Terrified Belgians fled in their hundreds of thousands. But where would they go?
In its long history as a safe haven for refugees, Britain had given a home to French Protestant Huguenots in the 17th century and Russian Jews in the 19th century. Now, it would open its doors to its largest single influx - a quarter of a million Belgians escaping the German invasion. Life for them and their British hosts would be radically changed.
'Plucky little Belgium’ was widely admired in Britain for its resistance against the German invasion.
As one of the guarantors – alongside France and Germany – of the 1839 Treaty of London, Britain was honour bound to recognise and protect Belgium’s independence and neutrality. When Germany invaded, stories of German atrocities spread by word of mouth and were carried in newspapers.
The popular image of 'the Hun' rampaging through 'gallant Little Belgium' contributed to popular support for the war, particularly among a British population in fear of invasion once they had seen German warship shell their coastal towns in December 1914.
As Belgians kept arriving, the War Refugees Committee (WRC) coordinated a wide network of voluntary relief work. Within two weeks of publishing an appeal for accommodation, it had received 100,000 offers. More than 2,500 local committees, supported by local authorities, were set up across the country. Hundreds of charity initiatives and events were organised.
For many, helping the refugees was their way of contributing to the wider war effort.
Initially many Belgian refugees settled in Folkestone and other coastal towns. Not only were these the first places they came to – there were also spare rooms in hotels and private accommodation to house them.
By October 1914, the large number of Belgian refugees were dissipating to communities across the country.
Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, in London, became one of the main reception points. It could shelter around 4,000 refugees at any one time - 100,000 in total passed through. The War Refugees Committee went on to set up receiving centres across the British Isles in places such as Exeter, Blackpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, Carmarthen in Wales and Monaghan in Ireland.
Many refugees contributed to the war effort, by working in industries such as steel, textiles and agriculture. After a crisis in shell production in 1915, the British government needed more munition workers. A second wave of refugees, who had fled Belgium for the Netherlands, was now invited to come to Britain and work in the factories. Many of the refugees couldn't speak any English and to minimise labour unrest, some munitions factories were Belgium–run. One of the biggest was the Pelabon Works in East Twickenham, South-West London, which employed 2000 refugees. A large Belgian community sprang up nearby.
Eventually some streets were almost entirely occupied by Belgians.
In Birtley, in the North East of England, another Belgian-run factory led to the construction of a purpose-built village nearby, where 6,000 refugees lived. Named Elisabethville, after the Belgian queen, this gated community was under military control and run as if it was part of Belgium. The village had its own church, school, hospital, butchers and other shops. Even the currency was Belgian.
And so a little piece of Belgium was created here in Britain.
Although this view wasn’t widely shared, in time stories of tension between Belgians and the local population were reported in newspapers. One refugee was described as going about 'as if he was a duke', while some local refugee committees complained about individuals demanding a higher standard of living.
Refugees also had to put up with condescending attitudes. A newly-married refugee couple could only enjoy a home of their own “when they have become more accustomed to English life and English ways”, as discussed by a committee in London. And Belgian men who hadn’t enlisted to fight were resented by some. There was even suspicion that some Belgians may have been German spies.
As soon as the war ended, both British and Belgian governments appealed for the refugees to return home. As early as 1914, the Belgian Repatriation Fund had been created by the English wife of a member of the Belgian Government and in 1917 the British government set up a repatriation committee to expedite their return.