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.


  1. In Ireland, the Clogher Historical Society is leading efforts to trace the descendants of fifteen Belgian refugees who came to live in Monaghan town in October 1914. For more information on this story, visit YouTube

  2. Hi Adrienne, thanks for that. The Monaghan story had come to us in through Europeana already. Do you have the names of the people and did you check these via the Belgian national archives in Brussels already?