British command took over the care of them and schooled them in English. So when they came here to England as teenagers, they again were pushed through the Universities because they had this knowledge of English and it was an easier start. So for example, my friend Mr Beldowski was the librarian at the University, and when he came to England (aged sixteen), his English was already good enough to go to higher school. He finished at the University of Leicester and got a better job, but for me it was a bit too late. You see, I was already grown up, and all we could manage was to learn a trade and get on with the job, so it wasn't very easy but somehow we managed. You can see I am surviving!
So you left the army and you moved into Leicester to find work. Where did you work first?
At the Imperial Typewriter Company, do you remember it?
On East Park Road?
Yes. It was quite prosperous mind you. It was one of the best typewriter companys in England, in that era. At that time it was developing and expanding and at that time, I think there was about 150 Poles working for the Imperial. It was very low paid, they didn't pay very much, but then it was a good a job as any other.
Tell me what you did, and how much you were paid and for how many hours you worked?
Ah, it was what 48 hours, wasn't it? It was a 48 hour week and then it was reduced to 44, 42 and so on, but from the beginning it was 48. I was a machine operator there. I was with them for about 15 years and then I changed to Rank.
Do you mean Rank on Stoughton Street?
No, in Gipsy Lane. They specialised in instrument building and I was good enough to pick up a job there. I was with them for about two or three years, then there was a vacancy at the University and I got a job there. I was quite happy then because I got a job in the position of superintendent and it was quite alright then. However, you never master it, but good enough to do a job. And well, I knew the trade and I was quite happy at the University because you meet young people, you meet educated people, and it was uplifting from the factory to a different place, yeah. So it wasn't too bad then.
Had the war not got in the way, what would you have done if you'd have stayed in Poland?
If I'd stayed in Poland, I was prepared to go to a foreign trade school. It was a newly established school for foreign merchandise, as I already had my apprentice in merchandise and was supposed to go to school. Then the war broke out. I joined the army and happy ever after!
My ambition was to have my own business. My father was a farmer and we hadn't been that bad off, so if everything went alright I would probably start with a small shop, that was my idea. Before the war people were different. A tradesman was a sort of middle class respected fellow. That was before the war. You had your shop, or your own workshop or something, and was middle class. Today, people perhaps go for the high education for professionals and doctorships and so on, but before the war, people had been happy to have been independent with little businesses, so proper tradesmen, properly trained and that was my idea. Perhaps I would have developed a taste for something else later on, but that was the idea, to start a shop or something. But if I succeeded at the school of foreign trade, overseas trade, then probably I'd be looking at something else you see. But when you are eighteen, nineteen you just haven't got an idea and besides, everything was so quiet before the war, now everything is overblown. But before the war people had been quite happy to have live a decent small life, in little towns preferably. Yes, they were the good old days!
Yeah, let's go back, you've left the army, you've got a job at Imperial Typewriters.
Where did you live?
My first address was Melbourne Road, opposite the Polish church. You see, it is an old peoples' home now, but they were big terraced houses, three or four storeys, that's where I started. That was Melbourne Road, number 98 or something. Every second or third house was Polish at that time.
Did you have a whole house?
No, no we moved into digs because I was poor, when I was demobbed. Then I married of course and my wife was poor because she escaped from Poland. She was chased by the KGB! She just managed to escape from Poland through Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy and to England. When we met here in England, we married. At that time she was a restaurant cook in Brighton. We met in the camp because she came to visit her brother. Her brother escaped from Poland in 1939/40 during the winter and went through Czechoslovakia, Hungary to Greece, from Greece to Turkey, from Turkey to Egypt and joined the Polish forces there. And so he came to England and then I got in contact with him and that's where I met my wife. That was a day! We got married and then we settled here in Leicester. There were two single army beds believe it or not on four bricks each, so if we wanted to make love, well that was funny I can tell you! We were young though, just imagine, an army bed on four bricks because there are no legs to it. Oh, my God!
There were eighteen people in the house! There were one, two, three families with children, three single fellows and three miners, three Irish men were miners. The house was full of people. Everybody was working. We would come home at night at six o'clock, all the women in the kitchen and we had been doing something else, making the fires and that. Of course we were very young at that time it didn't matter.
Can you describe the families, the groups of people in the house? Tell me more about them.
On the ground floor there was the house owner and his wife and daughter, aged about ten.
What was his name, do you remember?
