Every time a local history project about or someone’s interest into the Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War aims to include a figure of how many Belgians eventually stayed in Britain, virtually all the time those figures are wrong. Often based on figures produced by The Times of the time, those wrong estimations come from the newspaper coverage before organised registration was in place, which was end of 1914 only. Even worse is when those figures are taken from secondary literature, without further verification, let alone corroboration.
The issue of the number of Belgians in Britain is such a major problem that it alone transcends the scope of a PhD subject. In fact, should one attempt to come close to a trustworthy figure, this would involve the following:
- Decide which one of the three registration card archives is the most complete (there is one publicly available at Kew and one in Brussels, but Brussels also holds one which is not available just yet) and then digitise this, with the final result being an open database. However, this then equals an effort that is similar to gathering all basic civil data from a population of a community the size of Kingston-upon-Hull, Exeter and Durham combined, or Ghent .
- Then cross-reference this with what can be considered as the second most complete, adding records and data. This would also see the category of erroneous or duplicate records increase dramatically.
- In a final move, based on registration cards only, the third set would be added to that.
In a potential project that would do all this, erroneous, partial and duplicate records are affected by what is arguably the biggest issue in trying to get a grip on the number of Belgian refugees in Britain: Flemish surnames. The Glasgow Register (which is not such a thing, but a compilation of several registers) proves that several families (same first names, same ages of the same children, same home address in Belgium) have two or sometimes even more different registration card entries, with distinctively different spelled surnames (however similar they might be).
After all that worry and virtual impossibility (imagine you have junior researchers working on this, I’m sure the turnover of staff would be considerable…) only then can one start matching that one overall digitised database with information from British press, Belgian exile press, local archives, existing local registers (such as the one from Exeter). Throw in a crowdsourcing effort for people to upload material in case the family holds information not yet included in that database.
But in the end, what do you have? a database representing roughly 200,000 Belgians with most of the typical details, another 25,000 to 40,000 with limited data only, another X thousands with likely duplicate records and another X thousand records with virtually no information on them. And then the soldiers aren’t even included. The history of Belgians in Britain proves that there was a thin line between soldiers and refugees: how do you call a Belgian who sought refuge in Britain in August 1914 but relocated to France by early December 1914? Is he or she still a figure in the overall statistic, which is prior to when the Central Register was in place? And what about a soldier convalescing so long, he actually stays in Britain for most of the war or starts working there, whilst still being a member of the army?
So in the end, what do you have? A figure that is not very clear and any long-term research into will not differ much from the following finding: that the most important primary document on the subject itself was not in the clear about it all.
In 1919, the Ministry of Health oversaw the publication of what is in fact the key document, from a British perspective, into the history of the Belgians in Britain during World War One: “Report of the Work Undertaken by the BritishGovernment in the Reception and Care of the Belgian refugees” (HMSO, 1920). The report, which we abbreviate as RWU 1920 for ease of use, incorporates the following estimations:
- p.5: “The total number of the refugees from Belgium who came over in these various ways was upwards of 200,000.”
- p.8: “The registration of the refugees proved of great value. Altogether some 240,000 refugees have been registered, and in addition some 19,000 wounded soldiers, making a totol of roughly 260,000.” Note: on page 66 the number of disabled Belgian soldiers in Britain recorded in a special register by the Wounded Allies Relief Committee mentioned the figure of 35,000 (of which 9,000 were still in the country by the end of 1919!)
- p.60: “The maximum number of refugees in the United Kingdom at one time, excluding wounded Belgian soldiers, was about 210,000; by the end of 1916, it had fallen to 160,000.”
- p.64: “At the date of the amendment of the Order in Council which repealed the sections relating to Belgian refugees (1st June, 1919), the index contained 225,572 names.”
- p.73: The paper by de Jastrzebski before the Royal Statistical Society on 18 January 1916 dealt “with the 220,000 refugees of whom records had been made”.
Based on this one document and corroborated with various other primary sources, it can only be assumed that any estimation of the number of Belgians in Britain is indeed upwards 225,000.