WORLD WAR ONE – REFUGEES FROM BELGIUM

April Town Crier Magazine Article

These years from 2014 – 2018 are a time for reflection on the hundred years since World War One. Several commemorative events and projects have been going on in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding area. Many have reflected on the lives of local people, such as the sinking of HMS Hythe on 28th October 1915, when 129 local men drowned.

As part of this commemoration, the Local History Group of Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society produced a book in November 2014 ‘The Shock of War’ which gives an idea of life in Tunbridge Wells before, during and after the war. One chapter, written by Alison Sandford MacKenzie, is about the Belgian Refugees who came to Tunbridge Wells. In the region of 250,000 Belgian refugees came to UK, following Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914. About 300 spent the war in Tunbridge Wells.

Alison first encountered the stories of the refugees while taking part in the Camden Road community musical play ‘The Vanishing Elephant’ in 2009. Since then she has been conducting her own research into where they lived, worked and in the case of the children, studied. Now funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through Gateways to the First World War has lead to Discovering the Belgian Community in Tunbridge Wells, Kent 1914-1918” a joint research project between local community group CREATE (Camden Road Education Arts and Theatre Enterprise) and the University of Kent, with support from UCL. Working with volunteers, the project will recover the largely forgotten story of these Belgian refugees, the ‘colony’ they built, and their interactions with the host community. A Heritage Trail around the town will be created to be launched as part of a Belgian Festival in Tunbridge Wells during July 2017.

It must be remembered that in 1914 thoughts were that the war would be over by Christmas, and people probably didn’t expect the refugees to be here for any great amount of time. Donations of goods, money and accommodation were generous as the first Belgians arrived in September 1914. The Constitutional Club, then at 32 Calverley Road (now Waterstones) became the regular meeting place, named “Club Albert” after the Belgian King. Mainly Catholics, they attended St Augustine’s Church, then at Hanover Road (now Tesco). They were offered English lessons, and also had free schooling and health care. Tunbridge Wells welcomed Belgians ‘not of the peasant type’ and it is thought most found employment during their time here, as well as joining in with local events. Around the UK, the plan was for all Belgians to return home after the war ended. The Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugee Committee met for the last time on 23rd May 1919, almost five years after being formed.

There are various records to work from, such as registration documents and newspaper archives. What would thrill Alison and the team of volunteers is some personal archives found in a loft or the back of a cupboard! So if anyone has an oral history, a diary, a photo album…or is interested in helping with research, the contact email is RTWBelgians1914@kent.ac.uk

A blog is being compiled of findings https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/rtwbelgians/ and this links to a previous project, Inspiring Women https://www.kent.ac.uk/sspssr/womenshistorykent/themes/warwork/belgianrefugees.html

This is because the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) supported the refugees during their time in the town. Another strong supporter was the Mayor in 1914, Cllr. Charles Whitbourn Emson, and his bust (above), commissioned by the Belgian community in 1915, is on display in Tunbridge Wells Town Hall.

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