This is a piece I wrote in February 2014 for The Shock of War, but which had to be cut for space reasons. Since then, I have found out a great deal more about the family, and their extended family members who also came to Tunbridge Wells. More in Part Two…
In the National Archives in Brussels, among the papers relating to those Belgians who fled their country in 1914, tucked away inside a whole sheaf of letters regarding lost relatives and friends, and luggage gone astray, are two handwritten letters from Professor Joseph WILLEMS of Liege University, sent from 6 Lyndhurst Gardens, Tunbridge Wells, lamenting the loss of his 6 pieces of luggage which he had checked in at Ostend but which had not accompanied him to Tunbridge Wells, leaving him and his wife and their five children with only the clothes they stood up in.
There is no indication that they were ever reunited with their luggage, but that does not appear to have prevented the family from settling well into life in their temporary home. Professor WILLEMS became Honorary Vice-President of the Belgians’ “Club Albert”, and when Beechwood Sacred Heart Convent School opened its doors in February 1915, his two young daughters, 7-yr old Clementine and 8½ -yr old Christiane, were the first pupils to arrive. Their mother had been educated by Sacred Heart nuns in Belgium and would seem to have been quite involved in the life of the school, both before and after its opening.
“Our two little Belgians” as the Sisters called them, made the presentation to Reverend Mother on her feast day that year, and when Clementine was one of those who made her First Holy Communion in December 1915, most of the 11 relatives who attended were members of the Willems family.
Clementine and Christiane left the school in July 1916, and one can only assume that the family then returned home to Liege as no further mention of the family has, as yet, been found in Tunbridge Wells….
On 26th March 1915, 7-month old Hélène BECKER was buried in Frant Forest Cemetery (former name for Hawkenbury Cemetery, Tunbridge Wells), after a funeral service conducted at St Augustine’s Catholic Church, by Fr Bernard Pearce .
Her death certificate shows that she had died on 23rd March 1915 in the Tunbridge Wells General Hospital of measles and broncho-pneumonia, and that she was the daughter of a Belgian basket-maker whose first name was not known. 
Her death was not registered until 1 May when the informant was the Assistant Town Clerk, William Francis BELLAMY and not one of her parents. Had they moved on by then? Was it simply that he said he would do it to regularise the paperwork and spare them more pain?
At the very end of my most recent visit to the Archives in Brussels, just before closing time, I found a registration form which possibly relates to this family – if so, baby Hélène was the youngest of a family group of 6 children and 2 adults from the village of Pont-de-Loup, near Charleroi, who were first found accommodation at York Garage, Shaftesbury Avenue, Cheriton, near Folkestone.
Victor (age unknown), Marie (32), Henri (9), Pauline (also 9), Hortense (7) Marie-Francoise (3), Eugénie (2), and 1-month-old Hélène had most probably fled their home in late August 1914, when the area was the scene of intense fighting as the bloody Battle of Charleroi (Battle of the Sambre) unfolded.
That is all I know about them – a family who only left a trace in Tunbridge Wells because of a family tragedy.
Little Hélène is buried in plot 115, Class C, Section 5 of Tunbridge Wells Cemetery at Hawkenbury.
May she rest in peace.
 Father Bernard Pearce was Assistant Priest at St Augustine’s from Spring 1914 until Autumn 1917, when he left to take up a similar post at a church in Brighton (Kent & Sussex Courier, 9 November 1917).
 The place of residence on the certificate makes no sense at all! Any ideas anyone?
On Monday morning I received a Birth Certificate through the post – always a very exciting moment, and an excellent start to the week.
Paula Caroline Alphonsine DEBERGH born at Elisabethville, Birtley, Co. Durham, on 26 January 1917
The trail had started a couple of years ago when I was at London’s Imperial War Museum consulting the private papers of Lady Matthews, wife of Tunbridge Wells JP Sir John Bromhead MATTHEWS, KC.
In her entry for Sunday 21st February 1915, Lady MATTHEWS wrote : “I went to a Belgian soiree last night, run on money I have received from an unknown American Friend. About 80, all ages and classes, were crammed together in a stuffy annex, & listening with joy to the music. Afterwards they would have buns and coffee.
“A young wounded soldier & a Flemish dressmaker sat, the cynosure of all eyes. They wore white flowers, & were stiff with new garments. They had been married at the Registrar’s at 8 a.m. that day. I do not know what they had to marry on save the English Government grant of 5/6 each a week.” (1)
A quick search, and another order fulfilled by the General Register Office, had revealed that on Saturday 20th February 1915, 25 year old Prosper Leopold DEBERGH married 26 year old Marie RAVIJTS at St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, Tunbridge Wells.
