Belgian Refugees welcomed in Brighton and Hove in WW1
19 October 2017
By Kate Elms
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.
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.
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.