Between late August 1914 and May 1915 250,000 Belgian refugees escaping the war in their country arrived in Britain. Now, one hundred years later, Europe is again dealing with the problem of large numbers of refugees, some escaping war. It is interesting to compare how British people reacted a hundred years ago with how they are reacting today to the problem of refugees wishing to come to our shores.

On August 3rd 1914 the German army marched into Belgium attacking the city of Liege. As Germany had violated a treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality, Britain entered the war on the side of Belgium and against Germany. Belgian towns and cities were attacked, property destroyed and civilians murdered. It became known as ‘The Rape of Belgium’ and gained Belgium the sympathy of the rest of the world. With the invasion of Belgium, stories of German atrocities were carried in the British newspapers. Germany’s terrible treatment of ‘Little Belgium’ contributed to popular support in Britain for the war against the ‘Inhuman Hun’.

As the German Army advanced through Belgium, stories spread about terrible atrocities being committing against the population by the German soldiers. Many Belgians began to abandon their homes, with a million going north, seeking refuge in the Netherlands, while another 200,00 went south into France. As Britain saw Belgians as ‘Victims of the War’ they were offered ‘the hospitality of the British Nation.

After Brussels fell, the army and some of the population retreated to Antwerp. The city was besieged by the Germans, but the defenders bravely hung on for two months. Finally, the city fell into German hands on October 9th. During the early part of the war many civilians fled to Britain via the northern ports.

The British Government made preparations to receive and register Belgian refugees; however, due to the vast numbers of refugees entering the country, the government resources could not cope. For example in Folkestone on 14 October 14th 1914 16,000 Belgian refugees arrived in a single day! It has echoes of the present crisis where thousands are making the hazardous boat journey across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece and Turkey.

In 1914 once the refugees, were registered in London, they began to be dispersed throughout the country. The national War Refugees Committee coordinated voluntary relief work throughout the UK, coordinating 2,500 local committees supported by local authorities. These helped house the refugees, supported by the local people who organised charity events and fundraisers to help the refugees.

Although most were housed in local areas, some lived In purpose-built ‘Belgian villages’, such as Elisabethville in Birtley, Tyne and Wear, with their own schools, hospitals, churches, shops, prisons and police.

On 21st October 1914 at 4.18 p.m. the first 31 refugees arrived into Rossendale via Manchester by train and were met at the railway station by thousands of onlookers who packed the route from the station to Queens’ Square (near the present site of the library). The sight of the welcome, according to the detailed report in the Rossendale Free Press, will ‘long be remembered and almost baffle description.’ The newspaper reported that most of the local populace were out, many wearing patriotic favours, Every vantage point was taken, with the walls surrounding of Newhallhey Hall used providing a grandstand view. It as nearly impossible to get near the platform due to the crush of ‘vehicular and pedestrian traffic’. The welcoming committee included the Mayor and Mayoress and countless local dignitaries and they took up their positions by the ticket gate to welcome the refugees. The Free Press graphically describes the refugees’ arrival as they stepped off the train to be met with cheers, ‘but there were touching scenes as the onlookers realised the look and care on the features of those who had been robbed of their hearths and homes by the cruel German hordes. Many of the fair sex were reduced to tears. The men seemed fairly stalwart and fairly well clad, but some of the women-folk had none too much clothing, and one woman in the crowd felt the position so keenly that, with the feeling of a true Lancashire woman she took off her cloak and gave it to her less fortunate sister.’ Several of the little Belgian girls were reported as carrying ‘dolls which they hugging very tenderly’.

The Belgians appreciated the warm Rossendale reception and many of the men frequently raised their hats while their women-folk curtseyed their approval.

When the cavalcade of cars finally set off from the station loud cheers went up which were acknowledged by the refugees. With patriotic flags flying from the shops en route the 31 refugees were taken in a 15 car motorcade to Edgeside Hall, Newchurch. The first four cars carried the dignitaries, the next 11 cars the refugees, followed by two cars carrying their ‘scanty belongings’. A collection was made en route for the Belgian Relief Fund.

The motorcade had to move slowly due to the throng of people on both sides of Bury Road, in Queens’ Square and along Bacup Road as far as the cricket ground. The crowds, according to the newspaper report, were even bigger than when the King and Queen had visited, but the mood was subdued, ‘which spoke of the deep feelings of sympathy…for these poor unfortunate people seeking rest and comfort in a foreign land.’ Work was suspended at all the factories and workshops en route until the procession of vehicles had passed, and at each place employers and employees stood outside or took up vantage points in the buildings.

At Waterfoot there were thousands packing the streets to welcome them, with a crowd of little children armed with Union Jacks outside St James’ vicarage. The motorcade turned at the corner of the Arcade in Waterfoot and went along to Mill End, then up the steep incline of Boothfold Road into Bridge Street where it turned into Edgeside Hall.

There another crowd were massed at the gates to greet the refugees. Finally there was relief for the refugees as they arrived at their new home, Edgeside Hall. It was reported that some had not eaten for over 60 hours since they had left Holland.

