This book was launched on the 27th November 2022 at Marsworth Village Hall. It tells the story of the Polish Hostel which was a significant feature of Marsworth from 1948 to 1960, when over 500 Poles displaced by the Second World War found the beginnings of a new life in Britain.
It was a pleasure to review this new book, produced and edited by Sandra Costello and Tony Gabis. It brings together much of the information already available on the Marsworth Village website but it is no less valuable for that.
Our experience with our own website (Tringruralhistory.co.uk) is that producing a book provides greater opportunities for focussed presentation and the ability to reach new audiences (Hence our two new books coming soon, watch this space!).
The book is around 140 pages long, in A4 Paperback format. It is nicely presented with a glossy cover and many pictures, probably about half the total space. This makes it easy to read and gives an excellent impression of the lives of the occupants, though at times I wished for even more words to match the many faces of smiling children, happy families and blushing brides.
I already knew something of the Airfield, having lived about 200 yards from the entrance on Lukes Lane for a number of years. My knowledge was strengthened when, during an interview with Wilstone resident Michael Glasser about his early memories, he mentioned the pleasure of going to ‘Film Nights’ at the Hostel in the 1950s. This led me to find out more and, through the cooperation of Sandra and Tony, I secured an interview with Bronia Glinska who went to live in the Hostel as a teenager in 1948.
Before reading this book, I thought that Bronia’s pre-Marsworth experiences – sent to Siberia in cattle trucks, losing her parents, evacuated to Iran, then Kenya – were unique. But, as one of the many stories featured, I also read here about Czeslawa Cabut who had a similar journey except that it was Uganda rather than Kenya. (The article about Czeslawa – and many others featured in the book – confirmed to me how tough it must have been for local people, schools and employers to pronounce and remember their names!)
The book starts off with an informative short history of the Polish people during the early part of the war after the invasions in 1939, firstly by Germany, then by Russia. It describes the forced deportations to Siberia and then, after the Germans broke their pact with Russia, how the surviving Poles moved to countries around the world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. There is also coverage of how the young Polish men who survived became brave fighters for the Allied Cause and how their contribution was a major factor in the government’s decision to encourage the evacuees to build new lives in Britain.
The descriptions of life in the Hostel and the many photographs, show the stark contrast between the basic conditions when the Polish evacuees first moved in and the environment they created in the years that followed. Initially there were cold Nissen Huts, each occupied by two or three families only separated by blankets or curtains, food in communal areas and shared water supplies with bathroom facilities some distance away.
After some personal memories that confirm the awfulness of these initial conditions, the book then moves on to show, by photos and personal stories, how the huts became homes with their own gardens, and how the people built their own special society while also creating many links to local people and institutions. I recall Bronia Glinska telling me how lucky they all felt to be there and how pleased they were to be free together.
The book contains features on each major aspect of life in the Hostel and the many links to the local community – schools, leisure activities, employment in local businesses, lots of wedding photos – followed by the personal stories from many who lived there. These provided further evidence of the way the community developed over time and the interaction with the local villages. Some of these stories described how the families eventually came to move out and establish homes in nearby towns and villages, which left me wanting to know more about the decision to close the Hostel and how the transition was managed.
Other outstanding features of the book are the many helpful maps and the well-researched appendices with detailed information on residents, local employers and school attendance. One interesting insight from the latter is that a number of students left school several times and returned, indicating that some found their school life quite difficult. This is not too surprising when one considers that many of the children could not speak a word of English on arrival.
My overall assessment is that this is a well-produced and informative book, adding value to the information on the website, particularly for those of us who still like to ‘flick through’ rather than ‘click on’. The amount of work that has gone into the research, writing, design and editing is highly impressive and deserves a wide audience. One minor suggestion for improvement, maybe a more exciting title to match the contents, or a by-line that describes the amazing fortitude of those who lived there.
The book is available online at https://www.thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk/products/marsworth-polish-hostel-1948-1961