Lady MATTHEWS meets some of the Belgian refugees

Recently I have had cause to revisit the diaries of Lady MATTHEWS which are kept in the Imperial War Museum in London, and were written particularly with her young children in mind – Stephen and Esther were 3 and 2 respectively when war broke out, and she wanted to leave them a record of what life was like at the time.  The youngest, Bryan, her “war baby” as she called him, was born in 1917.

Annette Amelia MATTHEWS nee KITSON was the second wife of Sir John Bromhead MATTHEWS KC, who in 1914 was was Chairman of the County Bench, and they were both involved with social work in the area. Lady Matthews was also an early feminist, and was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), serving as a Vice-President of the local branch and working in its War Relief Clothing Depot in their premises at 18 Crescent Road during the War.

1914 08 17 Lady MATTHEWS clothing depot
Lady Matthews’ Diary entry for Monday 17th August 1914 (IWM Documents.17087)

The Kent & Sussex Courier of 4th September 1914 announced the opening of the Depot for the collection and distribution of ‘new and partly-worn articles of clothing suitable for convalescent soldiers or their wives and families’.  By late October, the newspaper was reporting that ‘at the request of the Mayor, the Committee of the Clothing Depot of the NUWSS at 18 Crescent Road (a department of the Mayor’s scheme for the relief of distress) has also undertaken the collection and distribution of clothes for refugees, in addition to the collection and distribution for convalescent soldiers and civilians’.

Lady Matthews first records the presence of Belgian refugees in the town on Sunday 4th October, and soon she is writing of their visits to Crescent Road, and the stories they have to tell.

Below are transcriptions of the relevant entries. The stories speak for themselves. I may well add some comments in due course.

Note : other than the young couple Lady Matthews met in February 1915 following their marriage, and about whom I have written in a previous post (and therefore don’t include here) I haven’t (yet) been able to identify any of those she mentions.

Can you help?   Kunt u mij helpen?  Pourriez-vous m’aider a le faire?      Thank you…


Lady MATTHEWS writes…

In early November 1914, young man from Tournai came to the Clothing Depot :

He was 21, of service age, & therefore sent out of Belgium by his parents.  He was too shortsighted for service in his army – he would have been sent to the harvest fields in Germany, had he been caught.  He told me how he & his family hid in a cellar while the Germans entered Tournai. Only 800 soldiers (french) opposed them, but these sufficed to hold up the Germans for the necessary 24 hours, tho’ it meant death or imprisonment to practically all the 800.  The Germans immediately drink all the wine they find, & the burgomaster was taken in a motor to Brussels by an officer with a revolver but so drunk the officer’s head lay on the burgomaster’s shoulder.  At Brussels the burgomaster was asked told to sign a paper stating that the inhabitants of Tournai had fired on the Germans.  He refused, but he was not shot, as he expected to be.  In Tournai, the Germans burned 10 houses out of mere malice.

On Saturday 21st November 1914, it was the turn of a couple from Louvain : 

A young Belgian, an automobile mechanic & his wife came in for clothes to our clothing Depôt this week.  His history was quite a common one among refugees.  He lived near Louvain & fled to Antwerp.  When the bombardment began, this family had to quit owing to military orders.  They took refuge in Ostend and lived in a bathing machine for three weeks, husband wife & two children with one blanket between them.  The rain came through the roof, & they had but bread & water to eat & drink.  Then Ostend became a threatened mark & they left again, and came over to England, where the man says they are ‘very happy’.  We made him comfortable with overcoat, gloves, a suit, etc, & the wife also.

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205286732
© IWM (Q 53223) A Belgian refugee family forced to live in a bathing machine at Ostend, August 1914

Wednesday 25th November 1914 :

This morning I was in our clothing Depôt & dealt with a Belgian, a musical artist who has lost his only son in the War.  His wife had lost her reason, & he did not even know where she is.   

Another man came in, with his family.  He had lived at the ill-fated Malines, where now only a dozen houses are standing.  His home is destroyed, and he & his wife & children fled to Bruges, Antwerp, Ostend, & so to England.

One Sunday in November, Lady Matthews entertained ‘a Belgian barrister and his dainty little wife’ to tea :

Neither can talk English.  They have a villa near Knocke on the Belgian Sea Coast, & a flat in Antwerp.  On Aug 4th they were at Namur with Madame’s parents.  They endeavoured to persuade their parents to leave Namur.  Madame’s father refused.  Madame and her husband reluctantly left, & went to Knocke.  They were warned to leave their villa about Aug 18th, in a hurry.  They left with each a small valise in their summer clothes & went to Ostend.  There an English gunboat consented to take them across.  The transit took 24 hours, owing to difficulties & cautions regarding mines.  They made their way from Chatham to London, where for 3 months they managed to live in a Boarding house on the few pounds they had in an available Bank.  Their income depends on shares in a Factory which is now a heap of ruins.  Their villa, left with unlocked doors, & unshuttered windows, must be looted, if not burnt by bombardment from the English monitors.  Of the parents, & the little sister, remaining at Namur, they have not heard one single word since parting from them.  And Namur was severely bombarded in August. 

