Britain responds to the human crisis

As refugees from the fighting on the Continent arrived in Dover and Folkestone, individual schemes were launched to welcome them, notably by Pastor Adolphe Petersen, Protestant Minister in Folkestone, himself a Belgian, and by writer and journalist, Flora Shaw, Lady Lugard who set up the War Refugees Committee (WRC) in London [Read more here (external link)]

On 9th September 1914, Herbert Samuel, President of the Local Government Board (LGB – forerunner of the Ministry of Health) announced in Parliament that the British Government had offered the “hospitality of the British nation” to Belgium’s war victims, and that the WRC had agreed to cooperate with his department “in the reception and distribution of the refugees“.  The work was now to be shared by the LGB, the WRC, and the Belgian War Relief Committee in Folkestone.

Appeals for offers of hospitality around the country were published in the press, and the Mayors of large Boroughs and the Chairmen of County Councils and large Urban District Councils, were asked by the LGB to form local sub-Committees and establish whether anyone in their district would be willing to offer hospitality to Belgian refugees.  Those committees were asked to communicate directly with the WRC who would be responsible for the distribution of refugees from London to various local centres.  Offers of homes were also invited for the “many educated persons of good families” who had lost homes and employment through the war, where they could be received as guests until they were able to return to their own country[1].

On 25th September a circular from the LGB announced that 6,000 refuges had so far been provided with accommodation, “fewer than expected”, and that offers of hospitality so far exceeded demand. However the situation changed after  the fall of Antwerp on 10th October, and a circular went out asking for further offers, as help was now  needed for nearly 12,000 refugees who had arrived at Folkestone.

In Tunbridge Wells, the first to respond would appear, from perusal of the local press, to have been Mr and Mrs Johnston of Burrswood, Groombridge, who in early September offered Clayton’s Farmhouse in Ashurst.  At the same time, the local branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society, based at St Augustine’s RC Church in Tunbridge Wells, appealed to Catholics in the town to come forward with offers of accommodation, free or otherwise.

These brave Belgian people have nobly done their share in opposing the German aggression, and let us do our best to show our gratitude – Mayor Whitbourn Emson

On 25th September, Mayor Charles Whitbourn Emson called a meeting of interested parties to discuss his proposal to open a Municipal Fund and set up a Borough Committee to help the refugees arriving in the town.

He wrote to the Belgian War Relief Committee in Folkestone:

Dear Sir –

I am pleased to inform you that arrangements have been made in this Borough to accommodate 30 Belgian Refugees, not of the peasant type, but of the middle class and tradespeople – 1 group of 12 to be accommodated in one house; 2 groups of 4 each to be accommodated temporarily in a lodging house; 2 groups of 3 each, ditto; 2 groups of 2 each, ditto.

I shall be glad if you can arrange for these refugees to arrive in Tunbridge Wells on Friday afternoon, and if you will kindly let me know prior to their arrival the names, relationships, and any other particulars relating to those sent, and the time of arrival.

You will no doubt arrange before they are sent that they are medically examined and have a clean bill of health.

Yours faithfully

Chas. W. Emson, Mayor.

The first families arrived at Clayton’s Farm in early October and by the end of that month nearly 100 refugees had been placed in accommodation by the Tunbridge Wells Committee.

In the months that followed, gifts of money, furniture and even homes, poured in, and lists appeared in the local press each week of those who had contributed.  Local Suffragette Miss Olive Walton, local WSPU Secretary, was one of many who made a donation of £5.

Belgians 001


[1] Letter from Lord Lytton published in the Aberdeen Journal, 17 September 1914 [British Newspaper Archive]

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