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Estonians in the UK in 1918-1991

During the first period of Estonian independence in the inter-war years, Great Britain, and, especially, London, became a magnet for many young persons from Estonia wishing to learn English. This was made easier by a bi-lateral agreement drawn up by the British (Agreement A), which allowed foreigners to live with English families and get board and lodging in return for housekeeping duties.

The first Estonian organisation in Britain was the London Estonian Society founded in 1921. During its formative years the Society met in the Embassy, and a theatre group, reading room and library were set up. At the outset the Society had only 25 members, but by 1934 had grown nearly threefold, and continued to grow till the outbreak of the Second World War. Many remained in Britain during the war years, as did a large contingent of Estonian merchant seamen who assisted the Allied cause in running convoys.

Under the War Charities Act, permission was granted, in 1944, to establish the Estonian Relief Committee. The aim of the organisation was to be of assistance to all those who required help, be it financial or with the English language.

A couple of years after the end of hostilities the British government started recruiting workers from Displaced Persons camps, which had been set up in Germany at the end of the war, initially from the British Zone and subsequently from the American Zone and from Austria. The first Baltic displaced persons who arrived in Britain as refugees were the "Baltic Cygnets" – young women who were placed mainly in hospitals. The men followed this initial flow and were given jobs in the textile industry and in hospitals, with the younger men being sent to coal mining with some to agriculture.

Over 50 Estonian community organisations were established as focal points up and down the country, but there were also a large number of Estonian exiles who assimilated into the local British community.

In parallel with this initial influx the Association for Estonians in Great Britain was set up, with the inaugural meeting in 1947 at which delegates from Estonian communities around the country were represented. The Association began its work in 1948 and was guided by, amongst others, August Torma, the Estonian Ambassador who had remained in Britain from before the outbreak of war.

Ambassador Torma had also been responsible for the founding of the Estonian Lutheran Church congregation in London and its first pastor, the Reverend, later Dean, Jaak Taul, was also elected as the first Chairman of the Association of Estonians. Jaak Taul was also integral for the setting up of an Estonian newspaper, "The Estonian Voice", for the benefit of the increasingly large Estonian community. The first issue was published in time for Christmas 1947.

One of the first active Estonian communities was established in November 1947 in Leeds, an industrial Northern city to which many Estonians were directed.

After the initial influx, the number of community organisations gradually reduced as people were freer to find work and, as a result, they gravitated to a few towns and cities, in particular London, Leicester and Bradford, with smaller communities in and around Bolton, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham, Bournemouth and some north of the border in Scotland. In the early fifties many Estonians continued their exodus to Canada, United States, Australia and elsewhere, leaving less than 6,000 in Britain to uphold the Estonian language and traditions.

The first Estonian cultural centre opened its doors to exile Estonians in Bradford on 9th June 1956. This was followed less than a year later with the opening of the London Estonian House, after 8 years of fundraising. In 1960 the Leicester Estonian Club was purchased, some twelve years after the first Estonian organisation there had been started.

The community assisted the incoming Estonians in keeping up the Estonian spirit and culture, giving hope for the future and taking their minds off everyday matters of work.

Estonians brought with them the singing and dancing folk traditions from their country of origin and on 27th June 1953 the first song festival for all Estonians in Britain was held in Bradford. The joint choirs from Bradford, Bolton, Leeds and London numbered over 170 and folk dance troupes from these centres also performed. The event was a greater success than expected with an audience of well over 1000 and with standing room only for latecomers. This summer’s day tradition was continued in Bolton the following year, and with a giant bonfire and this event has carried on to the present day as the main event each year for Estonians in this country to meet each other. In 1982 the European Song Festival was hosted at the de Montfort Hall, Leicester. By this time a younger generation of Estonians who were, in the main, born in this country were at the forefront of the organisation. They had come together in 1972 as the Estonian Youth Group, later to be renamed "Tulevik" (the Future). They continue to this day to organise the annual children’s camp, which started in 1949 and which many of them had attended as children.

Also in the 50’s and 60’s each of the three main centres ran Saturday schools for children to learn and improve their Estonian language skills and acquaint them with Estonian history, geography and culture.

Since 1991 Estonians have seen the reestablishment of independence as a sovereign state, have visited their homeland, have welcomed relatives and friends to these shores and continued to support the association and its member organisations in their aim to provide for the cultural welfare of the Estonian community.

In the words of the late ambassador, August Torma, ‘We strove to bring together into groups the widespread Estonian exiles in this country, in order to achieve closer co-operation and achieve an effective network between them. This was a necessary precursor to the continued existence of our culture in exile.’

Compiled with the assistance of the Association of Estonians in Great Britain using sources of the Estonian House in London.


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