A gift from the Polish people to Ipswich

Writing what had to be a rather short book about “secret” or Unknown Ipswich l knew that there were always going to be omissions, so I hope to rectify that here.

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One of the things that I had to miss out was this lovely Polish icon, which is in St Pancras church in Orwell Place. It was given to the church by the Polish armoured train unit that was stationed in Ipswich during the Second World War. There were twelve armoured train units in Britain at that time and, looking back, they seem very much part of that amateur Heath Robinsonish approach to defence during that war that now seems both comical and admirable. The trains, basic wagons filled with armed Polish troops, patrolled the country from Cornwall to the north of Scotland.

Having discovered the existence of the icon in Ipswich, I was interested in finding out more about St Pancras’ church which is the kind of unprepossessing, neo-Gothic construction that English Catholics were forced to build as their own churches were taken by the established Protestant Church of England following the Reformation. Unlike Victorian era C of E churches, there were few Catholic aristocrats willing to fund beautiful buildings (an exception being the Earl of Shrewsbury who financed, among others, Pugin’s over-decorated St Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire, where half my family were baptised, married and buried) and the neo-Gothic brickwork does not look so pretty to our 21st-century eyes, but this jewel of an icon is hardly known about and it must be significant to one of Ipswich’s new communities, the Poles who have immigrated to work in the town over the last few years.

Like many such holy images, the icon has lots of stories attached to it, for example that it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. It appears to have been kept in the monastery of Czestochowa, and one of the stories alleges that Czech soldiers attempted to steal it but were thwarted by heavenly intervention. It was so highly valued that in 1904 the Pope presented a crown set with precious stones to be placed above the image. It was brought to England when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and it is a measure of the gratitude and esteem of those Polish troops that they left such a significant symbol behind in Ipswich.

Researching one thing always leads to another and a reference to “anti-Catholic riots” at St Pancras’ church in 1863 could not be ignored, although in fact the reports in the Ipswich Journal of that year tell a story that is so comical it probably belongs in the pages of a Dickens’ story. On 7 November 1863 the newspaper reported that a lecture at the Temperance Hall by someone “styling himself as André Massenn, Baron de Camin” was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Things were not going too badly until the “Baron” announced that the women in the hall should be sent home. He then regaled the remaining male audience with racy stories about the goings on in monasteries and convents. Although it was obvious even to the reporter of the Ipswich Journal that Camin was bogus and a scurrilous rogue, he was wildly applauded by some of his audience, including some Protestant clergymen. The “Baron’s” great mistake was that he went on to impugn the character of the priest at St Pancras, Father Kemp, not perhaps realising that the 18th Hussars who were then at Ipswich Barracks were made up of Irish soldiers.

To avoid further trouble the Mayor decided to ban the lecture the following evening but this only served to stir up trouble. It has to be said that it seems that the “young men and lads” referred to as causing the disturbances did not need much provocation and they were soon persuaded by the “Baron” to go out and smash up the houses of the Mayor and other local dignitaries. A policeman was stabbed, although not seriously.

On the third evening the “Baron” once again spoke. This time the Ipswich Journal described it as a “rather dreary historical lecture on Popery,” so presumably he diplomatically missed out the bits about the naughty nuns. According to the report, “a noisy rabble of two or three thousand boys and lads” waited outside, unwilling to pay the 3d admission price. Afterwards they went to St Pancras’ church and smashed the windows and gas lamps.

It makes you wonder whether the Polish troops who left their treasured icon in Ipswich would have done so if they had known a little more about the history of the town.

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