Hungarian Refugees in Leeds

This week we welcome history student Haaris Mahmood, a previous guest contributor, with a brief history of Hungarian refugees in Leeds during the events of 1956. This article makes extensive use of the Central Library local newspaper archive, which can be found in our Local and Family History department. Specific articles used by Haaris in his background research have now been collected together and can be accessed in the same department

Diversity is a common sight in Leeds. People from all walks of life can be found in the city, from South Asians, the Middle East and even Eastern Europeans. This is a result of not only the generous offers of asylums presently given to refugees in today’s day and age but also the aid it has given refugees in the past. Historically, the city has played a major role in assisting refugees during history’s greatest battles; however the story of some of these refugee influxes has been marginalised. One mass refugee influx into the country as well as the city is the 1956 Hungarian refugees.

On 23 October 1956 Soviet occupied Hungary witnessed a peaceful demonstration in Budapest with 300,000 demanding national independence, withdrawal of the USSR from Hungary, and free elections. The government banned the demonstration and the situation escalated when the Hungarian secret police (AVH) fired on the crowd killing many innocent people and commenced the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as shortly after armed revolutionary bands began wreaking havoc in Hungary.[1] On 3 November, the Soviets deployed 60,000 troops and 2500 tanks to crush the Hungarian rebels demand for independence.[2] The revolution was short-lived lasting less than 20 days, until 10 November 1956, and resulted in repression being used to destroy the rebels and return Hungary back under the dominance of the USSR.[3]

From the beginning of the revolution until April 1957, 200,000 Hungarian refugees had entered Austria, fleeing from the revolution in their country and with resources being heavily, drained Austria appealed to the West for their support.[4] Leeds alongside other cities began pressuring the British government to help the Hungarian refugees. On 9 November 1956, the final days of the revolution, the Catholic Society of the University of Leeds organised a silent demonstration mourning the victims of the Hungarian revolution with 200 attending from the university and more members joining the protest that travelled through the city streets.[5] On 19 November 1956, the words ‘HELP HUNGARY’ were found written in Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, on a 127ft crane.[6] The same words were also found written on the University of Leeds Parkinson building a fortnight ago, that was written 70 ft above the ground to be seen by a number of people. Thus, it can be seen that the people of Leeds were greatly troubled by the situation in Hungary, calling for the people of Leeds and the British government to offer humanitarian aid.[7]

Yorkshire Post, 10 November, 1956

In the end the British Government began allowing entry to refugees on 7 November 1956, to 21,000 refugees by April 1957, to which 14,000 settled permanently.[8] This was the first large group of refugees to enter Britain after the Second World War and Britain was one of the countries that allowed the most refugees internationally during this crisis.[9] Immediately, a number of issues would have to be dealt with to help the refugees assimilate with the community. The city of Leeds recognised and help overcome these issues including donations, administering the refugees into the city, finding them accommodation, employment and helping them with the language barrier.

In Leeds. Mayor of Leeds, Alderman T. A. Jessop stated, because of the large number of people who approached him about the Hungarian victims, he decided to open a fund to help them on the 8 November 1956.[10] By the 15 November 1956, the Lord Mayors Fund in Leeds reached £4889, by the end of that same month the fund had reached £14,212 that exceeded the sum of neighbouring cities such as Bradford and continued to grow until its closure in 1958.[11] Schoolchildren even got involved offering their support to the Hungarian victims, as is the case with junior boys of West Leeds High School who arranged a sale to raise money for the Lord Mayors Fund.[12] Donations were being made by all sections of society in Leeds including on 16 November 1956 it had been reported that £500 was given by a legal trust, £350 from Headingly Methodist Church and £124 by Leeds Grammar School.[13] Alongside this, donations came from other volunteer collections and personal donations from citizens of Leeds, including pocket money from children, purely out of compassion.[14]

Yorkshire Evening Post, 13 December, 1956

Besides financial donations, the country and the city of Leeds made other contributions. In Leeds, the collection of food, clothes, toys and other resources from local Women’s Volunteer Service (WVS), British Red Cross outlets and other local organisations were sent to the United Nation relief convoys that travelled to the Hungarian refugees in Austria.[15] The press reiterate heavily that within Leeds ‘appeals for Hungary meet good response’ and ‘aid offers are pouring in’, demonstrating the level of humanitarianism within Leeds and the efforts of the city to help during this crisis through donations.[16]