I then lost track of them until my visit earlier this year to the National Archives in Brussels to consult the refugee registration documents held there, where I found evidence that the DEBERGHs had moved on to the Birtley munitions factory in 1916 and had had a daughter.
In 1918 Prosper DEBERGH’s repatriation document only mentions him and his daughter, and I haven’t (yet?) found a document for his wife, though I would have expected her to be on the same one.
In my article for the RTW Civic Society publication, I’d hoped they’d returned to Belgium and enjoyed a long and happy married life together. Now I fear this may not have been the case – the search continues…
Their story so far :
Prosper Leopold DEBERGH was born in Zele near Dendermonde/Termonde on 1 January 1890, the son of ‘concierge’ Theophile Debergh. When war was declared in August 1914, Prosper Debergh was a clerk in the Justice Ministry in the town. He joined the ’22e linie'(2) and was wounded: all I know is that by late October 1914 he was in hospital in England, at the Sandgate Royal Military Hospital near Folkestone (Het Volk, 31 October 1914). He was invalided out of the army, and eventually found his way to Tunbridge Wells where accommodation was found for him at 32 Upper Grosvenor Road, a house provided by the local RC church.
At the time of their marriage, his future wife, dressmaker Marie RAVIJTS, the daughter of a ‘cabaretier’, was living at 47 Upper Grosvenor Road, a former ‘Blessed Sacrament’ Convent which became known as ‘the Belgian Hostel’ (rental cost covered by the Misses McClean and Power, members of the Mayor’s Refugee Committee). Her home was also Dendermonde, her address Brusselsestraat 2 rue de Bruxelles.
On Saturday 20th February 1915 they were married in St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, then on the corner of Hanover and Grosvenor Roads, by the local Catholic priest, Fr. James KEATINGE, and Registrar Arthur S. WISEMAN. One of the witnesses was R. Van HAWEGHEM, another Belgian ‘soldat réformé‘ but of the ‘2e linie'(1) – more of him in a future post…
I wonder – did Prosper and Marie know each other back home in Dendermonde? Or did they meet in Tunbridge Wells, drawn together by the common experience of exile?
In April 1916, according to his refugee registration documentation, Prosper DEBERGH (and presumably his wife Marie though she is not mentioned) was living at 37 Culverden Down, another of the houses rented by the Committee, and they were still in Tunbridge Wells in July of that year when they both signed the album given to the Misses SCOTT on 22 July 1916 by the grateful Belgian Community (subject of a future post, or even a page…).
Some time after that, and before the birth of their daughter in January 1917, they moved to Birtley where M. DEBERGH worked in the munitions factory. Paula was born on 26th January 1917, and baptised the same day at St Michael’s Catholic Church in Elisabethville, the Belgian Catholic church (3).
In August 1918 Prosper and his daughter are confirmed as living at Hutments D.6.A. in Elisabethville, but no sign of their wife and mother, Marie.
In 1924, at the unveiling of the War Memorial in Dendermonde, one of the speakers was Prosper De Bergh, President of the local War Invalids’ Association (Bond der Oorlogsinvaliden), and he still held that post in 1938 when a statue was erected in memory of Princess Astrid. (Thank you Google!). Has to be him…doesn’t it?
PS I’m intrigued that on Paula’s birth certificate, her father gives his Belgian address as 71 rue Jef Lambeaux, Kiel, Antwerp, when everywhere else it is Gerechtshof, Dendermonde / Place de la Justice, Termonde…
(1) According to the 1919 Report on the work of the Tunbridge Wells Refugees Committee, ‘each individual Belgian in cases in which accommodation was provided [received] – adults 9/- per week, children 6/- per week.’ These rates were set under guidance from the Local Government Board (Wikipedia link), based on the “separation allowance” received by members of serving soldiers, and taking into account a refugee’s social class and particular needs.
In Tunbridge Wells, thanks to generous donations from the public, the Committee was able to support the refugees without any assistance from the London Committee until December 1915. After that and until mid-1917, the London Committee contributed one half of the cost of maintenance, and from mid-1917 the whole cost. The everage weekly expenditure of the Local Committee over the whole period was £50.
Neither the refugees nor the Belgian goverment were required to repay the monies received.
(2) The ‘2e linie’, based in Ghent, and the ’22e linie’ (reservists) regiments, plus a group of artillery, were brought together to create the ‘2e gemengde brigade’ (the 2nd Mixed Brigade). They had their ‘baptism of fire’, suffering many casualties, on 18th August 1914 at St-Margriete-Houtem, and continued to be involved in the fighting from Antwerp to Nieuwpoort until, on 29 October, reduced to just 14 officers and 513 men, the 22e linie was disbanded.
As you can tell, I’m no military historian – a good overview here though (in Dutch).
(3) I am indebted to Bill Lawrence for his assistance with research in the Birtley records.