Reruper. He emigrated to Canada. As far as I know he is still alive in Canada because he was more or less my age. The other family who were on the ground floor are still living in Leicester. They had three children, little ones, there were already four children on the first floor. On the second floor it was my brother-in-law and his wife and his little baby and of course, me and my wife occupying the other room. On the third floor there were three Polish fellows, I think they were young men who worked in the tannery, and the three miners and a single girl. I think I counted once it was eighteen or nineteen people in the house. Well, that was a very hard start and to get any other accommodation was out of question in Leicester. There was plenty of work here but little accommodation. If you got two rooms, or use of kitchen or your own kitchen, Oh God that was something, that was heaven!
So you had just a room and you had to share all the other facilities?
Yes. I had to share all the other facilities.
Did you have a bathroom in this house?
Yes, but the miners had the privilege of having a bath every day because they were dirty from the mines. Everyone else had to bath on a Friday night.
Where did they mine?
Somewhere near Coalville. They would come home by bus in their dirty old clothes.
Did you take turns having a bath?
We had to take turns, Oh it was a lot of fun!
How did you manage in the morning when you got up to go to work?
It was all the other things in the morning as well. Just imagine, fifteen people in the queue for the lavatory in the morning. But it was a very orderly house. My wife and I didn't go together to the bath at that time. It wasn't done in those days, so everything was regulated. The hot water was there all the time for shaving. Everything had to be very strict and it was, we had no option.
Did all the groups in the house manage to get on or where there any arguments?
No, there was no arguments. No, never. We all knew the situation and the landlord and his wife were very friendly, very nice people and everything was alright. Mind you, we were all in our twenties, it didn't matter in them days. And we had no choice. Besides, if you didn't like it, you could leave and look for other accommodation. Everything was alright, there was very little to quarrel about in the kitchen, so no, it was ok.
How did you manage to do your washing, where did your wife do your washing?
That was another problem, there were no laundrettes that time, we used to take our linen to the laundry. I think it was the Co-op that collected every week. Besides we didn't have much, we had perhaps one change but that was all. I had three pairs of my army socks and that was all. Perhaps my wife had one spare, if she took her bra off, she had to wash it and hang it up to dry and then put it on the next day. I look at it with a little smile but it was hard.
We had been living together in one house and then we got together, three or four of us. We bought another house. With fifty pounds deposit you could buy a house in those days. So that's how we moved out, then perhaps after six months we saved enough for the two families to move along. And so we spread all over Highfields in that way. In the beginning there was perhaps sixteen, eighteen people in one house. We were all Poles together. So it was eighteen people at the start, next week, next six months it was four people and then perhaps two people in the house and then we got married and children arrived and so on. That's how we started.
Was there a lot of empty housing in the area then?
No, no but houses for sale were immediately bought, yeah. We had been buying and that's how we bought our church there you see. We bought the church with cash.
Was the church empty when you bought it?
Yes it was. It was owned by the Baptists. That church, (you probably will not remember) was built where the present railway station is 120-130 years ago. It was transferred to Melbourne Road brick by brick then we bought it for fifteen thousand pounds. It didn't have a roof and was very neglected. It was leaking all over the place. We got some money together and bought it and that's why there was a sort of Polish ghetto there at that time in the Highfields area.
What year are we taking about?
We are taking about almost the community there in Highfields. Before that we used to have the privilege of having Polish army chaplains with us and our church services had been at the Dominicans' church in New Walk. We used the Dominican church up to 1958 or even later. We transferred everything there to our own church.
When children were old enough we started 'Saturday' School. Everything was there at the Dominicans' church and then when we bought this place and we transferred some of our activities there. But, that was alright until the 1960s. We started moving out when we got a bit richer and the younger got better jobs, and so they began moving out. We had been selling the houses there and moving out and there is hardly anybody now, nobody living of the Polish community. One or two families perhaps, but that is all. My family was the last Polish family who moved out of Highfields. I moved out thirteen years ago. I stuck it out but I couldn't stand it anymore. The noise, the dirt, the prostitution and so on. My wife didn't want to move, but I say, alright you stay, I go!
Where were you living then? You weren't living on Melbourne Road?
No, it was St Peters Road. I was living where the Melbourne Hall is.
Let's go back to when you were living at 98 Melbourne Road. Where you there long?
For about eighteen months. Then I was living at College Street.
Were you there long?
