Ognisko Polskie (“The Polish Hearth”) is a unique institution in South Kensington and the UK. Founded in 1939-40 to maintain the cohesion of the free Polish Émigré community – following the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland – it is one of the UK’s oldest Polish members’ clubs.
Ognisko Polskie welcomes people of Polish nationality and descent, or interested in Poland and its people. It provides its members with opportunities to spend time together in a welcoming place, where Polish culture and history is kept alive.
Contrary to most British private clubs, Ognisko Polskie organizes many events open to non-members, including exhibitions, lectures, theatre performances, recitals, and celebrations of all significant dates in the Polish cultural calendar. The building is also home to a renowned restaurant and bar, entirely refurbished in 2013, and serving London’s best Polish cuisine and cocktails.
Since its inauguration by Prince George, then Duke of Kent, on 16th July 1940, Ognisko Polskie has maintained a strong Anglo-Polish tradition. The first Chairman of the club was British - Frank Savery CBE had been the Consul General at the British Embassy in Warsaw from July 1919 until September 1939 and served as the First Chairman of the Polish Hearth until 1949. The present Chairman, Nicholas Kelsey OBE, is also a Brit. HRH the Duke of Kent, who himself knew first-hand the plight of his fellow Polish Pilots, through his involvement with the Anglo Polish Society from before the outbreak of war, became very involved in the new initiative as Patron of the Polish Hearth.
The idea for the club was also lent support from both The British Government and the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries (later renamed the British Council). It was first used as a meeting place for politicians, academics, and members of the armed forces, soon followed by numerous actors, artists, directors, technicians and writers.
During the war years it was quite a partnership of British and Polish diplomats where all members and guests had to leave their hats, and side arms, in the Ognisko Foyer along with the fraught politics that seemed to be prevalent. One of the most important and often overlooked raison d’être behind the Polish Hearth and still enshrined in the aims and rules is the apolitical nature of the Society reflecting its Civil Service roots. Members of Allied armed forces or any other bona fide Polish organisations have always been made welcome – and that is the case to this very day as all members of other bona fide Polish organisations and clubs in the UK are still treated as honorary members whilst on the premises.
The Polish Hearth henceforth took on the character of a Polish Officers Mess which has remained with it to this very day: still keeping the home fire burning after 75 years. For the duration of the Second World War, Ognisko Polskie became a legendary and very popular Wartime London Club; quite a “hotspot” with a renowned Polish military zest combined with traditional Polish hospitality that was the precursor to the GI fever that swept in at a later date.
1940 was also the start of a natural surge in the popularity of social activities as well as the expansion of other activities at the Polish Hearth, such as the foundation of the Association of Polish Technicians (1940) or the Polish University College (the “Politechnika”). Of particular importance in later years has been a strong theatrical tradition. The club even goes so far as to build a stage from scratch to hold at least one production a year!
Ognisko is now a part of the history of the independent ‘emigracja’ (emigration) and the last example of its kind, and is deeply rooted in this part of London, continuing to welcome everyone and promote Polish culture. As such, most events are held in English rather than Polish, and are open to non-Members. A recent lectures series, for instance, enables everyone to discuss, and learn about, various aspects of Polish culture. Past topics include the work of Polish graphic designer and illustrator Andrzej Klimowski; Polish avant-garde artists Franciszka and Stefan Themerson; the legacy of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, as explored by a group of leading British-Polish musicians, a talk on Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Rotblat and Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz.
Similarly, the Polish Hearth has recently introduced a cinema series, Kino Klub, with each screening attended by a Polish actor and director invited to discuss their films with the audience.
As literature has always been an important part of its cultural life, in 2017 Ognisko Polskie launched a new book club focusing on contemporary Polish literature in translation – in association with South Kensington Books.