Sunday, 31 August 2014

The perennial issue of the number of Belgians in Britain



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.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

"Herring saved our lives": Belgian fisheries and the First World War

The following is taken from an article by Brecht Demasure in the Belgian journal 'De Grote Rede' (in English) and concerns Belgian, given the geographical location of the coast Flemish is more appropriate, fisheries and the First World War.

"Nearly the entire Belgian fishing fleet left the country in October 1914. The fishermen who stayed behind succeeded in meeting the local needs under difficult circumstances. For refugee fishermen the war period was anything but wasted. They continued their activities operating from British, French and Dutch ports.

In this article we investigate to what degree the First World War was a turning point for sea fisheries. Was herring fishing crucial to the survival of the civilian population, as was the case in the Second World War (in other words: Did herring save our lives)? Were fishermen able to get back to work in Belgium after WWI? And what role did the seaside resort of Ostend play?"

More can be found via the online article.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Testing the concept of a refugee: Belgians in Britain during WWI

On 3 and 4 July 2014, the 83rd Anglo-American Conference of Historians is held at Senate House, London. On Friday 4 July, 11.15am-1pm, the panel 'The Western Front and European Home Fronts' (Gordon Room 34), chaired by Ulrich Tiedau, will include the following papers.

The following is the abstract of the first paper, which will form the basis for the conference paper.


Testing the concept of a refugee: Belgians in Britain during WWI


The history of the Belgian refugees in Britain during World War I seems to have been buried under the weight of more conventional war histories. Yet, more than 250,000 Belgians stayed in Britain during the war and close to 140,000 soldiers convalesced or took their leave on the British Isles. This paper will analyse the general framework of this history and highlight a few striking stories within it.

Between early and mid October 1914, the first Belgian refugees were met with a wave of empathy and charity. In addition, the atrocity stories that came with them proved useful for creating the  image of the Hun, the gallant Little Belgium and the kindhearted British. However much everyone wanted to have a pet Belgian in the house, the refugees soon proved to be all too human, with all their different habits. As the war was not going to end by Christmas, Belgians became more of a nuisance, something to be taken care of by the Local Government Board.

The second wave of Belgians, on the other hand, was in fact organised by the British authorities, who invited the Belgians staying in the Netherlands to come to Britain and help extend the war industry, which the Shell Scandal proved to be insufficient. These Belgians, often able-bodied men, had been staying in the Netherlands to which they had fled earlier. However, conditions in the Netherlands were not very tractive but the prospect of providing for one’s means in a seemingly much more supportive host society was attractive.

Belgian communities emerged around dozens of munition factories, some of them even owned by Belgians. Ranging from smaller groups to real pocket villages (settlements of thousands of Belgians in places such as Richmond, Letchworth, Birtley and Barrow), genuine Belgian life in exile grew from these micro-societies. Education and religion went hand in hand, whereas Belgian union practices often stirred up the working relationships among the British. All In all, Belgian able-bodied men were relatively mobile, earning wages and contributing to the war effort.


Monday, 23 June 2014

From Liège to York and back again: Nestlé looking for Belgian refugees memorabilia


Members of the Loix family, whose members fled Liège in August 1914, will meet members of the Rutterford family, whose relatives worked at Rowntree's, the York chocolate factory. The meeting will form part of the official events run by the Mayor of Liège's, marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.

When tens of thousands of Belgians fled to Britain in August-September-October 1914, some went to or were went to York. Staff at the Rowntree's factory in Haxby Road set up a donation fund and a council to distribute resources and found accommodation for the refugees.





Alex Hutchinson, Nestlé heritage assistant said Nestlé's archives would be used to support the events in Liège, including an exhibition on the outbreak of hostilities in the town and the refugees who fled to York.

"Although the Rowntree family members were pacifists, and opposed to war, they were keen to help as many victims of the hostilities as possible. Those refugees who were able to work were given employment in the chocolate factory, but most had to be supported by donations from Rowntree's workers. Employees at the factory formed a council to manage and distribute resources until the end of hostilities. Factory workers cleared cottages in New Earswick, and space in the factory grounds for living accommodation."
Miss Hutchinson is appealing for anyone in York who has any photographs or memorabilia relating to the Belgian refugees to come forward.

