Thursday, 15 October 2015

Collection days on Belgian refugees: 15 November (BEL) and 21 November (UK)

Like in 1914, Europe is facing a dramatic refugee crisis right now. Although it is difficult to draw many parallels, the history of the Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War does bear some relevance to today. 

Huge numbers of Belgians fled their country at the outbreak of World War One. Younger and older people, men and women, the poor and the rich, townspeople as well as country folk, all thronged into roads, stations and ports with the same aim: to flee from the rapidly advancing German troops. By the end of the war, about a quarter of a million refugees will have lived in the United Kingdom for some time, with about 165,000 being resident for the entire period.

Amsab-ISG, the Institute of Social History (University of Ghent) is currently working on a project on Belgian refugees in Britain 1914-1918 that will lead into a virtual exhibition in February 2017 (in English and Dutch). In the meantime, the project aims to find the the untold stories of Belgian men, women and children who lived and worked in the UK during World War One but also of those British people who helped and accommodated them. 

The Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, and the Amsab Institute for Social History, Ghent (Belgium), have joined forces for a shared event at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp on Sunday 15 November, 1-5pm, whereby family histories can be recounted and iconographical material (pictures, drawings, lettes, diaries, leaflets...) can be digitised. Read more about it here.

The People's History Museum, Manchester, and the Amsab Institute for Social History, Ghent (Belgium), have joined forces for a similar event at the People's History Museum in Manchester on Saturday 21 November, 1-5pm. The programme will go online soon.

At either event, people who have Belgian ancestors or who have ancestors who hosted Belgian refugees during the war, are invited to come and recollect together with a few specialists on the subject. Through these collection days, Amsab ISH hopes to uncover more family stories from the time but also pictures, drawings and other significant material.

Other than Red Star Line Museum and the People's History Museum, the project has many more partners, in Belgium as well as in the UK, you can these here.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Belgian refugees and their largely forgotten history 100 years later: the continued myth

We only read this now, by a historical researcher, for The Times (4 May 2015, obtained through Nexis). We fully appreciate time constraints and word limitations but some of what is below is not entirely accurate or needs a tiny bit more context.

"On August 4 , 1914, Germany invaded the small sovereign state of Belgium, forcing Britain to enter the First World War in response. As the German Army forced its way across Belgium, attacking and occupying the villages and towns in its path, thousands of civilians fled for safety."
--> The death of nearly 6000 civilians, the majority of which was executed, formed a very powerful reason to seek refuge.
"These refugees found sanctuary in various northern European states, including the Netherlands and France. However, one of the largest intakes was in Great Britain, where official records from the time estimate that 250,000 Belgian civilians entered between 1914 and 1918, seeking temporary asylum."
--> 95% fled to NL-FR or GB. The final figure will be hard to pin down, because Belgian convalescent soldiers were also looked after by local refugee committees, as such defining an appropriate number is very difficult.

"Some of the refugees were offered places in purpose-built villages within the UK. These areas were considered to be Belgian territory and were run by the Belgian Government - they had their own schools, shops, hospitals, churches, police and even their own currency. Other Belgians were taken in by British families across the country."
--> Indeed: 'some'. This basically applies to the Belgians in Birtley only, not to the 250,000+ others.
"From the outset of the war, propaganda illustrated the plight of the noble Belgian civilians as victims of Prussian barbarism. As such, many Britons welcomed the refugees with open arms, considering it their moral and civil duty to do so. However, as the war dragged on these Belgian guests sometimes became financial burdens to the British families who had taken them in."
--> Not only propaganda. The number of newspaper mentions in British press of Belgian refugees far outstrips any reference to 'Remember Belgium', 'Poor Little Belgium' etc.
Few communities in Britain were unaffected by the huge intake of Belgian civilians in one way or another, yet for a long time these refugees were largely forgotten. This could be attributed to several reasons. 
--> True, but the reasons provided for are scarcely the ones that really mattered.

Many Britons felt a certain level of resentment against the refugees, especially those who lived in the purpose-built villages, enjoying luxuries like running water, and were keen for them to leave after the Armistice. 
--> Given that the purpose-built village of Birtley was about the only one, this cannot have a fed a nation-wide sentiment. On the contrary, some Belgians were happy to return as they had been living in rather shabby 'huts' in Glasgow, Sheffield and other places.
Furthermore, the memory of the thousands of Second World War refugees who arrived in Britain after 1945 soon eclipsed that of the Belgian refugees from World War One. 
--> The sheer comparison of both figures beggars belief. 

Of course, this is not to say that the Belgians left nothing behind or had no impact in Great Britain. Some families stayed in touch with the refugees they took in for years, and Agatha Christie is even said to have based the character detective of Hercule Poirot on a Belgian refugee she met in her home town of Torquay.
--> "Many families". There have been quite a lot of intermarriages, as well as out of wedlock children (perhaps another reason to keep quiet about things?)
--> Poirot: this was proven quite a while ago.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Belgian refugee scholars

With the PhD submitted and a viva in the pipeline over the next few weeks, many blog posts are being lined up, but for now we stick to what is appearing online, such as the latest publications that include a section on Belgian refugees.

The following section is taken from a recent publication by Irish on British, French and American universities in the period 1914-1925.

