Forgotten January Uprising hero set to be officially recognized after his grave is found in London

One of the most prominent Polish immigrants active in London in the early 1900s, Klemens Wierzbicki was born in 1837 in Krzemieniec, in today's Ukraine. Family archive

The grave of a forgotten January Uprising hero who was sentenced at the Old Bailey in London for inciting the murder of Tsar Nicolas II, has been found in a London cemetery.

One of the most prominent Polish immigrants active in London in the early 1900s, Klemens Wierzbicki was born in 1837 in Krzemieniec, in today's Ukraine.

Initially becoming an officer in the army of the Tsar at the age of 21 (at the time, Poland did not exist, as it had been partitioned between three empires, with Wierzbicki's home being subsumed into the Russian Empire).

When the January Uprising broke out, an uprising against the Russian Empire which attempted to try to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Wierzbicki and his military unit defected and joined the Uprising insurgents against the Imperial Russian Army.

Sparked by economic hardship, political repression and a growing sense of national identity among the Polish people, the January Uprising the foundations for Poland regaining its independence over 50 years later.PAP

For this, Wierzbicki was arrested but managed to escape to France, where he joined the Paris Commune, an insurrection of Parisians against the French government.

After the fall of the insurrection, Wierzbicki went to London, where he settled and became a prominent member in Polish immigrant circles striving for the return of an independent Poland until his death in poverty in 1916.

Wierzbicki's grave and his story were recently rediscovered by chance after both his UK-based great-granddaughter Veronica Ward and a group of London-based Polish researcher-historians who had been looking into Wierzbicki's story independently of each other, were put in touch by a worker at St Patrick's Cemetary in Leyton, London, where Wierzbicki is buried.

London-based Polish historical researcher Tomasz Muskus was the first to announce the discovery on his Facebook page, writing: "Together with Adam A. Pszczlkowski and Bartosz Piasecki, we were able to determine and find the burial place of a forgotten January Uprising insurgent Klemens Wierzbicki, honorable secretary of the Polish Society in London."

Klemens, pictured with his wife Sarah Jane, had been an officer in the Tsar’s army before defecting to fight with the insurgents.Family archive

Speaking to TFN, Muskus said: "The 160th anniversary of the January Uprising was approaching, and I was looking for the graves of insurgents buried in London.

“Unfortunately, I only knew about one who is buried in Highgate cemetery. I had some surnames and I verified them with the help of my friend Adam Pszczolkowski, who sent me the blog of a friend of his who had written about Klemens Wierzbicki.

“I became interested and started searching cemeteries and was able to find that he had been buried at St Patrick's cemetery in Leyton.”

He continued: "I rang the cemetery office, but the lady who picked up wasn't able to find him in the system and it turned out that he was buried in a public mass grave alongside six other people.

Researcher-historian Tomasz Muskus (pictured) discovered the grave along with friend Adam Pszczolkowski while looking for the graves of insurgents buried in London ahead of the Uprising’s 160th anniversary.Tomasz Muskus/Facebook

“In 1970, the gravestones were removed and new burials were conducted in that place. In order to find if he had been buried there, the lady at the cemetery had to consult old cemetery records, before she confirmed that he had been buried there. 

“I asked if it would be possible to put up a plaque there to remember him and she said yes.

"I then came into contact with Wierzbicki's great-granddaughter Veronica as Adam informed the author of the blog of my interest and he informed Wierzbicki's family in the US, who in turn informed his family in the UK, who got in touch with the cemetery and then the cemetery were able to pass on her contact to me."

Veronica Ward, Wierzbicki's UK-based great-granddaughter, had been aware of Wierzbicki, but took a greater interest after finding a large number of old documents left behind by her mother after her death.

Speaking to TFN Veronica said: "We had known a little about Klemens, but not a lot, my American family know a bit more than we, his UK based family did.

A letter written by the Polish Consul General in English in 1938 begins: Family archive

“My grandmother was a very secretive person and so was my mother, so we only ever heard very general things.

“But, after my mother died, I started looking through all the documents she left behind and there are many connected to Klemens and I had recently rung the cemetery where he was buried, not knowing until a bit later, that around the same time, Tomasz had been looking into him and that's how we were put in touch.

“We want to try to get recognition for him and I'm so grateful to Tomasz for helping with that. My grandmother had been the first to try to get recognition for him, back in 1938."

Mrs Ward's grandmother's attempts to get recognition for Klemens are documented in a letter found by her granddaughter, written by the Polish Consul General in English in 1938, clearly in response to a letter first written to them by her grandmother.

In the letter, signed "Konsul General", the Polish Consulate writes: "We have received the news that Klemens Wierzbicki was one of the most serving Political immigrants of Polish decent in London.

In 1898, Wierzbicki was sentenced to two months of hard labour and had his printing press confiscated for The Old Bailey Proceedings Online Project

“He took part here in most Political Organisations in England among the Polish People. He was honorable Secretary of the Polish Society in London at 38 Charles Square Hoxton London. In 1872, he published, every two weeks, a paper, news from in and out of Poland."

The letter however ends stating: "We regret to inform you that recognition is given to the living, but not to the dead. Please accept our sympathy."

The letter confirms Wierzbicki's publishing activities, and records from the Old Bailey, also show that this was what landed him in trouble.

In 1898, he was sentenced to two months of hard labour and had his printing press confiscated for "unlawfully publishing a pamphlet encouraging certain persons, whose names are unknown, to murder His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II, Emperor of the Russias" and "Endeavouring to persuade certain persons to commit that offence."

Wierzbicki's family and Tomasz Muskus, have now begun the process of officially having him remembered by the Polish Consulate in London.