The Hall, ‘a beautiful old country mansion’ had been made available by Robert Barcroft. It had 12 bedrooms, dining rooms, sitting rooms, kitchens and sculleries. Within the week before the arrival of the refugees, local volunteers had made the Hall habitable with local women cleaning and furniture, carpets and fixtures and fittings being donated. Autumn flowers were put into every room. Most of the rooms were prepared as bedrooms with four beds per room; one room was set up as a nursery with rocking chairs and ‘toys and games in profusion’.

The cost of the upkeep of the refugees in the Hall was estimated at £15 per week (£1210 in today’s prices) and the Free Press reported that many local people offered to make one off donations and others regular weekly donations to help cover the costs for the ‘six months or such shorter period as the refugees remain here’; the expectation was the war would soon end and the refugees would return home! There were many generous benefactors including three members of the Bolton family each promising £1 a week (£3 in total, almost £250 in today’s money) while four boys from Cloughfold Council School made a collection on October 21st of 10s and ha’penny (£40 in today’s money)!

In the coming weeks, the Rossendale Free Press reported the many donations being made to the Refugee Fund, including these, of many, from local schools:

  • Rawtenstall CoE School, £5 17s. 10d (over £450),
  • Cloughfold Council School, £5 11s.9d.
  • Cloughfold CoE School £1 7s. 8d. (nearly £110)
  • Waterfoot Council School £3. 8s.11 1/2d.

Generous donations were also made from church collections, including Waterfoot Church, £10 10s. (£850) and Lumb Church £5. 2s. 5d. Waterfoot famers offered free daily milk with local businesses offering to help with free supplies of coal and even free haircuts!

After the refugees were settled, the Belgian men started the job of cleaning up the grounds of the Hall which had fallen into decay and disorder, while the women began cleaning and doing housework. The refugees included carpenters, farriers, groom, gardener, blacksmith and sailor. The refugees were so grateful, but at first asked to be left on their own to help them get over their hardships. It was reported in the local newspaper that one baby who was sick was soon recovering. The newspapers also carried “A Word to the Public” reminding everyone that the Belgians were our guests and to give them time for rest and seclusion and the public were ‘asked not to press to go through the Hall or the grounds.’

After some time the refugees began to find their feet and walk around the area. They began picking up a few words of English, helped by a Miss Noppe who was staying at Bury Convent, who spoke English and Flemish fluently and was interpreter and matron. She had escaped from Belgium earlier in the year. It was a first reported that she was a Miss Knoppe, but a week later it was corrected to Noppe, as Knopp or Knoppe was a German name!

The Bacup Times reported that the local refugee committee had concerns that some locals, with misguided generosity, were offering the refugees intoxicating drinks! One Belgian family from Antwerp, the Marivoets with four children, arrived in Bacup on February 6th 1915 and were housed in Ribble Street. Unfortunately their nine month old baby died of pneumonia only a few days after arriving in Bacup.

The Belgians at Edgeside Hall were treated to evening concerts and, while the men attended a local football match at Dark Lane, the women enjoyed an afternoon’s entertainment at King’s Hall, Waterfoot. The report on the football match is rather patronising towards the Belgians, as though they have never seen football played before! – ‘whether or not they understood the game they appeared to do so, and followed the varying fortunes of the respective teams with breathless interest. They quite evidently knew which were the Rossendale men, and if they had been natives of the district they could not have displayed greater enthusiasm.’

As the nation’s hopes that the war would be ‘all over by Christmas’ came and went concern for the plight of Belgian refugees was slowly replaced by people’s own concerns. With the rising casualty lists, those who at first were enthusiastic about helping the refugees now began to care more about their own family and friends who were caught up in the fighting.

Another issue about the refugees was finding jobs for them and in some parts of the country that sometimes caused resentment. This resentful attitude to European workers finding jobs in Britain is sometimes present today.

Over the four years of the war the nation’s interest in the Belgian refugees was slowly lost. Soon after the war ended in November 1918 there was a big push from the British government to get the Belgian refugees to go home as the government’s main concern was coping with the vast numbers of British troops returning from the war. Thousands of Belgian refugees left in the six months after November 1918, and within a year over 90% had returned home.

It is interesting to compare the refugee crisis then with our present day one; the vast majority of Belgians wanted to return to their country as there was peace. Will there be the same wish to return home with the present influx of war refugees?

Over a hundred years after the Belgian refugees came, there is little to show in our country that they were ever here; today, apart from occasional places of worship, plaques and gravestones, dotted around the country, there is only one single national monument to remind us of the story of the Belgian refugees in Britian. The rest is silence!

Over quarter of a million Belgians lived in Britain for more than four years, so why is the story of this largest refugee movement in British history almost forgotten?

Perhaps the answer might be that the British soldiers coming home from the war didn’t really want to talk to their families and friends about their terrible war experiences and those at home didn’t want to raise the difficulties of life at home during the war and so the story of the Belgian refugees was never really discussed. Does this explain why such an astonishing story fell from our nation’s memory?