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Over a quarter of a million Belgians fled to Britain during the First World War. Simon Fowler and Keith Gregson follow the fortunes of these refugees, many of whom ended up manufacturing munitions


hile Britain had received refugees from past continental conflicts, the country had seen nothing on the scale of arrivals from Belgium as thousands fled the invading German forces when war began in August 1914. Over the following two months nearly 200,000 desperate men women and children sailed into ports up and

down the East coast. The first arrivals were chiefly people with enough money to pay their way, at least for a few days. Later refugees, the destitute as The Times History of the War somewhat unkindly called them, started arriving in London in early September at the rate of 500 a day. The fall of Antwerp on 7 October rapidly increased the flow, with 11,000 disembarking at Folkestone in one day.

By June 1915 it is estimated 265,000 refugees had arrived in Britain from Belgium... Top of page: Belgian refugee children in the arms of a British soldier, 26 October 1918.

Numbers accelerated further after the fall of Ostend later that month, when 26,000 arrived at Folkestone, among them wounded Belgian soldiers. During November 45,000 refugees came to Britain. Thereafter the numbers decreased as it became increasingly difficult to cross the English Channel. However, by June 1915 it is estimated 265,000 refugees had arrived in Britain from Belgium, of whom 40,000 were wounded soldiers and 15,000 were Russian Jews who had worked in Antwerp’s diamond industry. Inevitably a few people were hostile, but they were small in number. Winston Churchill, for instance, grumbled: “They ought to stay there

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Residents of Messines flee their homes, 1914.

and eat up continental food and occupy German policy attention.” Within a matter of days of the first refugees arriving, a network of relief charities sprang up, most of which were very small and only cared for one or two Belgian families, usually in houses donated by local well-wishers. However, one committee in Croydon provided housing and clothing for 900 refugees who arrived during the early months of the war. The committee also arranged schooling for children and employment for their parents. It opened a workshop where a dozen men were employed constructing furniture and a smaller number of women made clothes, which were then sent to Le Havre for Belgian refugees in France. Refugees were spread fairly evenly through the country, although there were concentrations in London and seaside resorts, where there was plenty of spare out-of-season accommodation. Blackpool, for example, housed 8,000 Belgians. Relief work was co-ordinated by the War Refugees Committee. On the first day of its operation the Committee received 1,000 letters offering accommodation for the refugees, and within two weeks offers of hospitality for 100,000 people had been made by all social classes. One working man wrote to the War Refugee Committee: “I have five [children] of my own, but I’d like to keep a Belgian.” Despite a general welcome during 44 • ANCESTORS MAY 2005

the early months of the war, most refugees soon found themselves in the position of being what a later commentator described as “unwanted pets grown too big”. One hostel closed in late 1916 “as we found Belgians in the house were very difficult.”

There was a general feeling that the Belgians were insufficiently willing to contribute to the war effort. To an extent the problem resolved itself because of the increasing demand for labour, particularly in manufacturing in places like the Sheffield steelworks or

Laisser-passer issued by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris to Marie De Craene-Reyntens, with stamps allowing her and her family to travel to England.

In Flanders Fields Museum, Ieper

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were dedicated protecting them from the reality of the situation. In the autumn of 1914 aristocratic ladies fought to look after the richer refugees. Lady Lyttleton campaigned to have hostels for better class men saying: “they are very nice people some of them – I mean men one could have to stay with one.” A Hostel for First Class Belgians in Chelsea was specifically set up to house “best class” Belgians unlikely to be able to work in London. By and large there was little attempt to integrate the refugees into the host population. In part this was due to the language barrier. Few British people spoke French, let alone Flemish, and relatively few Belgians had any English or, in many cases, even French. The diarist Rev Andrew Clark noted on 24 September 1914 that one of his parishioners Mrs Scott: “has great difficulty in conversation with her

refugees. She speaks French and German. They only speak Flemish.” In addition, their British hosts expected the Belgians to be much like themselves with a tinge of continental exoticism – and to adapt the traditional subservient position of the “deserving poor”. Instead the Belgians came from a very different culture, and many of the refugees were equally unwilling to adjust to their new circumstances. The result was often friction and disillusionment. Miss G M West, a vicar’s daughter in the West Country, noted in her diary as early as November 1914: “Most people agree that they are fat, lazy, greedy, amiable and inclined to take all the benefits heaped upon them as a matter of course.” Undoubtedly many Belgians were very grateful for the care they and their families received, even if they occasionally fell foul of the unwritten expectations of the English class system. The 1915 annual report of the Putney and Roehampton Fund stated: “It is frequently asked ‘Do you find the Belgians grateful?’ The experience has been that they are most grateful.” One of the largest concentrations of Belgian refugees was in County

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Tyneside armaments factories. By the middle of 1916 most adult Belgians could find work if they choose – and there was constant pressure upon them to do so. The greatest complaint was that the young men were reluctant to enlist in their army. In the Spring of 1916, Baron Hymans, the Belgian minister to London, reported to the Belgian government in exile in Le Havre that Londoners, fed up with seeing refugees out of uniform, were shouting; “Bloody Belgians!” even at those too young to bear arms. He thought that Belgians should contribute more to the war effort – and to be seen to be so doing. It was much more difficult to handle the upper-class refugees, most of whom were unaccustomed to manual labour, and who insisted on retaining their pre-war social status. For much of the war they received a sympathetic hearing, and considerable resources

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There was little attempt to integrate the refugees into the host population...due to the language barrier.