"The plight of Belgium had a double relevance to scholars in the first month of war. Its invasion was the casus belli for Britain, while the destruction of Louvain library outraged the learned world. As a result, there was an upsurge of academic solidarity with fellow academic victims of German invasion who had fled to Britain and France. Refugees began to arrive in Britain in October 1914. In September 1914, Cambridge University offered refuge to the entire Universities of Louvain and Liege, but the offer was politely declined in each case. Belgian professors, expert in many disciplines, settled at Cambridge, and courses were organized in Philosophy and Letters, Law and Engineering by November. The University Press also took over Le Museon, a quarterly publication which had been printed at Louvain. At Oxford, Grace Osler, wife of the Regius Professor of Medicine, William Osler, began organizing the settlement of Belgian scholars there and noted that 'we offered hospitality to one family and out of that has grown this business.'The University of Sheffield opened a hostel for Belgian refugees in November 1914, while Belgian academics also lectured at Glasgow University and elsewhere."

Tomás Irish (2015) The University at War, 1914-25: Britain, France, and the United States, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, p.22.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Two war poets on Belgian refugees

During the First World War, many people wrote about Belgians in Britain. Two renowned war poets mentioned them in their letters.

Julian Grenfell wrote:
"We’ve been assisting at this battle for the last week, but have been no nearer the fighting than getting shelled a bit. I’m writing this in a Belgian farm, where we are billeted. It’s full of refugees–old men and old women and young children. You see them all day streaming down the roads, carrying everything they can in their arms, and with little carts drawn by dogs; it is too pathetic."

Whereas the even more iconic Rupert Brooke, who wrote his war poems based on the only action he saw in and around Antwerp, included the following in a letter:
"The march through those deserted suburbs, mile on mile, with never a living being, except one rather ferocious looking sailor, stealing sulkily along. The sky lit by burning villages and houses; and alter a bit we got to the land by the river, where the Belgians had let all the petrol out of the tanks and fired it. Rivers and seas of flame leaping up hundreds of feet, crowned by black smoke that covered the entire heavens. It lit up horses wrecked by shells, dead horses, demolished railway stations, engines that had been taken up with their lines and signals, and all twisted round and pulled out, as a bad child spoils a toy. And there we joined the refugees, with all their goods on barrows and carts, in a double line, moving forwards about a hundred yards an hour, white and drawn and beyond emotion. The glare was like hell. We passed on, out of that, across a pontoon bridge, built on boats. Two German spies tried to blow it up while we were on it. They were caught and shot. We went on through the dark. The refugees and motor-buses and transport and Belgian troops grew thicker. After about a thousand years it was dawn."

And he continued:
"After a bit we got to the land by the river, where the Belgians had let all the petrol out of the tanks and tired it. Rivers and seas of flame leaping up hundreds of feet, crowned by black smoke that covered the entire heavens. It lit up houses wrecked by shells, dead horses, demolished railway stations, engines that had been taken up with their lines and signals, and all twisted round and pulled out, as a bad child spoils a toy ... [Hoboken] was like Hell, a Dantesque Hell, terrible. But there - and later - I saw what was a truer hell. I hundreds of thousands of refugees, their goods on barrows and hand-carts and perambulators and wagons, moving with infinite slowness out into the night, two unending lines of them, the old men mostly weeping, the women with hard white drawn faces, the children playing or crying or sleeping. That's what Belgium is now: the country where three civilians have been killed to every one soldier ... It's queer to think one has been a witness of one of the greatest crimes of history. Has ever nation been treated like that? And how can such a stain be wiped out?"

More information about Grenfell, Brooke, Homer and the war can be found here.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Literary representation of the Belgians in Britain

Many publications on Belgium appeared at the time, but not that many included references to the refugees in Britain. In September 1916, had Mr. Britling Sees it Through published, arguably the finest literary representation of the Belgians in Britain. The following is an extract from the book, which you can find in its entirety through You can find an appreciation of the work on

