Publish date: 17 October 2023

A Polish Miner - community project sees museum exhibition on display in hospital canteen

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An exhibition which tells the story of a man from Eastern Europe, who faced and overcame many challenges in his life to settle, work and bring up a family in Northumberland, has gone on display today (Tuesday, 17 October) at Wansbeck General Hospital.

As part of the Femmer to Firmer project, Museums Northumberland has co-curated A Polish Miner, which was developed and installed by Ray Malecki, a member of the Community Advisory Panel.

Femmer is the Northumbrian dialect for fragile, and the project seeks to create a stronger bond with communities in Northumberland. The Community Advisory Panel is advising on what Museums Northumberland should be collecting, as well as creating displays inside and outside of museum spaces.

Ray has compiled the exhibition, which will be on display in the hospital's canteen for three months, about his father Roman. He is extremely proud of a man who left his homeland as a teenager, fought in a world war, came to this country, learned the language, settled, worked hard all of his life and brought up a family. This is his story:

Roman Malecki was born in Chelmno, Northern Poland in 1923. In his teenage years he was thrust into a World War when Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 1939. Joining the Free Polish Forces as part of an artillery regiment, which fought alongside Allied Troops of the Eighth Army, he is known to have taken part in the Italian Campaign. At the end of the war, he came to the UK alongside British troops and was initially stationed in Fife in Scotland.

In recognition of the bravery and the contribution made by Polish military personnel during the war the British Government formed the Polish Resettlement Corps, as part of the most significant migration legislation of its time.The Resettlement Corps went on to support over 200,000 Polish servicemen and their families to either return to their homeland, settle in the UK or to emigrate to countries such as Canada, Australia, France and even Argentina. 

Those that chose to settle in the UK were offered help to learn English and to develop skills that would assist them in gaining employment in industries where labour shortages existed. Roman never returned to Poland. On the advice of two of his aunties that had emigrated to the USA he decided not to return to a country that was at the time governed by an oppressive Russian controlled regime.  He chose to stay in the UK and to train for the coal mining industry. His initial training took place at Muircockhall Colliery in Fife, following which he transferred to Ashington Colliery, one of the largest collieries in the UK at that time.

Roman moved into the CRASH camp on Morpeth Common, which had previously been the camp of the Regiment of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The camp was used to house Eastern European men and their families that had come to the UK during and after the war. From Morpeth Common he moved to the Miners' Hostel, located behind Woodhorn Road in Ashington, which had originally been set up during the war to house Bevin Boys.

Early in his mining career Roman suffered a serious leg injury and was taken to Ashington Infirmary. The injuries were so severe that medical staff believed he would lose his leg.  However, due to the skills and expertise of an ex-Polish military doctor on duty at the Infirmary at that time, Roman's leg was saved. However, he did spend many months in traction and always walked thereafter with a slight limp.

Whilst in the Infirmary Roman met his wife to be Thelma, who was a nurse. Roman and Thelma married in 1952 and lived initially in the upstairs rooms of Thelma's grandparents' house in Portia Street, Ashington. Thelma who was from Ashington, had become a trainee nurse in her teens and continued her nursing career until Roman and Thelma’s first child was born in 1954. Roman and Thelma brought up two boys (Ramon and Barry), bought their own house in Ariel Street, Ashington and became well known in the local community, where they were well liked and respected.

Roman continued to work in coal until he retired in his sixties. Having suffered his leg injury on a man-riding belt underground, it was ironic that he was employed on belt maintenance for the rest of his mining career, where he developed a reputation for being a hard worker, who was reliable, innovative and very skilled.

In later life Roman sounded like and lived very much as a local Geordie. Testament to his willingness to adapt to life in the UK and to becoming an upstanding and respected member of the community.  Like many men of the day, Roman would generally be seen out and about with his flat cap on. Attire he would never go without, except when Thelma and he went out socially to the local working men’s club or the bingo, which he loved.

Roman was one of many men from Eastern Europe that had been in similar circumstances, who chose to work in the coal mines of Northumberland. Known collectively as Poles some in fact were from the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, others came from Ukraine. In some areas of the country Polish communities formed, some of which still exist today. Places like Newcastle upon Tyne had its own Polish Club.

Life in the UK was not always easy. In early days following their resettlement the Polish Miners suffered a good deal of discrimination. Some mines refused to have the foreign labour, whilst in others rules were negotiated with mine management for foreign labour to be the first to go in the event of redundancy. In time miners and their local communities accepted the Poles, who had adapted well to life in the UK.

The Femmer to Firmer project is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, which supports a range of projects that bring collections closer to people.