Sunday, 22 May 2022

Home from Home

On Friday 20 May 2022, Michael Morpurgo delivered a 'Home from Home', a @BBCRadio4
Point of View broadcast. Thanks @huws_hc for pointing it out to us. 
Below is the full transcript (give or take a few typos).
We do not owe any rights to the text below.

BBC4 Radio podcasts, a Point of View

Michael Morpurgo - 20.5.2022

"The comparison is alarming between then and now, it tells us much about ourselves that I find, more than uncomfortable, I find it shaming, I would explain. Over the centuries, we on this island have often been a sanctuary for the invaded the oppressed and persecuted. We have been a safe haven to so many and they have helped to make us the people we are today, at our best a deeply humanitarian people. I fear we are not at our best now.

Perhaps this is because we forget all too easily. Freedom is precious to us as it is to any people, to any of our neighbours in Europe, but we have had it for so long that we are in grave danger taking it for granted or forgetting how our freedom was won. We have often had to defend it fiercely, most recently of course in World War Two. But even recent history all too soon becomes ancient history, then myth, then forgotten history. We've had the great good fortune to live protected by the Channel that has been our saviour on countless occasions. For a 1000 years or more since William the Conqueror and his Normans, no invader has occupied us, notwithstanding the efforts of William of Orange, oh yes and the little matter of the Battle of Fishguard in 1797.

Wind and tide have been on our side, as with the Spanish Armada in 1588. Good fortune has often played a part in guarding our liberty, but so has resolution and courage, as well as much needed friends and allies.

I'm like so many of us living here am only partly British my grandfather was Belgian, who came here to marry my grandmother before World War One. He was a great Belgian poet, their Rupert Brooke of the First World War. I knew the story as I was growing up of how he had spent much of that war looking after and raising funds for orphaned Belgian children. Belgian refugees had come over in their thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and we welcomed them in. It was 1914 we were at war, we were fighting hard, but it was not going well. The Germans had invaded Belgium, their country was a battlefield, towns and villages burning, civilians dying in large numbers, their little army and ours suffering dreadful casualties. We were retreating and losing. 

For 240,000 Belgian refugees their only hope of saving themselves was to get on a boat across the Channel to the English coast, different times I know, but they did not have to wait weeks in war-torn Belgium for their visas to be processed. They came in their boats, we took them in, fed them, schooled their children, gave them homes to stay. Most would return home to Belgium, some more willingly than others, at the end of the war. But when they had needed help, Britain had welcomed them in with open arms. There were, I'm sure, security issues then and many in this country would have been understandably worried about this huge and sudden influx of refugees. I'm sure also they were a heavy financial burden on the state. We could ill afford such generosity, but they were our neighbours, fellow human beings in dire need. People and government knew the right thing to do, and did it. 

It's salutary to compare this generosity of spirit, this solidarity with friends, this national act of kindness with how we have been and are responding today to the plight of Ukrainian refugees, who still are - as I write this - fleeing for their lives, seeking only safety, peace, a better life, food, warmth and a home from home.

That we are as a people every bit as kind and welcoming as our predecessors were in 1914 I have no doubt. In recent weeks we have seen an outpouring of offers to house refugees from Ukraine, a growing solidarity with their plight. Funds have been flowing in to support them. So many of us are doing what we can to help, because we feel we must, that it is right so to do. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees are desperate to come. Many now have, but thousands more are waiting, forced to languish - sometimes under threat of bombardments, separated from family and living in often wretched conditions for weeks on end - for visas to be arranged by us, for cheques to be made, for systems to work.

Our response, sadly, has been minimal by comparison with many of our fellow European countries, even allowing for the fact that many of these are closer geographically to Ukraine. And it is no accident but these are the countries that know from long and bitter historical experience, from family stories handed down of war and occupation, how it is to be a refugee, oppressed, homeless, grieving and in despair. But we too have seen how they are suffering, we know they need our help.

If this hesitance on our part, this reluctance was unique to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, we might put it down to an understandably overburdened, unprepared Home Office. We might, but in recent times our government has been accused of heartlessness when dealing with other refugees and asylum seekers, desperate to find refuge in this country.