§ 7

The battle of the Marne passed into the battle of the Aisne, and then the long lines of the struggle streamed north-westward until the British were back in Belgium failing to clutch Menin and then defending Ypres. The elation of September followed the bedazzlement and dismay of August into the chapter of forgotten moods; and Mr. Britling's sense of the magnitude, the weight and duration of this war beyond all wars, increased steadily. The feel of it was less and less a feeling of crisis and more and more a feeling of new conditions. It wasn't as it had seemed at first, the end of one human phase and the beginning of another; it was in itself a phase. It was a new way of living. And still he could find no real point of contact for himself with it all except the point of his pen. Only at his writing-desk, and more particularly at night, were the great presences of the conflict his. Yet he was always desiring some more personal and physical participation.
Hugh came along one day in October in an ill-fitting uniform, looking already coarser in fibre and with a nose scorched red by the autumnal sun. He said the life was rough, but it made him feel extraordinarily well; perhaps man was made to toil until he dropped asleep from exhaustion, to fast for ten or twelve hours and then eat like a wolf. He was acquiring a taste for Woodbine cigarettes, and a heady variety of mineral waters called Monsters. He feared promotion; he felt he could never take the high line with other human beings demanded of a corporal. He was still trying to read a little chemistry and crystallography, but it didn't "go with the life." In the scanty leisure of a recruit in training it was more agreeable to lie about and write doggerel verses and draw caricatures of the men in one's platoon. Invited to choose what he liked by his family, he demanded a large tuckbox such as he used to have at school, only "much larger," and a big tin of insect powder. It must be able to kill ticks....
When he had gone, the craving for a personal share in the nation's physical exertions became overpowering in Mr. Britling. He wanted, he felt, to "get his skin into it." He had decided that the volunteer movement was a hopeless one. The War Office, after a stout resistance to any volunteer movement at all, decided to recognise it in such a manner as to make it ridiculous. The volunteers were to have no officers and no uniforms that could be remotely mistaken for those of the regulars, so that in the event of an invasion the Germans would be able to tell what they had to deal with miles away. Wilkins found his conception of a whole nation, all enrolled, all listed and badged according to capacity, his dream of every one falling into place in one great voluntary national effort, treated as the childish dreaming of that most ignorant of all human types, a "novelist." Punch was delicately funny about him; he was represented as wearing a preposterous cocked hat of his own design, designing cocked hats for every one. Wilkins was told to "shut up" in a multitude of anonymous letters, and publicly and privately to "leave things to Kitchener." To bellow in loud clear tones "leave things to Kitchener," and to depart for the theatre or the river or an automobile tour, was felt very generally at that time to be the proper conduct for a patriot. There was a very general persuasion that to become a volunteer when one ought to be just modestly doing nothing at all, was in some obscure way a form of disloyalty....
So Mr. Britling was out of conceit with volunteering, and instead he went and was duly sworn and entrusted with the badge of a special constable. The duties of a special constable were chiefly not to understand what was going on in the military sphere, and to do what he was told in the way of watching and warding conceivably vulnerable points. He had also to be available in the event of civil disorder. Mr. Britling was provided with a truncheon and sent out to guard various culverts, bridges, and fords in the hilly country to the north-westward of Matching's Easy. It was never very clear to him what he would do if he found a motor-car full of armed enemies engaged in undermining a culvert, or treacherously deepening some strategic ford. He supposed he would either engage them in conversation, or hit them with his truncheon, or perhaps do both things simultaneously. But as he really did not believe for a moment that any human being was likely to tamper with the telegraphs, telephones, ways and appliances committed to his care, his uncertainty did not trouble him very much. He prowled the lonely lanes and paths in the darkness, and became better acquainted with a multitude of intriguing little cries and noises that came from the hedges and coverts at night. One night he rescued a young leveret from a stoat, who seemed more than half inclined to give him battle for its prey until he cowed and defeated it with the glare of his electric torch....
As he prowled the countryside under the great hemisphere of Essex sky, or leant against fences or sat drowsily upon gates or sheltered from wind and rain under ricks or sheds, he had much time for meditation, and his thoughts went down and down below his first surface impressions of the war. He thought no longer of the rights and wrongs of this particular conflict but of the underlying forces in mankind that made war possible; he planned no more ingenious treaties and conventions between the nations, and instead he faced the deeper riddles of essential evil and of conceivable changes in the heart of man. And the rain assailed him and thorns tore him, and the soaked soft meadows bogged and betrayed his wandering feet, and the little underworld of the hedges and ditches hissed and squealed in the darkness and pursued and fled, and devoured or were slain.
And one night in April he was perplexed by a commotion among the pheasants and a barking of distant dogs, and then to his great astonishment he heard noises like a distant firework display and saw something like a phantom yellowish fountain-pen in the sky far away to the east lit intermittently by a quivering search-light and going very swiftly. And after he had rubbed his eyes and looked again, he realised that he was looking at a Zeppelin—a Zeppelin flying Londonward over Essex.
And all that night was wonder....