No only for a few months until we gained some money. Until we saved one hundred pounds and bought the house in St Peters Road. We bought it in 1951 or 1952. So for about three years, we had been wandering around Leicester living in single rooms. We were quite happy to buy the house in St Peters Road. Mind you, it was a respectable area at that time. There was a dentist, a doctor, there was the vicar. You see, there was very little traffic at that time as well, so we were quite happy to have a big house on the main road. Later on, it became too noisy, we got all the traffic. But in the beginning, well, I intended to live in the house forever because we had just rebuilt it to our own design. We were quite happy there. We didn't realise that the traffic was coming with everything else.
Can you describe the house?
It was end of the row facing St Peters Road. It was a two storey house, (ground and first floor) and we had all the facilities there. I rebuilt whatever was not up to our standard and it was quite nice. Big rooms mind you, we intended to stay there. But later on things happened, so we had to move out.
Did you have a family?
No, unfortunately not. My wife couldn't have children and that was it. We spent a fortune on Harley Street because Harley Street at that time was a respectable area. Whatever goes on now in Harley Street is better not to mention. My wife went from one gynaecologist to another, we tried to have children and unfortunately she could not. We spent a small fortune but I was happy to do it. I have been a widower for three years now. At that time we were quite happy to live in the Highfields area. It was a different area altogether.
Let's go back to that time when you first moved into your house. Where did you shop? Did you still want Polish food?
At that time there were very little of Polish foods, we just shopped around the corner. Mind you, we become a member of the Co-op. We had been buying in the Co-op. £1.00 per week for groceries, it was enough you see in the olden days. Well we didn't have contact at that time with Poland at all, so we didn't get any of those sort of sausages and delicacies you get now in the continental shops, we had been relying on what we got next door and besides, everything was rationed. You wouldn't remember? We got a Polish butcher. He started a shop in Churchill Street and so all the Poles were going to Mr Morawiec because he was a Pole and he really was a proper butcher and then we enjoyed the Polish sausage. Max his name was. He was the first one in Leicester to start up a Polish delicatessen.
I was earning about £4 or £5 a week for 48 hours. Mind you £4 was something different to the £4 today of course! But that was the general rate of pay. You tried to make a little overtime or a little bonus and so on. If anybody was earning £6 that was regarded as having a good job. We started working (more or less) in factories.
Did your wife work?
Yes, she worked in the hosiery industry. My wife was a widow when I met her. Her husband was killed in action in 1945 one week before the war ended. Her husband was working as a young staff officer in the general staff. When my wife came here and was working in the factory she was always crying until she got used to it, but then again she had no choice. I don't think she was happy but nobody was at that time.
How much were your rates?
It was fourteen shillings I believe, by this time we had a telephone and somehow I couldn't do without it, always having been involved in social questions and political goings on, so without a 'phone I couldn't do it. The 'phone was about another ten shillings a week. We had to depend on the wives working. So, if any of our wives got pregnant at that time, it was a disaster! But somehow we managed.
My wife was more or less earning the same in the hosiery as I did in the factory. Until she got ill. My wife got ill ten years after we got married and then she stopped working and that was the end of it. It was a very hard time but it was not sort of typical for Poles.
That was our beginning. It was very hard. Mind you, if we sometimes sit together with a beer and talk about the good old days and say "Well yes, it was good, but remember, how many socks did you have?!" You washed the socks so they were ready by tomorrow morning. The beginning was very hard but I should say that in the late Fifties, Sixties we felt we were getting somewhere. We did not ask for anything, we didn't get any grants, we didn't get any help from nobody and yet we managed to stabilise and we are quite alright now.
Did it hold together as a community?
Yes. It was basically because we had all been ex-servicemen, and some of the women too, so that organisation stuck us together and the church kept us together too. As we have been here in a Protestant country and we are Catholics, we stuck together. We had to stick together otherwise we wouldn't have any churches. And of course, as we had children, we started the school and then we started other various organisations like the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and so on, and dancing troops and so on. But that was all in the late Fifties and Sixties.
Tell me about some of these, these were cultural activities?
Cultural activities, yes. Well the school. Well we started the first school around 1950 or 1952.
We got children together to learn the Polish language, the Polish culture. We introduced them to national dancing and theatre. We had a very prosperous theatre and choir and so we started growing as a community. But always we stuck together. Now all the younger generation is spreading into the English community, including myself. I don't go a Polish church anymore. I go to St Thomas Moore because it is nearer, you see.