Anyone who is able to help is asked to phone Nestlé's consumer services department on 00800 6378 5385 or 0800 00 00 30, or to write to Nestlé UK Ltd, Haxby Road, York, YO91 1XY, or to tweet @nestleUK or to contact via the webpage.


The text above is based on an article from York Press, 12 June.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Antwerp city walk, WW1-related

In the history of Belgian refugees, Antwerp plays a particular role. Deemed a safe haven, the port city accommodated 100,000s of Belgians on the run for the advancing German troops and the ensuing (stories of) atrocity.

However, the city did not hold out against the power of the German army and capitulated on 9 October, 10 weeks after the invasion.

The population of Antwerp at the time, little over 300,000 was decimated: virtually everybody was on the run. When the Germans entered the city in the morning of 10 October, most inhabitants had fled, mainly to the Netherlands, but also to France and the United Kingdom.

With the conference on Languages and the First World War taking place on Wednesday 18 June 2014 at the University of Antwerp (a second day is held at the British Library on 20 June) a morning walk is scheduled across the old city centre of Antwerp.

Most sites along the walk are World War 1-related: locations of Zeppelin attacks, addresses of casualties of those attacks, addresses from people who became refugees and ended up in places such as Ilford (data based on Pat Heron's work) and Glasgow. Some cultural references, to both British and Belgian artists are included too.

And of course the location of the temporary pontoon bridge.

The Google Map aims to be a work in progress, plenty of archive material and addresses to add still. You can find it here.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

From Antwerp to Britain and back again: the language of the Belgian refugee then and now

The following is an abstract of a paper to be held on Wednesday 18 June 2014 during the unique two-legged conference of University of Antwerp and British Library: Languages and the First World War.

"Given the nature of conflicts up until the First World War, refugee studies literature, focussing on the period prior to the Great War, mainly concerns religious and economic migration. Examples are the Huguenots relocations and the Protestant people and craftsmen from ports such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, who sought refuge in the Netherlands in the late 16th century.

When the Germans turned to Antwerp at the end of September 1914, the military move as well as the widespread tales of atrocity triggered a mass forced displacement, which was caused by the war, away from the port to the Netherlands and Britain. The Belgians, who had already sought refuge in the fortified city of Antwerp, joined the best part of the city’s population in fleeing the siege. It is estimated that, in a matter of a fortnight, nearly a million people had moved from what was a relatively small area.

This paper analyses the language used to describe the siege of Antwerp, the forced displacement and the subsequent settlement of Belgians abroad, in particular in the Netherlands and Britain, in the Belgian press, the Belgian exile press and the Dutch and British press. A peculiar language emerges in which propaganda rhetoric and early refugee reception discourse converge, only to disappear from view when the Belgians returned in 1919.

During their exile, especially in Britain, the Belgians lived in a world of displacement that was met with relative freedom of movement, employment opportunity and even benefits such as the necessary housing, clothing and food. After the war, the semantics of everyday life in Britain was in stark contrast to the hardship endured by refugees in the Netherlands and by those who had lived under the occupation.

After the war, the open society that was Antwerp prior to the war lacked the economic drive of the once thriving German minority. Also, the status of French as the language of print started to dwindle. Despite an enriching experience in Britain, the overall discourse had moved from cosmopolitan to parochial. As a conclusion, the paper aims to connect his sense of loss with the memory of those Belgian refugees in Britain and the presence of refugees today."



More information about the Antwerp day of the conference here.
Information about the British Library day here.
A fine blog on Languages and the First World War is updated on a more than daily basis.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Jean Stevens, Richmond



Jean François Joseph Stevens, a soldier from the artillery division that defended the fortresses of Liège, was born in Borgloon, Limburg, on 29 April 1884. 

He died on 22 December 1918, 41 days after Armistice. He lies buried in Richmond Cemetery, a CWGC cemetery. The local cemetery records in fact deem him to be female. A message was sent to those responsible of both records and website data. 

Just how he came to die is not known just yet. Of the nearly 42,000 Belgian soldiers who were killed during the war, 4000 died after Armistice.