The refugee problem, like climate change, like the pandemic, is a worldwide problem, in which we know we have to play our full part, share the responsibility. There are - we know - about 70 million refugees looking for a home, a place of safety, a figure that grows, as we have recently been reminded with every war, and with the increasingly severe effects of climate change also.

There are of course always reasons, and some have merit too, why we must try to prevent refugees from venturing out across that dangerous English Channel, crowded with tankers as it is, in unseaworthy rubber boats, it's to save lives, it's to stop the vile people trafficking racket. And of course every country has to have sensible and fair limits when it comes to caring for refugees and asylum seekers, but then there are the excuses: 'it's the fault of the French', who by the way look after many more refugees than we do, 'it's the fault of the refugees themselves who should take the legal route to the UK', which is nigh impossible of course. Anyway, 'they should have stopped and settled in the first safe country they arrived in'. We seem to seek any argument not to take them in.

What would have happened to those 240,000 Belgians in 1914 if we had not opened our arms to them. Last month, just a week before they were due to be challenged in court, the government was made to think again and to drop plans to force small boats filled with refugees and asylum seekers trying to cross the Channel back to France. Campaigners had argued the policy was inhumane, a risk to life. It is now proposed that asylum seekers deemed to have entered the UK unlawfully ought to be expelled to Rwanda. So now we expel them, banish them.

To me this smacks of other times, when we sent convicts to Australia, when in the 1940s we sent unwanted orphans to the far corners of the Empire. We exported are rubbish for years in much the same way, paying foreign governments in the Far East to take in our rubbish and plastic. Policies of out of sight, out of mind, the argument is always batted back.

Alright, so what solution do you offer to the refugee crisis? For Ukraine, there is the solution we all want: a Russian withdrawal and peace, allowing refugees to go back home and rebuild their country. For those so-called illegal immigrants, who risked their lives daily to come here, I have two suggestions: that we look after those we can as best we can now, treat them right. But we also look to a long term solution. We can and should at the very least restore our overseas aid, increase it even. Yes, it will have to be found from public money and I know there is endless need in this country, but I think we have to afford to help out those far less fortunate than ourselves and in doing so we can support those millions of people in need to create a viable environment in their own countries, where they can live a good life, so they won't want to leave in the first place. That would be a start. We have to think again."


Thursday, 11 February 2021

Belgian Jews in the UK

There is no comprehensive history of Belgium's Jewish community and its experience during the First World War yet. Throughout the Centenary some output became available, but even the 'smaller' story of Belgian Jews who fled to the UK has hardly been covered. 

Although Peter Cahalan and Michaël Amara do take on board the plight of the Jewish fleeing from Belgium - the story of their exile in the Netherlands is of a bigger scope than that in the UK - a first article on the subject was by Janiv Stamberger

Figures on the number of Jewish Belgians remain unclear, estimates vary between 5,000 to 8,000. One clearer figure spoke of 3,000-3,500 by 1916. The Jews Temporary Shelter (Leman Street), the Manchester Hotel (Aldersgate) and a disused warehouse on Soho's Poland Street were among the locations where Jewish Belgians were accommodated. By the end of 1915 over 600 people stayed in the Manchester Hotel and quite a few of them - it is not clear whether this applied to all - were distributed over 35 houses in North London (Amara 2008:177).

Although a National War Refugee Committee was established to deal with the refugee situation, the Jewish community took it upon itself to provide shelter and food for this influx of Jews. The London Beth Din was very active "in ministering to the religious needs of Jewish refugees from Belgium and in assisting them in finding employment".

  • "Records show that a Belgian refugee called Siberstein applied for Beth Din permission to open a shop  in Black Lion Yard  selling  borscht. Later that month either he or someone with the same name applied for a Beth Din licence to manufacture sausages. 
  • One refugee from Antwerp applied to Beth Din in October to open a kosher food store in Brixton. 
  • Another refugee was found a placement to serve as a Shochet in Ebbw Vale in South Wales.
  • In November, the Beth Din received an enquiry from the South Wales Community of Llanelli as to whether a refugee could be found to assist in Hebrew teaching in that town."