So the school started. From the beginning it was in the Dominicans, when we had parents and children. When we had 50, 60 children, we used the local school in Highfields next to our church. With one school there wouldn't have been enough room. There were some of us who had little political differencesbetween one faction and another. You see from the beginning we were all together, but once we had grown let's say, a little bit wiser, or God knows what, then we started quarrelling about politics. Some people accepted the situation in Poland, the communists. But there was another faction, like myself, we didn't agree to it. I have never been to Poland. We have grown into two factions politically and that way we split the school finally. Unfortunate I say, but there you are. That's what happened. And at that time we used to have up to 150 children in Saturday school.
From then on things advanced, we had secondary school.
Who were the teachers?
Ah, well there were perhaps Poles who had been professional teachers and then were called into the army. There were the vicars, priests, who got into civvies and doctors as well, army doctors we had at that time perhaps. There were more than six or eight doctors here in Leicester of Polish origin, some of them had been already medical students and they come here to England after France collapsed. There was a Polish section at the medical school in Edinburgh, they finished their studies there.
Were many of those eight settled in Highfields?
Those doctors were not necessarily in Highfields. No, I don't think so. Dr Redish was in Queens Road. Dr Mukah in a hospital, Dr Danek in a hospital. It would take too long to mention all of them but they each had a private practice. Dr Turk was near the prison. There were three Polish dentists. All army demobbed. Lucky enough because at that time you see, National Health Service was introduced in England in 1948, or something like that and there were not enough doctors here in England so any doctor of any description got a job, otherwise they wouldn't get it. Solicitors or any other things they didn't have any chance like that to get a job, but doctors, thanks to the National Health introduction, they got a job and they have been happy ever after!
Slowly the Polish shops started up here in the Sixties. One was in Mere Road. Next door to a Polish church there was a grocery shop, that was owned by Colonel Dadrowski. His Christian name was Anthony. Yeah, he was the commanding officer of one of the Panzer units in Italy. He lives with his friends. But that was one of the first shops. There was others as well but it was next to the church, so when we went to the church on Sunday, the next thing it was to go to Dadrowski for Polish sausages. It was very new but everybody was happy to live together. So that was Highfields in those days.
Did the church have a social club then like it does now?
For the first two, three years no. From the beginning it was only a church and then slowly we could afford to renovate it so we converted that church and now it serves as a sort of ballroom. I am going there in a fortnight for a dance but that's a different story. Unfortunately we would prefer it to be in a different place because there is a lack of communication. If it was somewhere in the centre of the town it would be better. We missed out on a church in Prebend Street, there was one church for sale. We missed something else because we could not afford it. It was perhaps a bit late. It's a difficulty as it's sort of difficult to reach on Sunday. The transport years ago was better and we were younger. Now that we are in our seventies and eighties it is very difficult to walk there. But it is too late now. We are not going to move it and there are younger generations, they have been talking about selling up and buying somewhere else. But they haven't the same drive as we had. I was earning four to five pounds a week. Ten shillings went to the collection every Sunday to buy the church. But the younger generations if it came down from Heaven it would be alright. But to put a little money in it, well, that's something different. You see they have got a different spirit. Perhaps they are more practical!
Does the younger generation actually use the Polish Church?
Oh yes, yes occasionally.
So there is still a sense of community?
Oh yes, still. The children still go to church, perhaps not as frequently as we used to because I had to go to church every Sunday. Without it I would be unhappy. But the younger generation, they go there when there is an occasion. Like everywhere else. It is the same with any young people. When I was young perhaps I was just the same. So they are still using it for their weddings, for their baptisms and so on, and for various functions, but perhaps when they grow a bit older and wiser they will use it a bit more.
The problem is with parking. You see, we used to walk and the younger people will not walk so far. They must have a car and there is no parking space. So there is some difficulties for the younger generation, but then again, you have survived it so far and we hope that the church will serve us for many years to come. For now there is already a question mark hanging around it because when we built the church we counted oh, eight hundred people to accommodate. We had three services on Sundays and today we have two and the church is empty because, well the younger generation don't visit the church as we do and the older generation is dying out.
Do you still have a lunch club there for the elderly people?
No, no they don't. They have it now at the day centre on a Thursday. I am the chairman of the Polish ex-servicemen's association, and I opened a restaurant here. We have about twenty five, thirty people coming here for Sunday lunches in this room. Of course we have to convert it to a dining room. It is a big job but it is almost done and so, many people come in for their drink and their talk and they have their lunch and at three o'clock everybody goes home.
