Our new beginning

YESTERDAY, 60 years ago, must have been one of the most traumatic of their lives.

On May 30, 1947 the first group of young girls from the Ukraine arrived at Todmorden station to be greeted by the town mayor Councillor Wilson Knight.

The girls were the first of many refugees, mostly Ukrainians but also Lithuanians and Latvians, who made the journey to Todmorden after being used as slave labourers in Germany during the war.

Life had been extremely hard in the second world war years and now faced the challenge of making a new life for themselves. Over the weeks about 150 Ukrainians, women first followed by the men, arrived to work in the cotton industry.

Walter Kecun recalled the strangeness of the surroundings and the loss and loneliness the refugees felt on their arrival.

But he said the kindness of Todmorden people, especially Mrs Marsden, the head of the Labour Exchange, made all the difference. "She was like a second mother to them. She managed to get jobs for their male friends, so by 1948 there was quite a sizeable community of Ukrainians in Todmorden."

And once here the Ukrainians set about organising social activities through a branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain.

"The first thing they organised was a mixed choir and dancing group. In their free time young ladies started sewing and embroidering Ukrainian national costumes. They started giving concerts in local schools, church halls and even in the town hall," said Mr Kecun, who himself arrived in February 1949 to work at Robinwood.

Mr Kecun's first task in the community was to go on stage in the town hall, in front of the choir, to explain to the audience the meaning of the Ukrainian songs and dances. It was at this time that he met John Graham, reporter of the Todmorden News, who became a staunch friend, guide and adviser.

By 1950 the 150-strong community had, as well as the choir and dancing group, an orchestra, drama group, Sunday school and other activities. And in the sixties the community held International Concerts, at which the ladies served continental refreshments.

In 1972 the community moved from the Sobriety Hall to the Mons Lodge that served as a meeting place, Sunday school, social club and sometimes a church and which is still known as the Ukrainian Club.

"At the dances we made many English friends but I remember we could only watch our English friends performing all the fancy dances. Most of us were forced to leave our homes when we were between 15 and 17-years-old so partying was new to us," said Mr Kecun.

"Our friend Elsie Duffield and other ladies organised dancing lessons for us so we could join in."

The closure of the cotton industry meant that most of the community's children had to leave Todmorden to look for better jobs. The club eventually closed and there are only a handful of surviving members of the original community left in the town.

They may be small in number now but Mr Kecun expressed gratitude for the welcome he and his fellow countrymen and women received sixty years ago. "I would like to give my heartfelt thank-you to all our English friends who accepted us at face value and helped us to become good Todmordians."