In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen relates the surprising history of Birtley and the Belgians.
“The World War One at Home” project offers communities a chance to reflect on their histories and discover new, and sometimes surprising elements of their shared past. Few have a history as surprising as Birtley, County Durham*. During the First World War, this small industrial village was at the heart of Allied diplomatic relations when it became a central hub for thousands of Belgian soldiers and their families.
Birtley seems an unlikely place to uncover such a fascinating hidden history of wartime international politics. In 1914, Birtley was fairly typical of most North-East industrial communities of the time. Life revolved around the local mines and heavy industries. There were two small cinemas, the Co-Operatives, and a number of small churches and parks. The outbreak of the war in August 1914 changed Birtley for decades to come. Approximately 3,500 men from the local area enlisted into the armed services. Others left the area to work in other parts of industrial Tyneside. More significantly, the residents of Birtley gained over 4,000 new neighbours. Birtley was chosen as the site of two munitions factories, staffed entirely by Belgian soldiers, their families and other refugees. The resulting community was nicknamed “Elisabethville”, after the Belgian queen Elisabeth of Bavaria.
The outbreak of war in 1914 left many Belgians homeless and penniless. The historian Tony Kushner estimates that over 1 million fled the country, approximately one-sixth of the Belgian population. Of these, he estimates about 200,000 arrived in the UK. They were initially cared for by a series of central and local Refugee Committees, set up by well-meaning individuals and churches. All refugees had to register with their local Police and Committee, and inform them of their personal circumstances and movements. They also had to carry identity papers, or face arrest as German “enemy aliens”. Some were abused in public after being mistaken for Germans. Most Belgian refugees settled around London, although in other large communities formed in Birmingham, Winchester, and of course, in Birtley. At its height, Elisabethville accommodated between 2-3.75% of the entire Belgian refugee population living in the UK!
Elisabethville was the product of a unique diplomatic collaboration between the British and Belgian governments. The British built the munitions factories and the workers’ accommodation, and then turned the entire site over the Belgian government, who then provided the workforce. Most of the workers were injured soldiers and their families, although other refugees also worked there. Many had travelled from London, where some had worked in other Belgian-run munitions factories in Twickenham and Erith (Greater London). What made Elisabethville different from these other factories was the intention behind it. In return for the munitions from the factories, the British government allowed a sovereign Belgian “colony” to be temporarily established in Durham.
Elisabethville was a planned community for the munitions workers, similar to the community built for the “munitionettes” of Gretna. The workers and their families lived in purpose -built accommodation adjacent to the factories. Single men lived in hostels while married men and families lived in small prefabricated houses. More buildings were gradually added to Elisabethville, including an infants’ school, shops, church, and other amusements. It had its own official newspaper, “the Birtley Echo” written in English, French and Flemish. The Belgian authorities also brought over an independent police force and the camp was run according to Belgian law.
Despite their new homes having all the mod-cons (like flushing indoor toilets), life in Elisabethville was neither idyllic nor quiet. Munitions work was dangerous and many were seriously injured or killed in industrial accidents. Political divisions also caused problems. There were tensions between the French- and Flemish-speaking workers, and between the workers and the Belgian authorities. The Belgian authorities were paranoid about the so-called persuasive influence of British trade unionism in their factories. Paradoxically, British trade unions were openly hostile towards the Belgians, accusing them of accepting lower wages and more brutal working conditions. Camp tensions reached breaking point in April 1916 and a riot broke out after one political activist was arrested by the Elisabethville police. The arrest and subsequent removal of the prisoner alarmed the British authorities so much that it caused a minor diplomatic incident. Contact with the locals was discouraged, although it is clear that many local residents developed close ties to their new neighbours. Some married into their new community.
The Belgian government was adamant that all of Elisabethville’s residents had to return to Belgium at the end of the war. By December 1918, the majority of the workers had been repatriated back to Belgium. The locals moved into the Belgian accommodation blocks. Demolition of the site began in 1938. Now two anonymous buildings are all that remain of this once large and diverse community.
Commemorating Elisabethville allows us to consider the remarkable moment in British history when part of County Durham became temporarily Belgian.
The history of Elisabethville and the Birtley Belgians was covered by BBC Newcastle as part of its ongoing “World War One at Home” series.
* Birtley was historically part of County Durham. It is now part of the metropolitan borough of Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Records relating to Elisabethville, its factories and its residents can be found in the National Archives, Tyne and Wear Archives, Beamish Living History Museum, and Durham County Records Office.