Accommodation was another issue facing the city in housing the Hungarian refugees. Local authorities regularly met at the Leeds Civic Hall regarding the location and distribution of the refugees into accommodation around the city.[17]  The Leeds Housing Committee offered a number of accommodation opportunities for the refugees.[18] Some were housed in unaccompanied houses given to the refugees settling in Leeds, for example, four houses on St Mary Road, Chapeltown and Lidgett Lane, Roundhay were used to settle some Hungarian refugees.[19] Members of the public in Leeds also offered to accommodate a number of refugees. The WVS and the Red Cross in Leeds were given offers from the public relating to the accommodation of the refugees in their houses resulting in forms being sent from London to Leeds locating the most suitable housing opportunities.[20] The forms asked for the Leeds resident’s religion and the number of refugees they were willing to take. Thus, some refugees were housed by the generosity of the public that was documented heavily within the local press, like the case of a Leeds surgeon and his wife who gave a home to a Hungarian family.[21]

Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 November, 1956

The Hungarian refugees proved beneficial for the city’s workforce. The majority of the male refugees entering Leeds all had previous experiences in professional fields making them an asset for Britain’s economy and job market. The roles held by these refugees included: several surgeons, doctors, professors, architects, teachers, farmers, and tailors.[22] The refugees entering Leeds all had skills that could be exploited in different career fields making their integration easier and proving an asset for the city. Those refugees that did not possess such skills were offered opportunities of training and work, in Leeds as well as Britain by the Ministry of Labour. In Leeds, the local National Coal Board (NCB) showed sympathy towards the Hungarian refugees and offered them careers as coal miners, offering three weeks of training alongside opportunities for accommodation.[23] Yorkshire mills also offered jobs in agriculture and textiles for the Hungarian refugees in Leeds.[24] Additionally, refugees were also given the opportunity to educate themselves for professional careers. The University of Leeds offered places to Hungarian refugees with student fees being waved and offered them accommodation, food, and clothes while they study courses such as mechanical and electrical engineering.[25] Out of 15,500 refugees on April 1957, 7500 had been placed in employment by the Ministry of Labour, 2000 found employment through other means and 3500 were undergoing training.[26]

Yorkshire Post, 28 December, 1956

In regards to the language barrier, the University of Leeds offered language classes to refugees accepted into the university as well as acting as an interim regional language centre for the rest of North Yorkshire.[27]  Additionally the Leeds College of Commerce had arranged for English courses that were free of charge to the Hungarian refugees.[28] Alongside English classes, refugees were given English-Hungarian dictionaries for daily uses around the new community they were settling in.[29] In Leeds, an appeal from the local WVS and other charitable organisations for interpreters was issued. Interpreters began coming forward from the city to support the refugees overcome the language barrier facing them in Britain. On 15 November 1956, Mrs. R Stern of Ontario Place Leeds got in touch with the WVS to offer her support as an interpreter for the refugees.[30] Leeds enforced the help from organisations and the public to overcome the language obstacle facing the refugee’s and their successful integration within society.

The acceptance of 21,000 Hungarian refugees in Britain during this period did not come without potential obstacles and issues that the refugees and the country had to face. Some of the issues created by the acceptance of refugees in Britain included political hostility, insubordination towards the government and local community and xenophobia from members of the British public. However, this was not the situation in Leeds but the city warmly welcomed the Hungarian refugees. In Leeds, there were no reports made by the local press of any insubordination towards the government or local community from the refugees or any hostility displayed to them from the public, suggesting that they posed no major problems towards the city. Furthermore, the city actively pursued to create positive relations with the refugees. A number of families in Leeds used the Christmas holidays to break the cultural barriers between them and the refugees, inviting them into their homes to join in their celebrations, offering them hospitality and the opportunity to learn the British customs regarding Christmas.[31]

Overall, it is clear to see that members of Leeds worked effectively in granting the refugees a second home in the city to which the refugees were integrated into the community and filled with gratitude. One refugee refers to his experience in Britain stating, ‘the people were very friendly and no one made me feel like I didn’t belong’, demonstrating that the public played a role in supporting the assimilation process for the Hungarian refugees. In the current world where refugee maintenance is faced by a number of countries, including Britain, with the rise of immigration due to conflicts happening overseas, they can learn from the past from events such as the Hungarian revolution, on the effective management of refugees into the community and the kindness shown to these victims of political persecution.


[1]Pryce-Jones, D. (1969). The Hungarian revolution. London: Benn. P80.

