In recent years, many first and second-generation Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian European Volunteer Worker (EVW) families in Britain have been keen to revisit their family’s homelands of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to reconnect with their own family’s past history and culture, and to locate long-lost family. Anita Woronycz and her family had, however, been planning a different kind of trip, but one that also reconnected them to their family history.
Together with her mother, Rūta, a first generation Lithuanian EVW, and her husband Silvano, a second generation Ukrainian-Italian, Anita began to plan a trip around the important places in England where they started their lives in Britain. The main aim was, as Anita said, ‘to find my birthplace‘, and along the way, to search for several other places of personal significance. The story of this family’s trip around the North West of England, where they started their lives in this country, sheds light on the initial experiences of Lithuanian European Volunteer Workers in Britain.
This trip around the areas of Alsager and Nantwich in Cheshire, some 40 or so miles south of Manchester and Liverpool, provided the first opportunity in a good while for Anita and Rūta to visit many of these places. In Rūta’s case, the last time she stood outside her old factory gates was 60 years ago! The family currently live in Wales. They used to visit old friends and family in the area, most of them fellow EVWs, every few years since they left. However, these visits became fewer as time wore on. It struck Anita that she had never once been back to Nantwich, the actual town where she was born! There had been no reason to return. Most friends were concentrated around the Stoke area and the places to shop were Crewe and Hanley. Now in her 60th year, she wanted to see Nantwich!
Both Anita’s mother and father were first generation European Volunteer Workers, who came to Britain in the 1940s on the Westward Ho! scheme, to work in undermanned industries. Both had been displaced from their homeland Lithuania as a result of the Second World War, and had found themselves, via different displacement routes, in DP Camps in Germany, from where they were recruited for labour in Britain.
Rūta arrived in Britain aged only 16 with her mother, having “followed” her father and sister to Britain on the Westward Ho! EVW scheme. I use the term “followed” loosely as her father and sister had been sent to Kent while she and her mother were sent to Alsager in Cheshire. When they looked at a map to see the huge distance between them, they were terribly disappointed. Eventually, Rūta’s father got a job at Wilmslow Railway Station and joined his wife and younger daugher up north, whilst her sister remained down south and married a fellow Lithuanian EVW.
Although she did come as a worker on the EVW scheme, Rūta was able to attend school for six months initially, primarily to improve her English, and it was during that time that, as Anita says, ‘she was chosen as having enough artistic ability/flair to work at Royal Doulton – a rep from the company would go round the schools and interview the most able kids who weren’t destined for better things‘. At Royal Doulton potteries, which produced fine tableware and collectible ceramics, Rūta worked as a gilder, applying fine gold layers (“25-carat gold suspended in pitch”) to the surface of the ceramic glaze, a job which required sharp eyes and steady hands. She also had to add the correct amount of “turps” to the mixture, a task which required a great deal of precision, since the wrong amount would spoil the appearance required.
Rūta gilding plates at Royal Doulton factory, Stoke-on-Trent ca 1952
During this time, Rūta and her parents stayed at Excalibur EVW hostel in Alsager, Cheshire, not far from the Royal Doulton potteries, near Stoke-on-Trent. When the hostel closed down, they firstly rented one room with shared facilities in Alsager, in a house owned by Latvian EVWs, and later they moved into a pre-fabricated council bungalow, also in Alsager. This would later become Anita’s first home.
During the 2019 trip to Cheshire, Rūta was able to visit the site of the former Royal Doulton factory, where she had worked. The company has now moved most of its manufacturing to China and Thailand. All that was left of the factory were the ornate, now rusty gates that she used to walk through every working day. The factory building had burned down in 2014 and had to be demolished.
Rūta outside the now closed, Royal Doulton in Burslem, Staffordshire
The Royal Doulton factory in Burslem, the picture on the right shows it when it was still operating.
It was while working at Royal Doulton that Rūta began seeing Eimutis, Anita’s father. Eimutis had also arrived in Britain, via Hull, on the Westward Ho! scheme and later moved to the same Alsager hostel, Excalibur, where Rūta and her family were staying. Like Rūta, Eimutis also had artistic skills and flair, which he put to good use painting delicate ceramic figurines at the Royal Doulton factory.
Eimutis hand-painting figurines at Royal Doulton factory, circa 1952
While working at the factory, Eimutis had been able to pool his wages with those of his brother and parents, who had also travelled to Britain as EVWs. This enabled the family to purchase a house in Burslem, just around the corner from the factory.