§ 8

While Mr. Britling was trying to find his duty in the routine of a special constable, Mrs. Britling set to work with great energy to attend various classes and qualify herself for Red Cross work. And early in October came the great drive of the Germans towards Antwerp and the sea, the great drive that was apparently designed to reach Calais, and which swept before it multitudes of Flemish refugees. There was an exodus of all classes from Antwerp into Holland and England, and then a huge process of depopulation in Flanders and the Pas de Calais. This flood came to the eastern and southern parts of England and particularly to London, and there hastily improvised organisations distributed it to a number of local committees, each of which took a share of the refugees, hired and furnished unoccupied houses for the use of the penniless, and assisted those who had means into comfortable quarters. The Matching's Easy committee found itself with accommodation for sixty people, and with a miscellaneous bag of thirty individuals entrusted to its care, who had been part of the load of a little pirate steam-boat from Ostend. There were two Flemish peasant families, and the rest were more or less middle-class refugees from Antwerp. They were brought from the station to the Tithe barn at Claverings, and there distributed, under the personal supervision of Lady Homartyn and her agent, among those who were prepared for their entertainment. There was something like competition among the would-be hosts; everybody was glad of the chance of "doing something," and anxious to show these Belgians what England thought of their plucky little country. Mr. Britling was proud to lead off a Mr. Van der Pant, a neat little bearded man in a black tail-coat, a black bowler hat, and a knitted muffler, with a large rucksack and a conspicuously foreign-looking bicycle, to the hospitalities of Dower House. Mr. Van der Pant had escaped from Antwerp at the eleventh hour, he had caught a severe cold and, it would seem, lost his wife and family in the process; he had much to tell Mr. Britling, and in his zeal to tell it he did not at once discover that though Mr. Britling knew French quite well he did not know it very rapidly. The dinner that night at the Dower House marked a distinct fresh step in the approach of the Great War to the old habits and securities of Matching's Easy. The war had indeed filled every one's mind to the exclusion of all other topics since its very beginning; it had carried off Herr Heinrich to Germany, Teddy to London, and Hugh to Colchester, it had put a special brassard round Mr. Britling's arm and carried him out into the night, given Mrs. Britling several certificates, and interrupted the frequent visits and gossip of Mr. Lawrence Carmine; but so far it had not established a direct contact between the life of Matching's Easy and the grim business of shot, shell, and bayonet at the front. But now here was the Dower House accomplishing wonderful idioms in Anglo-French, and an animated guest telling them—sometimes one understood clearly and sometimes the meaning was clouded—of men blown to pieces under his eyes, of fragments of human beings lying about in the streets; there was trouble over the expression omoplate d'une femme, until one of the youngsters got the dictionary and found out it was the shoulder-blade of a woman; of pools of blood—everywhere—and of flight in the darkness.
Mr. Van der Pant had been in charge of the dynamos at the Antwerp Power Station, he had been keeping the electrified wires in the entanglements "alive," and he had stuck to his post until the German high explosives had shattered his wires and rendered his dynamos useless. He gave vivid little pictures of the noises of the bombardment, of the dead lying casually in the open spaces, of the failure of the German guns to hit the bridge of boats across which the bulk of the defenders and refugees escaped. He produced a little tourist's map of the city of Antwerp, and dotted at it with a pencil-case. "The—what do you call?—obus, ah, shells! fell, so and so and so." Across here he had fled on his bécane, and along here and here. He had carried off his rifle, and hid it with the rifles of various other Belgians between floor and ceiling of a house in Zeebrugge. He had found the pirate steamer in the harbour, its captain resolved to extract the uttermost fare out of every refugee he took to London. When they were all aboard and started they found there was no food except the hard ration biscuits of some Belgian soldiers. They had portioned this out like shipwrecked people on a raft.... The mer had been calme; thank Heaven! All night they had been pumping. He had helped with the pumps. But Mr. Van der Pant hoped still to get a reckoning with the captain of that ship.
Mr. Van der Pant had had shots at various Zeppelins. When the Zeppelins came to Antwerp everybody turned out on the roofs and shot at them. He was contemptuous of Zeppelins. He made derisive gestures to express his opinion of them. They could do nothing unless they came low, and if they came low you could hit them. One which ventured down had been riddled; it had had to drop all its bombs—luckily they fell in an open field—in order to make its lame escape. It was all nonsense to say, as the English papers did, that they took part in the final bombardment. Not a Zeppelin.... So he talked, and the Britling family listened and understood as much as they could, and replied and questioned in Anglo-French. Here was a man who but a few days ago had been steering his bicycle in the streets of Antwerp to avoid shell craters, pools of blood, and the torn-off arms and shoulder-blades of women. He had seen houses flaring, set afire by incendiary bombs, and once at a corner he had been knocked off his bicycle by the pouff of a bursting shell.... Not only were these things in the same world with us, they were sitting at our table.
He told one grim story of an invalid woman unable to move, lying in bed in her appartement, and of how her husband went out on the balcony to look at the Zeppelin. There was a great noise of shooting. Ever and again he would put his head back into the room and tell her things, and then after a time he was silent and looked in no more. She called to him, and called again. Becoming frightened, she raised herself by a great effort and peered through the glass. At first she was too puzzled to understand what had happened. He was hanging over the front of the balcony, with his head twisted oddly. Twisted and shattered. He had been killed by shrapnel fired from the outer fortifications....
These are the things that happen in histories and stories. They do not happen at Matching's Easy....
Mr. Van der Pant did not seem to be angry with the Germans. But he manifestly regarded them as people to be killed. He denounced nothing that they had done; he related. They were just an evil accident that had happened to Belgium and mankind. They had to be destroyed. He gave Mr. Britling an extraordinary persuasion that knives were being sharpened in every cellar in Brussels and Antwerp against the day of inevitable retreat, of a resolution to exterminate the invader that was far too deep to be vindictive.... And the man was most amazingly unconquered. Mr. Britling perceived the label on his habitual dinner wine with a slight embarrassment. "Do you care," he asked, "to drink a German wine? This is Berncasteler from the Moselle." Mr. Van der Pant reflected. "But it is a good wine," he said. "After the peace it will be Belgian.... Yes, if we are to be safe in the future from such a war as this, we must have our boundaries right up to the Rhine."
So he sat and talked, flushed and, as it were, elated by the vividness of all that he had undergone. He had no trace of tragic quality, no hint of subjugation. But for his costume and his trimmed beard and his language he might have been a Dubliner or a Cockney.
He was astonishingly cut off from all his belongings. His house in Antwerp was abandoned to the invader; valuables and cherished objects very skilfully buried in the garden; he had no change of clothing except what the rucksack held. His only footwear were the boots he came in. He could not get on any of the slippers in the house, they were all too small for him, until suddenly Mrs. Britling bethought herself of Herr Heinrich's pair, still left unpacked upstairs. She produced them, and they fitted exactly. It seemed only poetical justice, a foretaste of national compensations, to annex them to Belgium forthwith....
