Belgian Refugees welcomed in Brighton and Hove in WW1

19 October 2017

By Kate Elms

Programme for fundraising lecture at Hove Town Hall, 10 February 1915

Programme for fundraising lecture at Hove Town Hall, 10 February 1915

Brighton’s role as a place of healing and convalescence for wounded soldiers during WW1 is well-known. Prominent buildings, including the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Grammar School, were requisitioned as military hospitals, and our archives include some wonderful material that brings this period to life. Less widely reported is the sanctuary offered locally to Belgian refugees displaced by war. 250,000 Belgian refugees came to the UK after the German invasion of 1914, prompting a huge relief operation. Although the plight of the Belgians was used to build support for the war, refugee relief was also seen as a moral duty at that time; more than 2,000 official relief committees were established around the country, one of which was in Brighton and Hove.

The Catholic community was first to respond to the crisis, with local priest Father Kerwin offering temporary shelter (and the support of the Catholic Women’s League) at the newly built St Mary’s School in Portslade. Before long, however, a committee was set up to raise funds and care for the new arrivals. Accommodation was offered in private houses and residential or convalescent homes that had been made available, and an impressive range of services was established, including free medical treatment, a clothing depot and a school for Belgian children (plus English classes for the adults).

Our collection of rare material includes a scrapbook documenting the work of the local committee. Through news cuttings, photographs, handwritten letters and ephemera, it illustrates the huge effort made by local people to welcome and provide for the Belgians living among them. Newspaper articles describing atrocities witnessed by surviving refugees sit alongside detailed annual reports of the committee’s work and accounts of concerts, lectures and other forms of entertainment. Fundraising events, including a Flag Day held on 2 October 1915, are also covered, while photographs of families, individuals and groups of people, all sadly unnamed, give a moving impression of community, however hastily formed.

A collection of letters has been pasted into the pages at the back of the scrapbook, some written in English, some in French. Most are addressed to Mrs Richardson, honorary treasurer of the local committee, thanking her profusely for Christmas gifts and other acts of kindness and generosity. I became intrigued by Mrs Richardson and tried to find out more about her. Using the family history resources available at The Keep, I discovered that her name was Bertha, that she was born in 1861, (one of 11 children) and had married widower Frederick Richardson in 1912. Bertha, a spinster, was 50 at the time of her marriage, Frederick was 68, and it was Frederick’s home, 4 Adelaide Crescent in Hove, which was transformed two years later into the clothing depot for the Belgian refugees that Bertha did so much to help.

Sadly, their marriage was short-lived; Frederick died of heart disease in February 1917 and, according to an obituary published in the Brighton Herald, one of the many floral tributes at his funeral came from the Belgian refugees in Brighton and Hove, ‘in whose welfare the deceased had always taken the most sympathetic interest’. Another great supporter of the Committee’s work, Reverend Paul-Marie Renkin from Brussels, died in the same year, knocked off his bike and run over by a motor bus while on his way to visit a refugee family in Preston. Bertha, meanwhile, was awarded the Medaille de la Reine Elisabeth, a Belgian decoration created in October 1916 to recognise exceptional service to Belgium and its victims of war. She died in Eastbourne in 1933.

Letter of thanks to Bertha Richardson, December 1915, from one of the refugees

Letter of thanks to Bertha Richardson, December 1915, from one of the refugees

And what of the refugees? By February 1918, the committee’s annual report describes ‘a diminishing output in almost every direction’, with the closure of the clothing depot and one of the residential homes, and a falling-off of local subscriptions. This is interpreted in a positive light, however, ’a sign that the need for much of what had to be done at first has come to an end, and that the Refugees are now much more capable of managing for themselves.’ And although they had been welcomed with open arms at the beginning of the war, refugees were encouraged by both the British and Belgian governments to return home as soon as it ended.

The scrapbook has been digitised and can be downloaded free of charge from the Royal Pavilion & Museums Digital Media Bank using this link. The original (reference BH600786) is held at The Keep and can be ordered by registered members to view in our Reading Room.




Letter from the Archive: The Great Plague of 1665-1666

18th January 2016

By Emma Johnson

‘Ring-a-ring a roses, a pocketful of posies, attischo, attischo, we all fall down.’ Most of us can recall this well-versed nursery rhyme from our childhood; dancing round in circles, hands clasped, spinning faster and faster before falling down in a heap of giggles. But in 1665-1666, this rhyme represented a very deadly threat to the people of England: the plague. This year and last marks the 350th anniversary.

