It’s a shame discussion around migration can be so vitriolic. This ‘hot topic’ has been around a long time, hundreds of years even, and will, in all probability, stay. I recall Bill Webb, an amateur historian. I first came across him when I was a reporter for a newspaper and came to learn, and took particular interest in, his research. At least once a month he would send in his latest findings to the paper, and I would read them rapturously, my imagination fired. As far as I was concerned this was gold dust. But Bill was very modest about what he was doing, it was such a simple idea after all. As the centenary of the start of the Great War approached in 2014, he decided to visit all the War Memorials in the HR9 area of Herefordshire (there are quite a few, I visited them myself for the paper’s special centenary edition) and tell the story behind the names carved in stone. He did most of it from his desk, using Census returns or military records and such like, and from this information he created a novel-like biography of the soldier/sailor/pilot that was at once riveting, fascinating, and terribly, terribly sad.
I learned so much. Who knew about the Camel Corps or even the Bicycle Corps? They deserve a story all of their own. But a major surprise for me was the movement of people then, right across the country, mostly in search of work, or for marriage or familial concerns. Far from people living and dying in their birth communities, there was an active migration (internal migration at least) in Great Britain. During the same conflict we had Belgium refugees seeking refuge in Herefordshire, and Irish men join the British forces. Pre-dating this was the Somali community in Cardiff. It dates from the end of the 19thcentury, when young Somali men arrived shortly after the opening of the Suez Canal, to work in the thriving docks. These young men came as sailors, not as refugees or slaves, driven by the desire to earn money to buy more livestock back in Somalia. Some of them settled down and married local women.
I’ve been a ‘migrant’ of sorts myself I suppose, picking apples and boysenberries in New Zealand, and filling shampoo bottles in Australia. In the 1970s, my school, a Catholic Secondary, was a microcosm of post-WWII migration, you just had to take a look at the names in the register to get the picture: Irish of course, then the Italians, the Portuguese, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Polish. The subject of migration comes up with the annual hop harvest and its heavy reliance on, and much-needed East European labour force. Many of these men and women have been coming over for many years, mostly to the same farms, where they are warmly welcomed every year, and are often considered friends by their employers. Most of them return home after the harvest.
Hop worker Jerzy is from Poland, he has been coming to help with the hop harvest at a Suckley farm for 18 years. He leaves his family every year for four months and in his time, has worked his way ‘up’, from starting on the floor of the hop shed, to the all-important hop drier, a highly trusted role on any hop farm. He is a valued, reliable and professional member of the team. But his first visit was to the UK was quite a shock to the system:
‘The first time I was invited to help with the harvest was by my colleague from the university. It was difficult at that time where we still had a separation between east and west countries. But I have to say thank you very much for the opportunity and the experience I have had here.
‘When I first arrived to the UK I met a slightly different culture and it was different politically too, compared to my home land but it was a very positive experience, so I was very pleased and is still probably why I still keep coming to UK for such a long time. Personally, I’ve experienced no problems, whatsoever. I’ve still got the same people as friends, friendly people, and we spend some time together, I can go to the pubs as well.
‘I can see that the farm is looking after me, we have good accommodation. I have to say, it was pointed to me a good few times, that they appreciate all of my work and work my colleagues done as well.’
If you’re drinking a pint of British beer, it will in all likelihood have been picked and processed by workers from Europe. I remember my parents, who came across to England looking for work in the 1960s, always said the same thing (even though Ireland remained ‘home’ til the end): ‘England has been good to me’. They worked, raised a family (she had nine, all born at home – thank you NHS), paid taxes, and stayed on the right side of the law. Like Jerzy, they made a contribution to this country that can often go unseen.
‘My family is not extremely happy that I have to leave them for four months in a row but we already calculated very well the time I spent here and the time I can stay together with them. I think obviously I think it is the best option. I am in touch with my son all of the time, so it’s not that I am completely cut-off with my family. But for the village it is also a positive side. I have to say we come here to earn money, so this is a financial way, which supports families and supports their budgets really well at home, and I thank Great Britain for that.’
By Marsha O' Mahony
See Jerzy's full interview