The number of Poles living in London has soared in recent years, but there is much more to London's Polish contingent than recent EU expansion.
For example, the country gave its name to a Soho street centuries ago. Running north-south from Oxford Street to Broadwick Street, Poland Street dates back to at least 1689, the name deriving from a pub called the King of Poland that used to stand on the south side of Tyburn Road (as Oxford Street used to be called). The pub was named after John Sobieski, the Polish ruler who was celebrated throughout Europe for his defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683. By the mid 18th century, the pub had been renamed, and was later destroyed in the Blitz, but its name lives on.
During the second world war, London was home to the governments-in-exile of various Nazi-occupied countries, and Poland was no exception – it was based at the Polish Embassy, located then as now at 47 Portland Place.
Free Polish service personnel fought alongside British forces – most famously as fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain but also in the Italian and Normandy campaigns.
London's most notable monument to the Free Polish forces is the Polish War Memorial near RAF Northolt (it's next to the A40/A4180 roundabout and is often given as the name of that roundabout on traffic reports). It was unveiled in 1948 and was inscribed with the names of 1,243 Poles who died in the second world war, with a further 659 names being added when the memorial was refurbished in 2010. There is also a Polish memorial in St Clement Danes Church on the Strand.
A statue of Poland’s wartime leader, meanwhile, can be found near the embassy. General Wladislaw Sikorski (1881-1943) was as symbolic for Free Polish servicemen as General de Gaulle was for the Free French. However, by 1943 he was seen by some as a diplomatic hindrance to Allied unity due to his opposition to Stalin's post-war designs on Poland and his insistence on a proper investigation into the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest (an estimated 22,000 Poles were massacred in the area by Soviet forces in 1940 — an act that the Soviet Union would deny for decades). His death in a plane crash in Gibraltar robbed the Free Poles of the most effective leader, ensuring that they were not represented at the Yalta conference that decided Poland's post-war fate.
With Poland effectively betrayed by its allies, many Poles refused to return home after the war ended. The Polish government-in-exile continued to exist; although it lost diplomatic recognition in favour of the Communist government in Warsaw, it remained as a functioning unit in London — largely as a symbolic gesture and as a focal point for the Polish veterans who stayed in Britain and their British-raised descendants.
It dissolved itself after the fall of Communism and handed over its governmental paraphernalia to Poland’s first post-communist president, Lech Walesa.
There is a memorial to the victims of the Katyn massacre in London — it's located at Gunnersbury Cemetery, and was unveiled in 1976 amid considerable controversy because the British government (not wishing to antagonise the Soviet Union, which at the time continued to deny responsibility for the massacre) did not want Britain's Polish community to commemorate the massacre.
On a different note, the virtuoso pianist and composer Fryderk Chopin (1810-49) has a somewhat abstract monument near the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Chopin visited Britain in 1848; while in London he lodged on Dover Street and played at Stafford House (now called Lancaster House) in front of an audience that included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The Polish corridor
By 2013 it was reckoned that some 688,000 people born in Poland were resident in the UK, many of them recent arrivals following Poland's accession to the EU in 2004. But there are also many Polish Britons descended from the service personnel and refugees who stayed after the second world war – in the 1960s, Cromwell Road in Kensington was sometimes referred to as the 'Polish Corridor' due to the number of Poles living there, particularly at the Earl's Court end.
A number of them had professional qualifications but few of these were recognised, resulting in an influx of Poles into manual labour jobs. Today, the main hub of London’s Polish community is in Ealing, although there are also sizeable Polish communities in the London Boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Haringey, Hounslow and Waltham Forest.
There are several Polish institutes and organisations in London. The Polish Institute & Sikorski Museum and the Ognisko Polskie (Polish Hearth) members club can both be found in Kensington.
Two organisations, the Federation of Poles in Great Britain (ZPWB) and the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK), are located in Hammersmith. A key part of Polish identity concerns Roman Catholicism, so it is perhaps unsurprising that a number of Catholic churches have to all intents and purposes become Polish churches. This phenomenon started in the 1950s, and there are now 10 Polish churches in London, including the Church of Our Lady of Czestochowa & St Casimir in Islington.
It is only recently that Polish cuisine has started to make a sizeable impact on the rest of the population. As well as the wide availability of Polish lager and vodka, many a high street now has a Polski Sklep where you can buy kielbasa (Polish sausage) and jars of beetroot and horseradish, although the one thing that's really starting to make a big hit is the pierogi. This traditional dumpling which contains pork, potato, cheese or sauerkraut can now be found in supermarkets (mostly the frozen section) as well as street markets catering to the lunchtime crowd. Some greengrocers sell home-made ones, while at Sowa Restaurant (formerly the Marigold Café) in Ealing you can even see them being made.
London has numerous Polish bars and restaurants, notably Bar Polski in Holborn, the Baltic Restaurant and Bar in Southwark and the afore-mentioned Sowa Restaurant in Ealing. Here's our article on where to eat Polish food in London.