Imagine it is the year 1665. In Stuart England, towns and cities have grown as craftsmen and tradespeople flock to these areas to make their living. London has become a metropolis. The rich and poor co-exist together- from large affluent houses in the Covent Garden area, to tenements and garrets with multiple families occupying them. Sanitation is a major problem- open drains mean that animal dung, human waste and rubbish litter the cobbled streets. The sewage is cleared away in carts, dumped outside the city walls and left to decompose. The summer of 1665 is also very warm, which only makes these conditions worse. This environment is a haven for vermin and in particular -rats. (There is a great image on The National Archives website of London at the time of the Plague)

The Plague had been an issue in England ever since the Black Death of 1347. The Bills of Mortality began to be published regularly in 1603, and showed that the Plague took thousands of lives each year. The epidemic of 1665-1666 saw these numbers rise exponentially. The first areas to be hit were the docks of London. As the weather grew warmer, the number of cases rose. By September, there were roughly 7000 deaths a week. By the late autumn, the number of cases began to decrease until February 1666 when it was considered safe enough for King Charles II to return to London.

People believed that the plague was caused by evil spirits, religious nonconformity or an astronomical occurrence such as a comet appearing in the sky. It is still often believed that the plague was caused by rats, but in actual fact it was the infected fleas that lived on the rats that caused the disease to spread. After being bitten or exposed to the disease, victims would experience flu like symptoms such as a fever, headache and chills. Swellings called buboes would then appear in the lymph nodes found in the armpits, groin and neck. Most would not survive these awful symptoms.

Here at The Keep, the East Sussex Record Office holds some documents relating to the Great Plague in the Frewen Family Archive. Below is an extract from a letter from Reverend John Allin to Dr Philip Frith of Rye dated 30 September 1665:

Dear friend,

…I thank you for what you have done in reference to my things at your house or maudlins; in giving Mr Jeake an inventory of them for my children, I intend god willing to second it next week to you or him with the like in general terms… I hope the lord will spare you to be useful to such as may want you in the land of the living. But we had need all be awakened to be ready, for we know not the day nor the hour when our lord will come, truly I think since the last bill the sickness is again encroaching and very much about us. I have hired my chamber again for another quarter of a year: if the lord grant life so long: I will if the lord please speedily collect my thoughts and finish this discourse of his sickness and send you, but I hinted in my last what a care and hurry I have been in…

Your loving friend

John Allin

There is also a manuscript book of remedies, recipes and cures (1558-1666):

A Reciept against the plague and a preservative:

Aloes hepatica pure cinnamon mirth of each; 3 cloves mace wood of aloes called ligum [or possibly liguin] aloes masticke Bolarmoniack of each mix altogether and make thereof very fine po[tion?]: whereof take early in the morning with white wine mixed with a little water wikerus [or wikeras].


Ivy berries and dry them in the shadow those that grow on the north side of the tree is best keep them in a box of wood till you need beat these to po[tion]: and take as much at once as you can take upon a groat and let the patient dunk it in white wine or plantains water half an ounce of the po[tion?]: with 2 ounces of water. Cover him and let him sweat well. This done change his sheets warm if it be possible all his bedding for this is most excellent.

Remedy against the Plague

This second remedy for the plague seems logical to a 21st century reader- to try and sweat out the sickness and restore the sufferer to health. But, as John Allin’s letter suggests, people were aware that little could be done to stop the disease and no-one could predict when death would befall them. Returning to those ill-fated words of the nursery rhyme, it was only a matter of time before the majority of sufferers would ‘all fall down.’





The Keep News: ‘A broken silence? Mass Observation, Armistice Day and ‘Everyday life’ in Britain, 1937-1941

Last week, Dr Lucy Noakes gave a talk on how British people, faced with the prospect of another World War, were commemorating and remembering World War One. Here is the full recording of her talk.


The Keep News: First World War Memorial Service and Heritage Bus launch

8th August 2014

Opposite the West Pier in Brighton, a bronze figure of a bugler stands atop a chamfered stone plinth; an image associated with ceremonies commemorating those who have been killed in war. This striking memorial was made for the 152 men from the Royal Sussex Regiment who died in the Boer War. At the front of its base, in bronze lettering, the dates 1914-18 commemorate a later war; a war that England entered 100 years ago.

Communities across the country haves been gathering together to remember the start of the First World War. In Brighton, a small crowd congregated beneath The Bugler: members of the public, local councillors and MPs, and staff from heritage organisations, such as The Keep. After a welcome address by Councillor Bill Randall, and a reveille by Jack Morrell, the group stood in silence and remembered those who sacrificed so much. Prayers from Father John Wall followed, and then the laying of poppy wreaths. The service ended with the launch of Brighton & Hove City Council’s Heritage Bus.

The bus has been designed to give insight into the lives of those living in the city between 1914 and 1918. Photographs and posters from The Keep Partners’ collections cover the bus. These include a photograph from East Sussex Record Office of a wedding between a nurse and an officer who was awarded the VC, and photographs of Indian soldiers in Brighton, from Brighton and Hove Royal Pavilion & Museum’s collections. Further details of the bus can be found in this Brighton & Hove City Council booklet: WW1 Heritage Bus


For more information about local First World War commemoration events, please visit The East Sussex World War One Commemorations Project website, which also launched this week.