Also it became manifest that Mr. Van der Pant was cut off from all his family. And suddenly he became briskly critical of the English way of doing things. His wife and child had preceded him to England, crossing by Ostend and Folkestone a fortnight ago; her parents had come in August; both groups had been seized upon by improvised British organisations and very thoroughly and completely lost. He had written to the Belgian Embassy and they had referred him to a committee in London, and the committee had begun its services by discovering a Madame Van der Pant hitherto unknown to him at Camberwell, and displaying a certain suspicion and hostility when he said she would not do. There had been some futile telegrams. "What," asked Mr. Van der Pant, "ought one to do?"
Mr. Britling temporised by saying he would "make inquiries," and put Mr. Van der Pant off for two days. Then he decided to go up to London with him and "make inquiries on the spot." Mr. Van der Pant did not discover his family, but Mr. Britling discovered the profound truth of a comment of Herr Heinrich's which he had hitherto considered utterly trivial, but which had nevertheless stuck in his memory. "The English," Herr Heinrich had said, "do not understanding indexing. It is the root of all good organisation."
Finally, Mr. Van der Pant adopted the irregular course of asking every Belgian he met if they had seen any one from his district in Antwerp, if they had heard of the name of "Van der Pant," if they had encountered So-and-so or So-and-so. And by obstinacy and good fortune he really got on to the track of Madame Van der Pant; she had been carried off into Kent, and a day later the Dower House was the scene of a happy reunion. Madame was a slender lady, dressed well and plainly, with a Belgian common sense and a Catholic reserve, and André was like a child of wax, delicate and charming and unsubstantial. It seemed incredible that he could ever grow into anything so buoyant and incessant as his father. The Britling boys had to be warned not to damage him. A sitting-room was handed over to the Belgians for their private use, and for a time the two families settled into the Dower House side by side. Anglo-French became the table language of the household. It hampered Mr. Britling very considerably. And both families set themselves to much unrecorded observation, much unspoken mutual criticism, and the exercise of great patience. It was tiresome for the English to be tied to a language that crippled all spontaneous talk; these linguistic gymnastics were fun to begin with, but soon they became very troublesome; and the Belgians suspected sensibilities in their hosts and a vast unwritten code of etiquette that did not exist; at first they were always waiting, as it were, to be invited or told or included; they seemed always deferentially backing out from intrusions. Moreover, they would not at first reveal what food they liked or what they didn't like, or whether they wanted more or less.... But these difficulties were soon smoothed away, they Anglicised quickly and cleverly. André grew bold and cheerful, and lost his first distrust of his rather older English playmates. Every day at lunch he produced a new, carefully prepared piece of English, though for some time he retained a marked preference for "Good morning, Saire," and "Thank you very mush," over all other locutions, and fell back upon them on all possible and many impossible occasions. And he could do some sleight-of-hand tricks with remarkable skill and humour, and fold paper with quite astonishing results. Meanwhile Mr. Van der Pant sought temporary employment in England, went for long rides upon his bicycle, exchanged views with Mr. Britling upon a variety of subjects, and became a wonderful player of hockey.
He played hockey with an extraordinary zest and nimbleness. Always he played in the tail coat, and the knitted muffler was never relinquished; he treated the game entirely as an occasion for quick tricks and personal agility; he bounded about the field like a kitten, he pirouetted suddenly, he leapt into the air and came down in new directions; his fresh-coloured face was alive with delight, the coat tails and the muffler trailed and swished about breathlessly behind his agility. He never passed to other players; he never realised his appointed place in the game; he sought simply to make himself a leaping screen about the ball as he drove it towards the goal. But André he would not permit to play at all, and Madame played like a lady, like a Madonna, like a saint carrying the instrument of her martyrdom. The game and its enthusiasms flowed round her and receded from her; she remained quite valiant but tolerant, restrained; doing her best to do the extraordinary things required of her, but essentially a being of passive dignities, living chiefly for them; Letty careering by her, keen and swift, was like a creature of a different species....
Mr. Britling cerebrated abundantly about these contrasts.
"What has been blown in among us by these German shells," he said, "is essentially a Catholic family. Blown clean out of its setting.... We who are really—Neo-Europeans....
"At first you imagine there is nothing separating us but language. Presently you find that language is the least of our separations. These people are people living upon fundamentally different ideas from ours, ideas far more definite and complete than ours. You imagine that home in Antwerp as something much more rounded off, much more closed in, a cell, a real social unit, a different thing altogether from this place of meeting. Our boys play cheerfully with all comers; little André hasn't learnt to play with any outside children at all. We must seem incredibly open to these Van der Pants. A house without sides.... Last Sunday I could not find out the names of the two girls who came on bicycles and played so well. They came with Kitty Westropp. And Van der Pant wanted to know how they were related to us. Or how was it they came?...
"Look at Madame. She's built on a fundamentally different plan from any of our womenkind here. Tennis, the bicycle, co-education, the two-step, the higher education of women.... Say these things over to yourself, and think of her. It's like talking of a nun in riding breeches. She's a specialised woman, specialising in womanhood, her sphere is the home. Soft, trailing, draping skirts, slow movements, a veiled face; for no Oriental veil could be more effectual than her beautiful Catholic quiet. Catholicism invented the invisible purdah. She is far more akin to that sweet little Indian lady with the wonderful robes whom Carmine brought over with her tall husband last summer, than she is to Letty or Cissie. She, too, undertook to play hockey. And played it very much as Madame Van der Pant played it....
"The more I see of our hockey," said Mr. Britling, "the more wonderful it seems to me as a touchstone of character and culture and breeding...."
Mr. Manning, to whom he was delivering this discourse, switched him on to a new track by asking what he meant by "Neo-European."
"It's a bad phrase," said Mr. Britling. "I'll withdraw it. Let me try and state exactly what I have in mind. I mean something that is coming up in America and here and the Scandinavian countries and Russia, a new culture, an escape from the Levantine religion and the Catholic culture that came to us from the Mediterranean. Let me drop Neo-European; let me say Northern. We are Northerners. The key, the heart, the nucleus and essence of every culture is its conception of the relations of men and women; and this new culture tends to diminish the specialisation of women as women, to let them out from the cell of the home into common citizenship with men. It's a new culture, still in process of development, which will make men more social and co-operative and women bolder, swifter, more responsible and less cloistered. It minimises instead of exaggerating the importance of sex....
"And," said Mr. Britling, in very much the tones in which a preacher might say "Sixthly," "it is just all this Northern tendency that this world struggle is going to release. This war is pounding through Europe, smashing up homes, dispersing and mixing homes, setting Madame Van der Pant playing hockey, and André climbing trees with my young ruffians; it is killing young men by the million, altering the proportions of the sexes for a generation, bringing women into business and office and industry, destroying the accumulated wealth that kept so many of them in refined idleness, flooding the world with strange doubts and novel ideas...."