More on Belgian Jewish refugees in the UK here.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Belgian workshop at Crosby Hall


"Ten months ago, the Belgian Workshop opened at Crosby Hall with 12 to 15 people. Belgian ladies from the Chelsea area wanted to attend this workshop for the well-being of their brave soldiers and for the destitute people of Belgium. There are now at least 320 groups registered in the books of the Workshop, some of which consist of a single small refugee family, living in a remote corner of the province, others of perhaps twenty families meeting weekly in one of Britain's towns to talk about their homeland and to encourage each other to work for it: in all about 1300 individuals. There are also English ladies, perhaps from a local committee, who take part by organising the meetings or distributing the raw materials provided by Crosby Hall. But ours is above all a Belgian work, supported by the refugees themselves. Whether the woman who offers herself for work is a lady from Brussels or a small peasant girl who only speaks 'Vlaamsch', as long as she is honest and willing, we send her wool to knit socks or a shirt to sew."

Report of work at Crosby Hall, Chelsea (IWM BEL 6 52/9)


Monday, 4 November 2019

Belgian refugees in Chorley

The following is not in honour of the new Speaker of the House, but any occasion is good enough to dive into and briefly tap into the Belgian refugees in Chorley according to that single source. A brief dive though it is.

In Chorley, Rawcliffe Hospital looked after Belgian soldiers such as Frans Lootens (December 1914), Maurice Deryckere (December 1914), Van Der Elst (no first name, January 1915).
Bertha De Clercq, from Antwerp, stayed at 8 Garden Terrace, Chorley (January 1915).
M. Impens, who lived in Chorley as well, donated 10s to the Penny Belge in August 1915, and again in September and in November.
Frans Van Rompaey stayed in Bridge Cottage, Eccleston (September 1915).

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Notes from a train: Hitchin

On our way to Leeds, our train unexpectedly stopped at Hitchin. Quite fittingly really. You can find a Hitchin Belgian through the database by @FWWBRefugees. Irma, came to England when she was 16 years old. She was accompanied by her mother, Maria Theresia Lodewijk, and her brother Leon. They settled in Letchworth, Hertfordshire in 1914. A munition factory had been established there by two Belgian refugees Jacques Kryn and his brother George. The factory became known as Kryn and Lahy. Mrs Lahy herself lived at Corrie Wood, Hitchin Road, Letchworth. There is a nice story about Maggie Wray, a local young woman who worked at Kryn and Lahy. Irma began working there as a munitionette While working there she met her future husband George Julien Francois Heinen. They were married in Letchworth when she was 19yrs old at the Church of St Hugh of Lincoln, Letchworth. They lived at an unnamed road in Hitchin. has the marriage, Dec 17. 

Hitchin has 87 hits at, although some relate to Lord Robert Cecil's election victory in Dec 18 or to a Hitchins. @viaa_be hetarchief does mention The Belgian Cottages in Ickleford (between Hitchin and Letchworth). At those cottages Mrs Angélique Gonderzeune (from Merksem, Antwerp) lived, with her daughters. The cottages also house Maria Wouters, most likely a sister-in-law. Ickleford also welcomed a French refugee, I. Gonnet, from Paris. Gerard Remes/Herges (Namur - the two spelling variants appeared) stayed with Mrs Ransom at Grove House, Hitchin. Jeannette Devos, from Kumtich (Tienen) was based at 4 Cleveland Terrace, Walsworth, Hitchin. A family Van Doren resided in Hexton, Hitchin.

On 21 October 1915 Jean-Baptiste Moens (born in Brussels 1886), corporal in the Belgian army, was buried in Hitchin. He had been wounded in the siege of Antwerp more than a year prior and had been working at Kryn and Lahy in Letchworth as a convalescent soldier. He had died because of a lung-related illness. (L’Indépendance Belge, 25 October 1915). A mention was made of fellow convalescent soldiers including those from the local Belgian convalescent hospital. On 19 August 1916 Séraphin Balcaen, from Aartrijke, had died in Hitchin because of an unspecified accident.
On 21 February 1916, it became clear funding for Belgians was no longer at the same level it was at the start of the war: an appeal was made for funding so that a group of 10 to 12 year olds could have some more clothes. The children, listed below (note the nameless girl…), were overlooked at St Michael’s School in Hitchin by the Belgian priest Cochet. 

