The Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells 1914-1919

During the years 1914-1919 the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells was home to some 300 Belgian refugees, men, women and children.  This blog will be a random selection of research into the families, and their lives in exile.

I discovered the Belgians’ story in 2008 during research for a Community Play “The Vanishing Elephant”, written and directed by Jon Oram of Claque Theatre, which dramatised some of the history of the Camden Road area of Tunbridge Wells in the years 1880-1918.

Subsequently I was aThe Booksked by Tunbridge Wells Civic Society to contribute a chapter on the Belgian refugees to a local history monograph, “THE SHOCK OF WAR – Tunbridge Wells on the Home Front 1914-1918” which was published in 2014.

The book can be ordered from Tunbridge Wells Civic Society.

Since then I have continued to research the individual families and have set myself the task of tracing them all.

Extract from Chapter 8 of “The Shock of War” :

“Introduction 

“On 4th August 1914 the German Army crossed into Belgium, and by 15th October, Zeebrugge and Ostend on the Belgian coast were under German occupation.[1] During those two and a half months, town and cities were besieged and captured – Liege, Brussels, Namur, Louvain[2], Malines, Termonde, Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and town and villages in between, were overrun and in many cases all but destroyed. The British newspapers were full of the brutality of the invading army – innocent civilians killed and tortured, their homes ransacked and razed to the ground, women and children used as human shields – and of the bravery of “gallant little Belgium” in holding up the Uhlans, thereby buying time for Britain and France.

“On 17th August, the Belgian Government left Brussels to set up first in Antwerp, then Ostend, and finally on 13th October in the French port of Le Havre. And 1½ million Belgians – almost a quarter of the population – also fled their country to escape the terror – to Holland, to France, and about 225,000 of them to Britain.

“There were many tales of brutality by the invading forces and while some of the worst of these were subsequently discredited, they were a useful propaganda tool at the time. The personal stories of those refugees who arrived in Tunbridge Wells bear witness to what happened. Some 300 Belgians spent time in Tunbridge Wells between 1914 and 1919 [3]. Though relatively small in number, this self-styled “Belgian Colony” made a huge impact on the life of the town at the time, but has been largely forgotten since.”

This is their story.


[1] Note re place-names: where there is no obvious Anglicised version of a Belgian place-name, the version most commonly used by the Tunbridge Wells refugees themselves at the time has been opted for, almost invariably the French rather than Flemish version.

[2] The congregation of St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Tunbridge Wells had a particular interest in the sacking of the University city of Louvain (Leuven) on 26th August 1914 as the church’s assistant priest,  Fr Calnan, had gone to the University there in October 1913.

[3]  In total 78 men, 144 women, 35 boys, and 40 girls were looked after by the Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees Committee [Archives de la Guerre. Comité officiel belge pour l’Angleterre (réfugiés belges en Angleterre). Archives Générales du Royaume, Bruxelles]. The maximum at any one time was 96 adults and 35 children [1919 Report of Belgian Refugees Committee, Borough of Royal Tunbridge Wells]  This number was augmented by those who were able to support themselves, or who were given hospitality privately.

 

 

 

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