§ 9

But the conflict of manners and customs that followed the invasion of the English villages by French and Belgian refugees did not always present the immigrants as Catholics and the hosts as "Neo-European." In the case of Mr. Dimple it was the other way round. He met Mr. Britling in Claverings park and told him his troubles....
"Of course," he said, "we have to do our Utmost for Brave Little Belgium. I would be the last to complain of any little inconvenience one may experience in doing that. Still, I must confess I think you and dear Mrs. Britling are fortunate, exceptionally fortunate, in the Belgians you have got. My guests—it's unfortunate— the man is some sort of journalist and quite—oh! much too much—an Atheist. An open positive one. Not simply Honest Doubt. I'm quite prepared for honest doubt nowadays. You and I have no quarrel over that. But he is aggressive. He makes remarks about miracles, quite derogatory remarks, and not always in French. Sometimes he almost speaks English. And in front of my sister. And he goes out, he says, looking for a Café. He never finds a Café, but he certainly finds every public house within a radius of miles. And he comes back smelling dreadfully of beer. When I drop a Little Hint, he blames the beer. He says it is not good beer—our good Essex beer! He doesn't understand any of our simple ways. He's sophisticated. The girls about here wear Belgian flags—and air their little bits of French. And he takes it as an encouragement. Only yesterday there was a scene. It seems he tried to kiss the Hickson girl at the inn—Maudie.... And his wife; a great big slow woman—in every way she is—Ample; it's dreadful even to seem to criticise, but I do so wish she would not see fit to sit down and nourish her baby in my poor old bachelor drawing-room—often at the most unseasonable times. And—so lavishly...."
Mr. Britling attempted consolations.
"But anyhow," said Mr. Dimple, "I'm better off than poor dear Mrs. Bynne. She secured two milliners. She insisted upon them. And their clothes were certainly beautifully made—even my poor old unworldly eye could tell that. And she thought two milliners would be so useful with a large family like hers. They certainly said they were milliners. But it seems—I don't know what we shall do about them.... My dear Mr. Britling, those young women are anything but milliners—anything but milliners...."
A faint gleam of amusement was only too perceptible through the good man's horror.
"Sirens, my dear Mr. Britling. Sirens. By profession."...