So everything changed and Highfields changed as well. Not much for the better, that's the problem you see, because it is still overcrowded. Too many people live in that area. No parking space, cars parking on the pavement and so on. It's too noisy now and different people live there. Different habits, different culture and so on.
Belgrave Gate changed. I pass there quite often and I have seen the change. I wouldn't say for better or worse. It's changed because the people who live there have a different culture and they have different requirements and this is it. You can see every other shop is a Goldsmiths. Well, my God! So, Highfields changed despite the fact that the town or the county spent a lot of money on renewing and repairing and so on. It is still not as good as it was let's say, forty years back. Everybody knew everybody else.
So when you were living here forty years ago, you were not afraid to go out? You had no fears?
Oh for goodness sake no! Well you hit the nail on the head! Yes, it has changed. It is the same even in Granby Street. I have friends outside Leicester. I use buses and when I come home at eleven o'clock or so to Charles Street, you have to be so damn careful because there are too many of these young people just eating and drinking. Even that has changed. So the character of the city has changed. There is nothing you can do about it.
When I moved to the Queens Road about thirteen years ago it was quite nice, but nowadays if I could afford it I would move out. The students walk round in gangs of ten, twelve or fifteen people. There is noise, people kicking everything around and shouting, and bringing those little tins of drink and throwing them. Oh my God! You see, this is it. That's what happened to not only Leicester, other parts of the county are just as bad. It's the age we are living in.
What I detest here and in Queens Road now, is the dirty habits of spitting. At night when I come home, the first thing I do is take the shoes off and put different shoes on because you bring the spittle in. How can the city or the authority allow anything like that? I don't know. Why is it done? Students go along and they must spit right and left. I am going to talk to Professor Pritchard because he is a busybody around that area, and I will tell him to install spittoons for that area. Between College Hall and the University it is the worse place you can see. You see, the habits of people change.
OK, let's change the subject. When you came here, did you feel you integrated well in to the local community?
No, unfortunately not. First it was a lack of language you see. That was one thing. Secondly, which was perhaps the worst of it, the anti-Polish and anti-image propaganda, propaganda by Warsaw, by the government there in Poland. They call us racists, they call us anything. And of course, the British leftwing press picked it up and when ever we went to work, "Why don't you go back home?" They were reading the Daily Worker. And then, when you were looking for a job you saw, "Poles don't need to apply" that happened quite frequently in Leicester. That's why we stuck together. A lack of language and an anti-Polish feeling and various things. The British Press wasn't very helpful because they had been in love with Stalin and that system. "Why don't you go home? Look how they live." There was plenty of jobs around the corner, you didn't have to worry about that because there was plenty of work.
You see, there was still British commitments abroad and the British Army didn't demote that quick and so many people died during the war, the industry needed the workers and so we didn't take anybody's work but it was the attitude of various employers and the press and the government and the trade unions as well. I remember I got a job with the Leicester Mercury. That would be a very good paid job because they were paying twice as much as industry. My friend was working as a secretary. He said there is a vacancy there, go and ask for job. I found out I could have a job there, but they said, "Young man, you can start on Monday, but get yourself a union card because it is a closed shop, you must have a union card." I went to Argyle St and said,
"I would like to join the union." "You cannot join the union before you start working.
You must start working first and then come here and join us." Back and forth I go. Ever since I have hated the unions! You see, there was a stupid grinning man behind the desk looking at me. England needed the workers.
Until the Korean War started and the blockade of Berlin, the press did not write favourably about us. Then they started looking at us a bit differently. For about five, six, nearly ten years it went on like that and so it was very difficult to integrate into the community. That was the reason. Wherever we went we have been ostracised. Today, let me say, I am a member of the Conservative Club, and the Polish Society. So we are integrated into society. Here for example, we got sixty British associate members of our club. Mainly English is spoken here nowadays. We are in a very good relationship between us. In the beginning it was very hard, it took a long time to integrate and so probably that's why we stuck together. We had to have our own clubs, our own restaurants, our own church.
Yes, so if you went out for leisure purposes, or a dance or anything you largely went with Polish people did you?
Yes. We had so many dances at De Montfort Hall. We had the coronation celebrations of the Queen in Granby Halls. That floor in Granby Halls was made of asphalt. Have you seen it? We had been dancing all night, and then we came home and started undressing and my wife says to me, "I've got black legs, what's happened?" I pulled my things up. "Yeah, my legs are black too!" The ladies couldn't afford long dresses but we were dancing on the tarmac, and the dust went everywhere!