Monday, 30 December 2013

Jeremy Paxman's Great Britain’s Great War and its Belgian refugees

In his 'Great Britain’s Great War', Jeremy Paxman - the man of peace - discussed “the state of the embattled nation, its press, its political, industrial and social life, its assumptions and priorities" (TheSpectator, 2 November 2013). Paxman also devoted quite some attention to Belgian refugees. 

Although most of the various pages related to atrocity stories, how they contributed to the war effort to lure the United States into the conflict (Remember Belgium posters) and to how the Bryce report was produced, the following section clearly was meant to cover the entire history of the Belgians in Britain.

"An estimated million Belgians had fled their country after the German invasion at the beginning of August 1914, about 100,000 of them to Britain. This was such an influx that at one point the Home Secretary thought he would have to build great camps to accommodate them, probably in the south of Ireland. In the short term, public buildings like Earls Court, Alexandra Palace and the Aldwych skating rink in London were turned into temporary refuges. Later, there was even an entire Belgian town for refugee munitions workers near Gateshead, named after the Queen of the Belgians - 'Elisabethville' - and patrolled by Belgian police. But most of the Belgian refugees were billeted in British towns and villages, where they were not necessarily very popular.”

However, more than a million of Belgians fled to The Netherlands alone. In total more than 1.5 million Belgians sought refuge in The Netherlands, France and Britain altogether. Admittedly many of that one million in The Netherlands soon returned or went on to stay in Britain or France. At the end of July 1917 a census was held among the Belgians in Britain and 172,298 were counted. 

Due to various reasons, trying to specify the overall number of Belgians that had been in Britain is mere guess work and estimations differ from 210,000 to 265,000. How long did one have to in Britain to be considered a Belgian refugee? Was a Belgian soldier convalescing in Britain for a longer period and employed in the meantime a Belgian in Britain too? And let’s not go into the difficulty of Belgian surnames, especially when they had been noted down by several people in a few years only. 

Anyway, not only is Paxman’s figure of 100,000 inaccurate, it is not even a close estimate, in the major difference between his figure and the effective number lies parts of the history of the Belgians in Britain.

Listing Earls Court and Alexandra Palace in parallel does not do credit to what was the real situation either. Many more temporary refuges had been established and Ally Pally soon became a camp for German POW’s. Earls Court had its own Belgian police force as well. As Paxman refers to Ice Rinks and Belgian villages as well, it might very well have included the site of the Pelabon factory, a Belgian munition factory in Richmond. The main factory hall later on became the Richmond Ice Rink.

A final note concerns the perception of reception. Although the relations between host society and guests of the nation varied widely, a more frequently used phrase to refer to Belgians in Britain during the First World War is that of ‘spoiled pets’, which most certainly also includes the initial wave of empathy that welcomed thousands of Belgians. Everyone wanted one in the house. And no one thought the conflict would last so long.
Paxman’s inclusion of an insular quote about these ‘Bloody Belgians’ is funny as well as not entirely accurate.

“Most people agree they are fat, lazy, greedy, amiable and inclined to take all the benefits heaped on them as a matter of course,' commented a vicar's daughter near Stroud, in Gloucestershire. But the fleeing Belgians had brought with them all manner of horror stories which bolstered Britain's moral cause to such an extent that some society ladies seem to have decided that a small collection of Belgian refugees was a positive adornment. 'How are your Belgian atrocities?' they asked one another.”