This photo shows Anita’s uncle and some EVWs in the house that the family bought, circa 1949
On their visit, Rūta, Anita and Silvano discovered that the house was still standing!
Anita outside the house in Burslem which had once belonged to her father’s family
Anita noted that ‘People wondered how they managed it so quickly. Sheer dedication of the boys giving almost every last penny to their parents and then taking in lodgers to pay the mortgage/bills was how‘.
Rūta and Eimutis were married in early summer 1958, at Christ Church, Alsager, which the family also visited on their trip down memory lane:
“Christ Church, Alsager, Cheshire, where my parents were married.”
“Mum in front of the steps of Christ Church with a posy of flowers. The last time she stood here holding flowers was on her wedding day in 1958.”
“Christ Church Hall, Alsager. This is where my parents held their wedding reception”.
Christ Church, Alsager, is also significant for the family, as both of Rūta’s parents, along with the ashes of her brother, are buried in the churchyard. Anita remembers visiting the grave of her grandfather (whom she never knew) often during her early childhood, and on every visit back. She was “present and involved” when her grandmother was laid to rest at the same spot and finally her uncle’s ashes were interred there in 2003. Every visit there is an emotional one, but this time it was particularly poignant as it was the first time any of the family had seen the final full inscription, except on a photograph. Inside the church, preparations were being made for Mothering Sunday, so they were able to go inside the church, which is not normally possible as the church is usually locked.
“The grave of my maternal grandparents and uncle at Christ Church, Alsager, Cheshire”
During their trip around Cheshire, the family also visited the site of the hostel, where Rūta and Eimutis had lived for several years, and fond memories came flooding back.
The site of the former Excalibur Hostel in Alsager which is now an industrial estate. The air-raid siren is still there!
Excalibur County Primary School, where Anita began her education, once stood on the site of Fields Rd, Alsager. This is not it! This is the “new” Excalibur School on Ivy Lane which was built in the mid-sixties. Anita spent a couple of terms here. Security is much tighter now!
Although the hostel was demolished a long time ago, Anita found photographs from her mother’s time there:
Lithuanian Choir, Excalibur Hostel, Alsager, ca 1952 (Rūta is pictured in this photo)
Excalibur Hostel, Alsager – visit of Lithuanian priest, circa 1952. “My Mum and her parents are in this this one”(Anita)
Kitchen staff at Excalibur Hostel, Alsager – Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. “My maternal granny in the back row with a white scarf covering her hair. circa 1952″(Anita)
Anita was born in 1959, while the family were still living in Alsager, and on this trip, she was able to visit the site of her first family home, and some of the important places from her childhood.
“A car park on Hassall Rd, Alsager. A prefab council bungalow once stood here – my first home.”(Anita)
“The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Alsager. It was used by both Lithuanian and Latvian Lutherans. I was baptised and confirmed here. My brother was also baptised here.”(Anita)
The original motivation for the trip for Anita had been to find her birthplace and on the third day of the visit she found it:
“We found it!! We found where I was born!! At that time, it was called the Barony Hospital Nantwich. The building now houses NHS offices. This is what I set out to find, the whole reason for the holiday. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!”(Anita)
In 1967, the family moved to Berkshire ‘close enough to London, especially Lithuanian House’. Anita’s father Eimutis, was heavily involved in the Lithuanian Society of Great Britain and was keen to play a more active role around the London area. Anita was seven and a half when she left Alsager and recalls being ‘sad‘ to leave.
By revisiting some of the places from her early childhood and those of her parents’ first years in Britain, Anita and her mum were able to share stories and memories from the years there. It was a very positive experience all round.
During the trip, the family were also able to visit some important places in the Manchester area which borders Cheshire. Anita’s husband Silvano is a native Mancunian. It was important for them all to pay respects at the grave of his parents, his mother having only recently passed away. They also caught up with Silvano’s brother, who still lives in the area:
Silvano and his brother at the Moston cemetery where their parents are buried. There are many Ukrainians. Lithuanians and Italians buried at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cemetery at Moston. Manchester was a very vibrant area of EVWs many of whom worked in the textile and manufacturing industries in the city.
Many thanks to Anita Laima Woronycz, to Rūta and to Silvano, for sharing their amazing photographs and story, which shines a light on the lives of EVWs in Britain. If anyone has also done a similar trip, and would like to share their experiences, I would love to hear from you.
All photographs courtesy of Anita Woronycz