Belgian refugee children being fitted with clothes by staff at the Women’s Clothing Store, established in part of the Earls Court Exhibition Hall, London.

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Musee Royale de L’Armée, Brussels.


Shops serving the Belgian community sprang up where large numbers of refugees settled. This photo shows a parade close to the Belgian Pelebon munitions factory in East Twickenham, Middlesex.

Durham, where a complete new village was constructed for them to live and work at Birtley, a town situated between Chester-le-Street and Gateshead. The British government had begun to realise that there was a shortfall in the production of munitions, particularly shells and cartridge cases. The North East of England was already a centre for heavy industry and war work, and Birtley was chosen as a new manufacturing site. The experiment was a joint venture between the government and Armstrong Whitworth. In general, the firm was to run most of the business while the government provided funding. The exiled Belgium 46 • ANCESTORS MAY 2005

Such was the effort of the workers that one and a half million were actually produced. Events surrounding the creation of Elisabethville have been researched and covered in a booklet published by Gateshead Local Studies Library. Its author, John Bygate summed up the historical fascination of the settlement as being: “a unique experiment in that it was set up as a Belgian village run according to Belgian law and protected by Belgian gendarmes. Flemish and Walloon were spoken and the currency was Belgian.” The decision to make Elisabethville

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There was also a certain amount of envy; many Belgian homes had inside flush toilets...

government was then brought into this complex arrangement as a result of a treaty signed by the two governments in 1915, and agreed to supply a workforce selected from the war wounded and refugees. The organisers realised that housing the workforce was going to be a problem, so the decision was taken to build Elisabethville, named after Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. Eventually, around 6,000 people, including former soldiers and their families, lived here. Over the winter of 1915/16 arrangements started to fall into place and a target of a million shells was set.

The shell store in the National Projectile Factory at Birtley, 1918.



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a separate community was a conscious one, with efficiency and production levels in the munitions factory a prime factor. The community had a school (which survived until the 1970s), grocer, butcher, licensed premises, restaurant, hairdresser, photographer and even a band. There was also a church, a hospital and a village store. Most civilians had prefabricated homes, while barracks were provided for soldiers. As John Bygate says: “Elisabethville had all the features of a small town.” The most intriguing question asked about the Birtley experiment is: how did the Belgians and locals get on? Basically the answer is that people, in general, felt sorry for the plight of the civilians, although this sympathy began to wear thin with time. However, overall, in Birtley as elsewhere, relations were fine with the words “toleration” even “appreciation”

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Above, interior of a labourer’s cottage, Elisabethville. Right, a street in Elisabethville. Both were taken in 1918.

applicable most of the time. Locals joined in the Belgian national celebrations each July and there were joint celebrations for the Armistice. The colony was physically fenced off, but a greater barrier was the language. Even educated NorthEasterners could make neither head nor tail of Flemish or Walloon; the “Belgiums”, as they were known, spoke “Belgium” and that was that. Where there was friction it appears to have taken the form of mumbling and grumbling rather than outright

aggression. There was also a certain amount of envy; many Belgian homes had inside flush toilets – a luxury then. Additionally, there was the feeling that while young Belgian soldiers and civilian workers were safe over here, British boys were fighting for their cause overseas. This became a particular issue when Belgian boys started going out with the girls left behind. Ironically, tensions inside the community seem to have been greater than those between it and the outside MAY 2005


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Refugees on their way back home after the liberation of Courtrai, October 1918.

In Sheffield, another researcher, Diane Gascoyne, has revealed an English community jolted into feverish activity to support some 3,000 Belgian refugees. Eight thousand refugees were catered for in Blackpool, while the experiences of Richmond in Surrey and Letchworth, both tied to munitions production, seem to have mirrored much of what took place in Birtley. After the Armistice the refugees went home to their now devastated

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world. Most of the blame for this has been laid at the feet of the militarystyle administration imposed on the inhabitants. In the early days there were complaints that accommodation was inadequate and pay was less than it ought to have been. There were restrictions on travel out of (and into) the colony, and the Belgians were required to wear full military uniform at work. A fairly serious riot took place in December 1916, when thousands of workers marched on the gendarmerie and a shot was fired. This action seemed to clear the air and gradually the restrictions were relaxed. Although Elisabethville is frequently picked out as the prime example of the Belgian refugees’ experience during the First World War, there are many other places where refugees lived and worked. In Millom, on the West coast of Cumbria, 1,000 Belgian refugees settled into a community of just 10,000 inhabitants. Here, as in Birtley, the Belgian band was a central focus. In his recent history, Millom Remembered, local journalist and historian Bill Myers tells a tale of cooperation and affection between the Belgians and the Millomites.

