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The Arrival of the Belgians at Folkestone

In this guest blog post, Dr Will Butler (University of Kent) reflects on how Belgians crossed the English Channel in the first month of WW1. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.

The outbreak of the First World War only had a very limited impact on the town of Folkestone during its opening weeks. Despite the fact that many of its summer visitors had left in a flurry of panic in its opening days, many did not, and the town had also begun to fill with British soldiers ready to embark for the front. However, by the middle of August allied forces had suffered a series of setbacks and its armies were on the retreat along with many thousands of refugees. Many fled westwards, but others attempted to reach the ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Antwerp in an attempt to cross the channel.

Belgians on boats
Belgians on boats

Initially, penny packets of Belgian soldiers began to arrive at Folkestone. The first boat from Calais brought 72 men from 12 different regiments. These men had fought at Namur and Liege, and the fact that they had come from so many different regiments shows just how much the Belgian army were in disarray. Within a few days, a conveyor belt of civilians began to arrive from the Continent, many of them in commandeered fishing boats. An extract from an article written by the Folkestone correspondent of The Times perhaps best illustrates the scene:

‘Gradually at first and very rapidly during the last week or ten days there has been a great change. The town is full, hotels and boarding-houses are crowded, and there is a constant stream of people walking along the Leas. A huge crowd gathers daily outside the closed gates of the Harbour Station and stands there for hours to watch the thousands of people landed every afternoon who pass out to take up their temporary abode here. But it is not the usual holiday crowd which Folkestone knows so well. These sad-faced people, who walk soberly about or gather in little groups and discuss solemnly topics which are evidently of intense interest to them, are not happy rollicking, holiday-makers, nor is their language ours. There is far more French than English heard on the Leas in these days, for Folkestone is becoming a town of refugees’.

It was estimated that by 5 September, as many as 18,000 refugees had arrived in Britain through Folkestone Harbour and there was no sign that the numbers would fall. A Folkestone War Refugees Committee was quickly formed in the town and a Belgian Relief Fund was instigated by various newspapers around the country. Each refugee was given a medical examination by a doctor before they left the Harbour, some were then sent on to London, and others were found jobs locally, such as hop-picking. Above all, free meals were provided to all who required feeding: as many as 6,000 meals each day.

All classes of people had made the journey across the Channel. Many ‘smartly-dressed’ people of the middle classes stayed in the larger hotels and boarding houses surrounding the Leas. The poorer visitors, described as ‘terribly poor’, with little or no luggage were put up around the town in rooms volunteered by many of the townspeople. The Refugee Committee was praised very highly for its endeavours. Described as displaying ‘untiring zeal, cheering drooping spirits, feeding the hungry, helping the helpless, and directing and advising all who stand in need’.

The stream of refugees continued almost every day until the middle of October. By this time the town was as full as it would be at the height of the tourist season and few unoccupied rooms could be found anywhere in the town. Over 100,000 Belgians had passed through Folkestone in only a few months and as many as 15,000 had taken up residence. As a result, more funds were required to ensure that they could be cared for over the winter months. Many of the shops had put up signs in their shops advertising in French and a specific paper was printed, Le Franco-Belge, which could keep those who wish to be informed of news from the front. All effort was made to make the refugees feel welcome and comfortable. For many it would be at least another four years until they could return home.

Belgian-refugees
Belgian refugees

The citizens of Folkestone clearly embraced the presence of the new residents. In July 1915, the town celebrated ‘Belgian Day’, to coincide with the Belgian national holiday. The Town Hall and other businesses flew the black, yellow, and red flag, and many Belgian children were seen selling them in the streets. A ceremony was held at the Roman Catholic Church and the Mayor of Folkestone spoke of England’s admiration for ‘gallant Belgium’.

Other events regularly took place throughout the war, and the town was visited by many dignitaries as a result of its hospitality to the Belgian people, including the King and Queen of the Belgians who were warmly received. Famously, Signor Franzoni painted a portrait which depicted the arrival of the first Belgian refugees at the Harbour, which can still be viewed in the town. A tablet was erected outside the Town Hall in testimony of the work carried out by the townspeople. Finally, a message was received by King Albert at the end of the war, when a Mausoleum was erected at nearby Shorncliffe Military Ceremony, who stated that ‘Folkestone had earned the admiration not only of the Belgians, but also of the whole world: yes, the whole civilised world knew how the town of Folkestone had received them with such cordiality which would never be forgotten’.

Belgian recognition of service
Belgian recognition of service

Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support.

Find out more about Belgians in WW1 on Beyond the Trenches: “Remembering Elizabethville: The Belgian Refugee ‘Colony’ of Durham”

Remembering Elisabethville: The Belgian Refugee “Colony” of Durham

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen relates the surprising history of Birtley and the Belgians.

5619167244_9b50ec7fee_z“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.

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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.

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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.