[2]Pastor, P. (2016). The American Reception and Settlement of Hungarian Refugees in 1956-1957. Hungarian Cultural Studies, 9, 197-205. Doi:10.5195/ahea.2016.255. P198.

[3]Hoensch, J. (1995). A history of modern Hungary: 1867-1994 (2nd ed.). London: Longman. P 219-221.

[4]Knox, K. & Kushner, T. (1999). Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge.  P 241.

[5] Anon,. (1956, November 9). Leeds Students March to Mourn Hungary. Yorkshire Evening Post, p. 1.

[6]Anon,. (1956, November 19). Risky Moonlight Escapade. Yorkshire Post, p. 5.

[7] Anon, (10 November 1956). Leeds University Students mourn Hungary. Yorkshire Post. P1.

[8] Taylor, B. (2016). “Their only words of English were ‘thank you'”: Rights, gratitude and ‘deserving’ Hungarian refugees to Britain in 1956. Journal of British Studies, 55(1), 120. P121.

[9]Arango, A.D. (2013). Assets and Liabilities: Refugees from Hungary and Egypt in France and Britain, 1956-1960 (PhD Thesis). Retrieved from P154. & Panayi, P. (1993). Refugees in Twentieth-century Britain: A Brief History. In V. Robinson (Ed.) The International Refugee Crisis: British and Canadian responses (pp. 95-113). Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan. P105.

[10]Anon,. (1956, November 8). Risky Moonlight Appeal for Hungary. Yorkshire Post, p. 3.

[11] Anon, . (1956, November 30). Leeds Fund. Yorkshire Post, p. 12. & Anon, . (1956, November 15). Progress of Fund. Yorkshire Post, p. 10.

[12]Anon,. (1956, December 11). Boys arrange sale. Yorkshire Post, p. 12.

[13]Anon,. (1956, November 16). Lord Mayor Fund. Yorkshire Post, p. 10.

[14]Anon, . (1956, November 23). Leeds Hungary find tops £10,000. Yorkshire Post, p. 6. & Czigány, M. (2009). “just like other students”: Reception of the 1956 Hungarian refugee students in Britain. Retrieved from P30.

[15]Anon,. (1956, December 12). Leeds coaches take gifts to refugees in Austria. Yorkshire Post, p. 10.

[16]Anon,. (1956, November 12). Appeals for Hungary meet good response. Yorkshire Post, p. 6. & Anon, . (1956, November 9). Aid offers of refugees are pouring in. Yorkshire Post, p. 3.

[17]Anon,. (1956, December 11). Hostels to be set up for refugees. Yorkshire Post, p. 12.

[18]Anon,. (1956, December 15). Leeds Housing Committee offer accommodation’. Yorkshire Post, p. 10.

[19]Anon, . (1956, December 28). Hungarians settle down in Leeds homes. Yorkshire Post, p. 15.

[20]Anon, . (1956, November 14). Leeds and Bradford offer hospitality to Hungarians. Yorkshire Post, p. 6. & Anon, . (1956, November 20). Red Cross offered hostel for refugees. Yorkshire Post, p. 7.

[21]Anon, . (1956, November 28). Home in Leeds for family of Hungarians. Yorkshire Evening Post, p. 1.

[22]Anon, . (1956, December 24). 30 refugees due in Leeds today from Hungary. Yorkshire Post, p. 5.

[23]Topping, D. (1956, December 11). NCB help a party of refugee miners. Yorkshire Post, p. 7.

[24]Anon, . (1956, November 14). Hungarian refugees may get jobs in Yorkshire mills. Yorkshire Post, p. 1.

[25]Anon, . (1956, December 10). 44 Hungarian students for Leeds colleges. Yorkshire Evening Post, p. 8.

[26]Knox, K. & Kushner, T. (1999). Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge.  P 254.

[27]Czigány, M. (2009). “just like other students”: Reception of the 1956 Hungarian refugee students in Britain. Retrieved from 140.

[28]Czigány, M. (2009). “just like other students”: Reception of the 1956 Hungarian refugee students in Britain. Retrieved from P140.

[29]Czigány, M. (2009). “Just Like Other Students”: Reception of the 1956 Hungarian Refugee Students in Britain. Retrieved from P137.

[30]Anon, . (1956, November 15). Leeds woman as Hungarian interpreter. Yorkshire Post, p. 10.

[31]Anon. (1956, December 12). Hungarian touch to Yorkshire Christmas. Yorkshire Post, p. 4.

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