Thursday, 5 September 2013

Belgian refugees in the UK - a summary


On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Germany had invaded Belgium, a country whose neutrality had been guaranteed by Britain in the 1839 London Treaty. In the following weeks, the German army moved from east to west, leaving a trail of destruction. Stories of atrocities triggered a mass movement ahead of the advancing Germans.

About 1.5 million Belgians sought refuge abroad[1] and mainly went to the Netherlands, but also to France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Spain and across the Atlantic. In Britain, Folkestone bore the full brunt: after the fall of Antwerp and Ostend (9-15 October), 11,000 Belgians arrived in the town. By the end of the war, Folkestone was to have accommodated 64,000 Belgians. Most of them were relocated elsewhere in Britain. The vast majority of Belgian refugees were Flemish, with about 40% coming from the region around Antwerp alone.

No accurate figures exist as to how many Belgians remained in Britain, let alone the number of Flemish people. They were very mobile and also travelled between the various host countries. It is estimated that more than a quarter of a million Belgians (soldiers included) stayed in Britain during the First World War, with never more than 175,000 at any given time.[2]

Around 2500 local Belgian refugee committees were formed across the United Kingdom. They were overseen by a combined effort of the War Refugees Committee and the Local Government Board. Hundreds of charity initiatives were organised for the benefit of Belgian refugees (concerts, books, exhibitions…). They were welcomed as ‘pet Belgians’, everyone wanted one in their house.[3]

However, their presence became a controversial one: villages and towns all over Britain sent their husbands and sons to the front to join the front in Flanders and help free the Belgian nation from the Germans, whereas able-bodied men of that nation and refugees in Britain were not conscripted. The British government therefore decided to include Belgian refugee men in the war effort at home.

Eventually, there were over 60,000 Belgians working in Britain during World War One. More than 500 Belgian companies were established. The largest was the Pelabon factory in Richmond (the former Ice Rink). In Barrow-in-Furness nearly 7,000 were employed and in Birtley, Gateshead a true colony emerged close to the Armstrong-Whitworth munitions factory, Belgian currency included. Factories were often managed by Walloon engineers, whereas most of the labourers spoke only Flemish. English had become a kind of relay language.

Across Britain many gratitude plaques still refer to the presence of Belgian refugees (Ilford, Fulham, Reading, Coventry, Manchester…). From Elisabeth Avenue in Birtley and Flanders Road in Chiswick to the trees planted by Belgians in Letchworth and Glasgow, various locations today still refer to the Belgians. The memorial for Belgian refugees is located at Victoria Embankment Gardens.

Most of the main and more general archive material about Belgian refugees in Britain is kept at four locations: the National Archives (Kew), the Imperial War Museum (London), the National Archives (Brussels) and the archives of the Archbishop’s Palace (Mechelen). Beyond the British and Belgian newspapers of the time, other archive material is more scant, and includes anecdotal and above all scattered pieces of information (not only in Belgium and the UK, but also in the US).

The first work on the Belgian refugees in English, with a focus on the reception by the British authorities was produced as a PhD dissertation byPeter Cahalan in 1977. Not much has been published about the refugees in Britain in Dutch either, but the book Over Het Kanaal / Across The Channel by Annelies Beck has most certainly sparked widespread interest.

Christophe Declercq, 6 September 2013.
This text was the basis for a brief talk at the launch of the Flanders House Centenary Series, early May 2013, and was edited lightly.


[1]               It is estimated that another 0.5 to 1.5 million Belgians were still on the run but were overtaken by the advancing German troops. This would total between 2 and 3 million people on the run, or up to 40% of the population of Belgium.

[2]               The most generous estimate of the number of Belgians in Britain numbers 205,000 refugees and 40,000 soldiers, with a sensible 10,000 added “for inevitable gaps in the register” (TTHOTW, vol. IV 1915: 459), loss of data avant la lettre as it were. By the end of July, there were 172,298 registered Belgian refugees in Britain (Comité Officiel Belge 1917: 9). However, this does not include possible duplication. The Glasgow register (goo.gl/MvWqW), for instance, mentions about 10,000 Belgians, whereas in fact a substantial part of the entries were duplicates.

[3]               E.M. Forster took into his home a young Belgian. Before settling in Hogarth House, Virginia Woolf rented rooms from a Belgian landlady. Henry James visited wounded Belgians in Chelsea on a daily basis.

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