For a more intricate analysis of how the British host society welcomed and accommodated the Belgians during the Great War, as written by a British author, please see inter alia
Katherine Storr's marvellous "Excluded fromthe Record: Women, Refugees, and Relief, 1914-1929" (Peter Lang, 2009). It has close to 100 references to Belgian refugees.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Opgroeien in ballingschap, lezing Hasselt 13 januari 2014

Opgroeien in ballingschap: Kinderen van Belgische vluchtelingen in Engeland tijdens WO I: taal, literatuur en onderwijs

Maandag 13 januari 2014 om 14u
Vrijzinnig Ontmoetingscentrum
A. Rodenbachstraat 18
3500 Hasselt

Na de Duitse inval sloegen vele Belgen op de vlucht. Duizenden (250.000) trokken naar Engeland. De vluchtelingen in Groot-Brittannië stichtten werkelijk hele Belgische koloniën. Typerend zijn de katholieke gemeenschappen in een overwegend protestants land. Vele duizenden Belgische kinderen zullen hun eerste of plechtige communie doen in Groot-Brittannië, het Belgisch leven liep er gewoon verder. De gevluchte Belgen die niet naar het front moesten, zetten zich aan het werk in hun gastland.

Christophe Declercq, @belgianrefugees, is lecturer aan University College London, doctoraal onderzoeker aan het Imperial College London en lid van de vakgroep Engels aan de Universiteit Antwerpen.

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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Jonathan Coe - Expo 58

A few weeks ago Jonathan Coe published Expo 58, his tenth novel. The context of a delightful story is the world exhibition in Brussels in 1958, 'the first such event since the end of the Second World War'. Coe wonderfully positions the exhibition and the Atomium, an enormous metal structure, at the heart of the story, the symbol of the paradox of the 1950s when European nations were moving closer towards peaceful cooperation and political tensions between NATO and Soviet bloc countries.

"Built on an enormous site in Brussels, Expo 58 was three years in the making and was open to the public for six months. Members of countries from all over the world, from Mexico to Austria, the USA to the USSR, congregated at this commercial and cultural extravaganza, whose mood reflected a possibly naive but heartfelt wish that the future would be rosier than the recent past." (The Herald)

"The World's Fair of 1958, however, gives Coe the jump on the tricky subject of Britishness. The cold war is arctic. Europe is once again a battleground. As the capital of the European project, Brussels is in the frontline of the struggle for the soul of the west, and Belgium, as every schoolboy knows, is the pistol pointed at the heart of England. There's plenty at stake."  (The Guardian)

The Atomium was designed by Andre Waterkeyn, a Belgian engineer and director of Fabrimetal, who was born in Kingston in 1917. Several sources mention Wimbledon, but refers to Kingston. A sister of his was born in Kingston one year earlier. The Waterkeyn family did not reutnr to Belgium immediately and Waterkeyn was nearly four when they returned. In 1948, Andre participated in the London Olympics as a member of the Belgian hockey team. He died in Brussels in 2005.

A passage in Expo 58 "which Thomas reflects on his months in Brussels suggests that the World's Fair setting, with its fantastical representations of the real world, is intended to function like the ceremonial spaces you find in that largely abandoned tradition of comedy where reality is suspended and dreamlike transformations occur (Shakespeare's forests are the classic example, though Woody Allen's idealised European capitals might be a better fit). " (The Guardian)

In Expo 58, the main character's mother was a Belgian refugee from Leuven, who had fled as the Germans attacked the University city. The refugee aspect, notably marginal in the book, is hardly picked up on by the many reviews. And yet, it is the relation with a past the main character's mother never had in Belgium because she had fled to Britain, that is the backdrop for the romance on the one hand and several chapters in the book, not least of which 'Welkom Terug', indeed a Dutch title in an English novel. And all because of a Belgian refugee in Britain.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Belgian refugees and West Kent

A nice online piece on Belgian refugees in Kent during the First World War, with the invaluable Women's Library as its source.

"Over a million Belgians fled from the threat of the German armies during the early days of the war, amounting to almost one-sixth of the country’s population. Initially, most were received in Holland, France and Britain. In September 1914 Herbert Samuel, the President of the Local Government Board, announced to the House of Commons that the British Government had offered hospitality to the victims of the war and that arrangements were in place for their transport and accommodation. The War Refugees Committee, a voluntary body, arranged for them to be met at ports and stations, found temporary hostels for them and tried also to secure work for them. The arrival in Britain of some 250,000 Belgian refugees constitutes the largest refugee movement in British history."

More via Women's History

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 (, 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.