§ 10

October passed into November, and day by day Mr. Britling was forced to apprehend new aspects of the war, to think and rethink the war, to have his first conclusions checked and tested, twisted askew, replaced. His thoughts went far and wide and deeper—until all his earlier writing seemed painfully shallow to him, seemed a mere automatic response of obvious comments to the stimulus of the war's surprise. As his ideas became subtler and profounder, they became more difficult to express; he talked less; he became abstracted and irritable at table. To two people in particular Mr. Britling found his real ideas inexpressible, to Mr. Direck and to Mr. Van der Pant.
Each of these gentlemen brought with him the implication or the intimation of a critical attitude towards England. It was all very well for Mr. Britling himself to be critical of England; that is an Englishman's privilege. To hear Mr. Van der Pant questioning British efficiency or to suspect Mr. Direck of high, thin American superiorities to war, was almost worse than to hear Mrs. Harrowdean saying hostile things about Edith. It roused an even acuter protective emotion.
In the case of Mr. Van der Pant matters were complicated by the difficulty of the language, which made anything but the crudest statements subject to incalculable misconception.
Mr. Van der Pant had not the extreme tactfulness of his so typically Catholic wife; he made it only too plain that he thought the British postal and telegraph service slow and slack, and the management of the Great Eastern branch lines wasteful and inefficient. He said the workmen in the fields and the workmen he saw upon some cottages near the junction worked slowlier and with less interest than he had ever seen any workman display in all his life before. He marvelled that Mr. Britling lit his house with acetylene and not electric light. He thought fresh eggs were insanely dear, and his opinion of Matching's Easy pig-keeping was uncomplimentary. The roads, he said, were not a means of getting from place to place, they were a dédale; he drew derisive maps with his finger on the table-cloth of the lane system about the Dower House. He was astonished that there was no Café in Matching's Easy; he declared that the "public house" to which he went with considerable expectation was no public house at all; it was just a sly place for drinking beer.... All these were things Mr. Britling might have remarked himself; from a Belgian refugee he found them intolerable.
He set himself to explain to Mr. Van der Pant firstly that these things did not matter in the slightest degree, the national attention, the national interest ran in other directions; and secondly that they were, as a matter of fact and on the whole, merits slightly disguised. He produced a pleasant theory that England is really not the Englishman's field, it is his breeding place, his resting place, a place not for efficiency but good humour. If Mr. Van der Pant were to make inquiries he would find there was scarcely a home in Matching's Easy that had not sent some energetic representative out of England to become one of the English of the world. England was the last place in which English energy was spent. These hedges, these dilatory roads were full of associations. There was a road that turned aside near Market Saffron to avoid Turk's wood; it had been called Turk's wood first in the fourteenth century after a man of that name. He quoted Chesterton's happy verses to justify these winding lanes.
"The road turned first towards the left,
Where Perkin's quarry made the cleft;
The path turned next towards the right,
Because the mastiff used to bite...."
And again:
"And I should say they wound about
To find the town of Roundabout,
The merry town of Roundabout
That makes the world go round."
If our easy-going ways hampered a hard efficiency, they did at least develop humour and humanity. Our diplomacy at any rate had not failed us....
He did not believe a word of this stuff. His deep irrational love for England made him say these things.... For years he had been getting himself into hot water because he had been writing and hinting just such criticisms as Mr. Van der Pant expressed so bluntly.... But he wasn't going to accept foreign help in dissecting his mother....
And another curious effect that Mr. Van der Pant had upon Mr. Britling was to produce an obstinate confidence about the war and the nearness of the German collapse. He would promise Mr. Van der Pant that he should be back in Antwerp before May; that the Germans would be over the Rhine by July. He knew perfectly well that his ignorance of all the military conditions was unqualified, but still he could not restrain himself from this kind of thing so soon as he began to speak Entente Cordiale—Anglo-French, that is to say. Something in his relationship to Mr. Van der Pant obliged him to be acutely and absurdly the protecting British.... At times he felt like a conscious bankrupt talking off the hour of disclosure. But indeed all that Mr. Britling was trying to say against the difficulties of a strange language and an alien temperament, was that the honour of England would never be cleared until Belgium was restored and avenged....
While Mr. Britling was patrolling unimportant roads and entertaining Mr. Van der Pant with discourses upon the nearness of victory and the subtle estimableness of all that was indolent, wasteful and evasive in English life, the war was passing from its first swift phases into a slower, grimmer struggle. The German retreat ended at the Aisne, and the long outflanking manoeuvres of both hosts towards the Channel began. The English attempts to assist Belgium in October came too late for the preservation of Antwerp, and after a long and complicated struggle in Flanders the British failed to outflank the German right, lost Ghent, Menin and the Belgian coast, but held Ypres and beat back every attempt of the enemy to reach Dunkirk and Calais. Meanwhile the smaller German colonies and islands were falling to the navy, the Australian battleship Sydney smashed the Emden at Cocos Island, and the British naval disaster of Coronel was wiped out by the battle of the Falklands. The Russians were victorious upon their left and took Lemberg, and after some vicissitudes of fortune advanced to Przemysl, occupying the larger part of Galicia; but the disaster of Tannenberg had broken their progress in East Prussia, and the Germans were pressing towards Warsaw. Turkey had joined the war, and suffered enormous losses in the Caucasus. The Dardanelles had been shelled for the first time, and the British were at Basra on the Euphrates.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

calendar of events 2015 - updated 12 March

February 2015
17 - exhibition Valentines Mansion opens (Redbridge). This runs until 31 May 2015.

2 - Belgian refugees in Twickenham in the First World War. Talk by Helen Baker.

13 - In Flanders Fields Museum supports exhibition in the education museum of Ypres on education in wartime for Belgian refugees
14 - Conference on Belgian refugees (focus lies with NL and UK) at 50 years Familiekunde Vlaanderen at Felix Archives, Antwerp
19 - Forced and Coerced Labour: Comparing Colonial Spaces and Global Conflicts, one day conference at Ceges/Soma (Brussels).

2 - Belgische vluchtelingen in het Verenigd Koninkrijk gedurende de eerste wereldoorlog, talk at Familiekunde Aalst (Erembodegem)

31 May - exhibition at Valentines Mansion ends (Redbridge)
21 July, 7pm, Amgueddfa Ceredigion/Ceredigion Museum, Terrace Rd, Aberystwyth

Belgians and Leeds, a story

In 1992, Family Tree magazine, the July issue, printed an article by Linda Williams, then Carshalton, Surrey, in which the author was looking for people with information on Belgian refugees in Britain. You can find the article here.

Linda Williams own family story triggered her interest. The family of her grandmother were called Schippers and they spent the entire war in Leeds. Mrs. Williams recorded a figure of 1600 Belgians in Leeds. As a token of appreciation, the Belgians presented the city with a silver tea and coffee set before they were repatriated in 1919. Linda's grandmother returned to Belgium and used her English to cheer the British troops billeted in her village in 1944 and eventually her elder daughter married one of them, Leslie White, the father of Linda.

More about Belgians in Leeds via the Wartime Leeds project or the Legacies of War project.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Belgische vluchtelingen in Engeland - op zoek naar familiegegevens

Mensen uit Vlaanderen zijn vaak op zoek naar archieven, databanken en onderzoekers die hen kunnen verder helpen in het vinden van verdere gegevens uit deze of gene familiegeschiedenis waarin Belgische vluchtelingen in het Verenigd Koninkrijk centraal staan. 

Echter, er bestaat geen enkele centrale digitale databank met alle verblijfsgegevens. Alle materiaal verzamelen op een plek is financieel een utopie. Je hebt het immers over de hele burgerlijke dienst van een stad de grootte van Gent.   