On 31 March 1915, an event was held at the Hitchin Gymnasium. Mr. William Baruh, the chairman of the Union Dramatique d’Anvers was talking about “De l’influence des sociétés d’agrément sur l’ésprit artistique de la Belgique”. Entrance was free for Belgians, which makes you wonder whether any non-Belgian even attended. (L’Indépendance Belge, 30 March 1915) The event was covered again one week later by the same Belgian exile newspaper but then it was added that Mr. Baruh thanked the Hitchin Debating Society and that local people would have attended, in part because of the Hitchin Collège Français. After he concluded his talk, Baruh recited two patriotic poems by Emile Verhaeren.

 On the 10 April 1915 L’Indépendance announced that the then coming Sunday a very Belgian Te Deum would be performed at the local Catholic church, due to the birthday of King Albert’s, and that the de facto head of the Belgian community in Hitchin, Mr. Vuylsteke, invited all to come, especially those who were open to some religion and patriotism.

There are two paintings of St Mary's Church at Hitchin by Gerard Ceunis (1885-1964). There is a connection between Ceunis and the building that now has the Hitchin Starbucks.

But then again we might as well want to mention that nearby Wheathampstead was established by Belgic tribes in 50 BC. However, do have a look at the Hitchin Roll of Honour and browse using 'Belgium' to get a more accurate imprint of WW1 times.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Research into Belgian refugees in Britain - addition to the literature

After a PhD, many chapters, lots of flurrying around projects producing literature lists, lists of resources and the like, the delight of discovering a new source that had been overlooked until now is both pitiful and very exciting at the same time.

Judging from what has been published before the watershed 1977 PhD by Peter Cahalan, published in 1982 (i.e. 1982 was the year of reckoning, no Google Books or downloadable PDF files from McMaster back then), references to Belgian refugees between 1982 and the 1920 Report on the Work Undertaken ... appear to be limited and any reference rather cursory.

In Flanders, one publication that is typically overlooked is Van Isacker's 'Mijn Land in de Kering' (published in 1983 but covering a period up to 1980), even though focus lies more with the refugees as internally displace persons or when in the Netherlands. In Britain, one publication from about the same time, although published between Cahalan's 1977 and 1982 works, is 'Dear Old Blighty' by E.S. Turner in 1980, which contains about ten pages on Belgian refugees. 

Allow me to draw from the Dreaded W for once (edited though it is): Ernest Sackville (E. S.) Turner (1909-2006 - he passed away at the gentle age of 96) was an English freelance journalist and author who published twenty books, including Boys Will Be Boys (Michael Joseph, 1948), The Phoney War on the Home Front (St. Martin's Press, 1961), and What The Butler Saw (Penguin, 1962). He contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and Punch (the last one for more than 50 years).

The Independent has his obituary still online. There a reference is made to the process of 'Turnerisation': a softening technique to make everything easy and accessible. Another characteristic of Turner's works is "the fascination for the oddities in life, and the lure of the off-beat. You cannot dip into an E.S. Turner book for long without starting to collect fascinating trivia." (Miles Kington) 
True, "No matter where you open a page, you learn something you feel you should have known."(Kington again), and this could not be more true than for his 'Dear Old Blighty', not the most exciting of titles today, but maybe it was at the time. Preproduction and writing included, the contract must have been secured in 1979, 40 years ago.

The Dreaded W also has a description of E.S. Turner's oddities that might explain why he disappeared from the radar to a large extent: "In this period between the wars, he added voyages on liners flying under the flags of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy ... and did a motor tour in "swastika-hung" Germany in a Morgan three-wheeled automobile." And yet when "mention is made of political leanings—O'Hagan refers to Turner as "never a left-wing die hard" and as having a "rightwing persona (which was only partly a pose)". During a House of Commons debate on the foxhunting issue, Labour MP Tony Benn quoted from E.S. Turner's Roads to Ruin: A Shocking History of Social Progress (1950), the book where Turner exposed the upper class's "disgraceful rearguard action…" against reforms such as "abolition of child chimney sweeps and the repeal of laws under which convicted criminals could be hung, drawn and quartered."