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Telegraph request for soldiers to be sent to keep the peace at Birtley. 48 • ANCESTORS MAY 2005

country, with very few electing to remain in Britain. In late 1918, trains began taking them from the factory to troopships at various ports. Birtley was then used to house the growing local population as servicemen began to return from the war. British street names eventually replaced most of the Belgian ones. As time passed, conditions in the former Elisabethville seem to have deteriorated. In the 1930s J B Priestley described it as “a nightmare place”. Today little remains of the former Belgian colony. The huts have gradually been replaced by more modern housing and public buildings. A garage is situated in one of the last of the standing public buildings and Elisabeth Road “with an S” remains to confuse letter writers. A dilapidated Catholic cemetery known as the “Belgian graveyard” is also an eerie reminder of the past, and it is now the neighbouring modern cemetery which contains monuments to the Belgian dead. Yet, although it is almost a century since this mammoth exodus, living links continue. One Belgian lady interviewed last year for the In Flanders Field magazine (January 2004), still keeps an eye on Rugby, where she was born and her mother lies buried. The tale is also told of a refugee brought up as a youngster in Cornwall. She could not



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to Belgium with British spouses, there is probably now a reasonable number of people in both countries who can trace their ancestry back to these unions. Are you descended from a Belgian refugee or do you know somebody who is? Keith Gregson, a former history department head at a secondary school, is now a freelance writer and historian. Simon Fowler is editor of Ancestors and has written about Belgian refugees in the First World War.

Taking it further

settle when she returned home and came back; her descendants still live in the South West today. Diane Gascoyne notes that in Sheffield: “20 Belgians took with them Sheffield girls they had married and some Belgians stayed behind to marry.” A similar situation applies to Birtley, where there are people descended from the few Belgians who remained or returned, as indeed there are “GeordieBelgians” alive and well in Belgium. An estimated 30 Belgians remained in the area, marrying and settling among the local community, and many still alive have links with this past. Joe Emmerson, who spent part of his childhood in Elisabethville in the 1930s, remembers his aunt returning to Belgium. “She married … a wounded soldier somewhat older than her.” Joe’s Belgian uncle had been a woodsman or gamekeeper before the war and came from an area close to the Belgian borders with Holland and Germany. “You could see the German border from his village”, Joe pointed out. “It must have been one of the first to be attacked. Still he was keen to get back home to his woods as soon as it was all over.” Joe can recall being lifted over a fence to be placed in the yard of the colony school. “I kept in contact with Belgian cousins from my generation,” he said, “but I’ve lost touch since. I

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The most important genealogical resource is the individual history cards, recreated by the War Refugees Committee. Held by The National Archives at Kew in series MH 8, they record personal details of the refugees and where they were looked after in Britain. The series also has the remaining papers of the Committee itself, including minutes and correspondence. Other correspondence can be found in HO 45 and RG 20.

A history card for M and Mme Valère Dammans, who had fled from Brussels.

Local newspapers recorded the reception of refugees in 1914, as well as the establishment of local care committees and related fundraising activities, although as the war progressed Belgians are less likely to appear in reports unless they fell foul of the law in some way. A few records of the charities formed to care for the refugees may be found in local archives. Probably more useful are local authority minute books, which will indicate how refugee children were educated and the provision of work for their parents. Sometimes you will find graves for refugees and the occasional memorial. There is a large monument, for example, in the City Road Cemetery in Sheffield. In the early 1920s the Belgian government presented memorials to local councils as a thank-you gesture. Some records about Birtley are held by Gateshead Central Library, Prince Consort Road, Gateshead NE8 4LN, telephone 0191 477 3478, or visit Read more about it Joseph Schlesinger and Douglas McMurtrie, edited by John Bygate, The Birtley Belgians: A History of Elisabethville (North East Centre for Education about Europe, 1990) Bill Myers, Millom Remembered (Tempus, 2004) Simon Fowler, “Belgian Refugees in Britain during the First World War” in Family and Local History Handbook (9th edition, Robert Blatchford Publishing, 2005)

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even used to go across there from time to time in the old days.” At the end of the film Schindler’s List, the director cleverly brought together descendants of the Jewish people saved by Schindler during the Second World War. Perhaps it is time to apply the “Spielberg Principle” to the case of the Belgian refugees in Britain – as an exercise in both family history and social history. Although only a handful from each community stayed and married in Britain and another handful returned

Bloody Belgians!  

Article from Ancestors Magazine Issue 33, by Simon Fowler & Keith Gregson

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