Relevante informatie vinden is dan ook een zoektocht naar een naald in een hooiberg: erg tijdrovend, en zoals men zegt in het Engels 'off-putting', demotiverend. Echter, de zoektocht zelf zal je langs verschillende archieven en bibliotheken sturen, alsook instellingen. Mensen die er werken maar ook mensen die daar opzoekingen verrichten, vinden vaak een gemeenschappelijke noemer. De zoektocht kan erg verrijkend zijn, ondanks het feit dat je zelf niet veel relevante informatie weet op te diepen. De ene week worden wij gecontacteerd door een iemand, de andere week zijn het meer dan een verzoek per dag.

De meeste mensen hebben een antwoord gekregen hoe verder tewerk te gaan. We merken aan het lage aantal antwoorden op onze mails, dat mensen vooral mirakels verwachten en teleurgesteld zijn. Nogmaals, op dit moment beschikt geen enkel individu alle burgerlijke gegevens voor een groep vluchtelingen even groot als Gent, York of Exeter.

Daarbij komt dan dat archiefmateriaal ivm de Belgen in Groot-Brittannië tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog vaak
  • verspreid is over verschillende instellingen in Groot-Brittannië en België (sommige archieven belandden zelfs in de VS, zoals in de Hoover Archives)
  •  nog niet goed ontsloten zijn (zoals tienduizenden registratiekaarten in het Rijksarchief in Brussel, pas ontdekt in november 2012
  • of zelfs vernietigd,
o   ofwel bewust na de afloop van de oorlog (talloze plaatselijke Belgian Refugees Committees verstuurden materiaal naar het Imperial War Museum, maar nog meer deden dat niet, omdat totnutoe geen enkele van deze archieven komen bovendrijven, is de kans groot dat ze gewoon bij het oud papier werden gezet)
o   ofwel als onderdeel van bewuste beschietingen of brandhaarden in mei 1940 (zo gingen vele passagierslijsten van gewonde soldaten die van Frankrijk naar Engeland werden gebracht, verloren).

Dat maakt een zoektocht naar familiemateriaal niet makkelijk, maar er zijn manieren om hiermee om te gaan.

Er zijn op dit moment drie verzamelingen registratiekaarten en persoonlijke gegevens:
  • een in de National Archives in Londen, in Kew, vooral in de serie MH 8
o   een onderdeel hiervan zijn tienduizenden steekkaarten; die zijn alfabetisch geordend, maar erg vaak zijn mensen die naar Engeland vluchtten vergezeld geweest door anderen, die staan dan mee op de fiche; zo staat er bv een Vermeiren bij Peeters
  • Hetzelfde Rijksarchief heeft nog een derde verzameling, maar die is tot nader order niet alfabetisch geordend en ook niet toegankelijk voor het publiek

Met betrekking tot passagierslijsten, ga vooral niet op Ancestry, je er nauwelijks informatie over Belgische vluchtelingen en het is daarbij veel te duur.

Een combinatie van gegevens in familiebezit en informatie verkregen uit voornoemde steekkaarten, kan ervoor zorgen dat je meer lokaal kan gaan werken.
Voor een bescheiden bijdrage heb je toegang tot het online archief van lokale kranten via het British Library Newspaper Archive. De zoekterm ‘Belgian refugees’ voor de oorlogsjaren geeft je nu al meer dan 20000 resultaten. En de collectie groeit elke dag!
Erg vaak worden in plaatselijke kranten ook namen van vluchtelingen vermeld, zeker als het gepaard gaat met aankomst, een geboorte, huwelijk of overlijden.

Voor die laatste drie kan je ook terecht bij, daar krijg je die burgelijke stand-informatie op een eerste niveau. Met die gegevens kan je terecht voor een kopij van het oorspronkelijke document. Alle info staat op freebmd.

Namen opzoeken in een gedigitaliseerde krant kan ook in de Koninklijke-Bibliotheek van Belgie in Brussel, daar heb je toegang tot L’Independance Belge, een Belgische krant die in Engeland verscheen. Toegang tot De Stem Uit Belgie, nog waardevoller voor dit soort werk, zit eraan te komen. Digitalisering is nog bezig.

Als je een locatie hebt, moet je sowieso op zoek naar een plaatselijk archief. De lokale bib kan je er misschien best naar verwijzen. Een voorbeelden is

Allicht het meest complete archief voor onderzoek naar de Belgische vluchtelingen in Engeland tijdens WO1 vind je in het Imperial War Museum, de sectie BEL van de collectie Women Work Collection is erg uitgebreid. Echter, vele namen ga je er niet in terugvinden. Je kan ook niet op naam zoeken. Je kan eventueel wel op locatie zoeken via hun

In Brussel vind je dan weer bijkomende informatie via het CEGES / SOMA, waaronder dit fraaie boekje, en het Moskou-archief in het Legermuseum.

Nu we het hier over Imperial War Museum en CEGES/ SOMA hebben: beiden worden in hun voortbestaan bedreigd, uw digitale handtekening kan mee helpen te overleven. Klik op de link om naar de resp. online petitie te gaan.

Om af te ronden, een vreemd toetje: het klinkt gek, maar wij hebben het al twee keer meegemaakt dat iemand op zoek was naar nazaten van het opvanggezin in Engeland, of omgekeerd naar nazaten van Belgen die 100 jaar geleden vluchtelingen waren en dat die via Twitter werden gevonden. Een @ of # voor de locatie kan helpen, alsook @familiekunde.