Meeting to welcome Polish-Hungarian refugees to Tyneside

Event date(s)

19 May 1851


On 19 May 1851, a meeting was convened by the young Joseph Cowen at the Nelson Street Lecture Room (better known as the Music Hall). The purpose of the meeting was to introduce a group of twelve Polish men to the Newcastle audience. They were refugees, part of a group of over 260 Poles, Hungarians, Germans and Italians who had landed at Liverpool in March 1851. These men were the last vestiges of the Polish Legion, an army of volunteers who had fought against the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires in defence of the Hungarian revolution of 1848.

Although refugees had an automatic right to asylum in Britain in the nineteenth century, the British government were not keen to allow the Polish-Hungarian refugees to stay. Attempts began to coerce the men into leaving for America, with passage paid. Concerned at government efforts to deny the refugees their right to asylum, activists across the north of England – including Joseph Cowen in a prominent role – organised committees to prevent their forced departure, and to find them work in the industrial cities of the North.

Little is known about the subsequent fates of most of the Polish-Hungarian refugees, but at least two of the men introduced at the Lecture Room remained on Tyneside for several decades. Konstanty Lekawski (1816-1872) became Cowen’s adviser on eastern European matters, and worked for the Tyne Ferry Company before returning to Poland in 1870. Marjan (or Marian) Plotnicki was quickly employed by the Gateshead engineering firm of Hawks, Crawshay and Sons. He settled in Gateshead, where he married in 1855. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1863.

Location/map point


Nelson Street Lecture Room
10-12 Nelson Street


Joan Allen, Joseph Cowen and popular radicalism on Tyneside, 1829-1900 (Monmouth, 2007)

John Belchem, ‘Britishness, asylum-seekers and the northern working class: 1851’, Northern History XXXIX (2002), 59-74

Peter Brock, ‘Joseph Cowen and the Polish exiles’, The Slavonic and East European Review 32 (1953), 52-69