M. & Madame get each 7/- a week f. the English Government for food.  The hostels are full of common people, & life is most difficult for differing classes in such close quarters.  We are trying to get some classes up so that by teaching they may earn a little, & a generous old gentleman is paying for some nice rooms where they are.

The Bread of Exile is bitter indeed.


Notes :

  • After February 1915, there seem to be no more mentions of the Clothing Depot or the Belgian refugees.  Maybe Lady Matthews stopped working there?  The Depot closed in December 1917 as the Belgians no longer had need of it and it was felt that the people of Tunbridge Wells could no longer be expected to give away clothes ‘so lavishly’ in face of the national demand for economy. During the years it was open, 11,000 garments had been ‘dealt with’. (Kent & Sussex Courier, 14th December 1917)
  • Private Papers of Lady Matthews – content description on IWM website : Extremely interesting illustrated four volume ms diary (111pp, 140pp, 172pp, and 132pp) written between August 1914 and November 1918 as a record of the First World War for her young children, with a particular focus on Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where she was living at the time, and including descriptions of: rising food prices; rumours over the progress of the war; the good levels of morale of the British and the atmosphere in Britain; the changes to Tunbridge Wells with the influx of soldiers to the town; helping the Red Cross with sewing clothes for wounded men; helping in the soldiers’ canteen; the blackout and Zeppelin raids; soldiers billeted in Tunbridge Wells; the introduction and administration of rationing; women at work in restaurants and as tram conductors (January 1916); wounded men arriving in Kent; seeing the film ‘Battle of the Somme’, and her reaction to it (4 September 1916); the difficulties in finding servants; the progress of the suffrage movement and the enfranchisement of women (26 August 1917); the Spanish Influenza pandemic (July and October 1918); celebrations on Armistice day; and her hopes for the peace (30 November 1918)….In circa 1924 Lady Matthews added brief notes to the text, correcting rumours she had reported and comparing the food prices to those of the 1920s.

 

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100 years ago today – à Mesdemoiselles SCOTT

Updated 21 August 2016

On 22nd July 1916, the Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells celebrated their National Day (21st July) by honouring the ladies of the Mayor’s Refugee Committee – Mrs BURTON, Mrs GUTHRIE, Miss POWER, Mrs Le LACHEUR, Mme Le JEUNE, Miss McCLEAN, Mrs WILSON and the Misses SCOTT – and the local Doctors – WILSON, C. SMITH and GUTHRIE – who ministered to the refugees free of charge.

A ceremony and celebration was held in the Town Hall on Calverley Road to which townspeople and Belgian refugees were invited. On the evening in question the hall was packed.

At 7.30pm precisely the Mayor, Councillor Charles Whitbourn EMSON with his wife, Margaret, and Miss EMSON (presumably their elder daughter, Marjorie), arrived in the hall and were welcomed by Monsieur Florent COOSEMANS, Mrs EMSON then being presented with a floral arrangement of orchids and roses by one of the Belgian children.  Monsieur Albert LE JEUNE, Honorary President of the ‘Club Albert’ spoke patriotically of his country’s history and its links with Britain, and Monsieur COOSEMANS then spoke of the two years they had spent in exile and of the kindness afforded to them by the people of Tunbridge Wells, and by the ladies and doctors of the Committee in particular.

The reception received in this lovely county, rightly named the Garden of England, was above what the Belgian people could have expected… It took all the dexterity and amiability of the British, whose noble and chivalrous character was proverbial, to sweeten their troubles and suffering. (Kent & Sussex Courier, 28 July 1916)

While the Kent and Sussex Courier reported that a commemorative album, to which all the Belgians in the area had contributed, was then presented to Mrs EMSON as the representative of the ladies of the Committee, the Belgian press-in-exile reported that albums were given to each of the ladies of the Committee – including Belgian refugee Mme LE JEUNE – , along with bouquets of flowers.

What we know for certain is that an album was presented to the Misses SCOTT -Amelia and Louisa.  Because it still exists – in the Papers of Amelia Scott which are held in the Women’s Library @ LSE [1]

SCOTT Cover
The Album

It is an amazing resource, providing as it does a list of names of possibly all, maybe most, certainly some, of those in the area at the time.  Some entries take up a whole page – there are patriotic poems, poems of gratitude, drawings and paintings. I will never forget my excitement when I first held it in my hands back in December 2013!

I have transcribed this wonderful album, and to mark its Centenary I am today posting a new page with the names and addresses of all the signatories (see tabs above).

SCOTT3
‘Club Albert’ Committee 1916

And some fascinating discoveries as I research the names.  Among them is Josef DENYN, the famous ‘carilloneur’ of Malines, who was a close friend of local musician and composer, William Wooding STARMER, and spent the whole period of the war in Tunbridge Wells with his family;

p10_DENYN Music
Carillon Music by ‘Mechlin Bellmaster’ Josef DENYN

members of the family of painter James ENSOR of Ostend were here, and possibly his companion and muse, Augusta BOOGAERTS;

p18_Ensor_Boogaerts2
Augusta BOOGAERTS and Madame ENSOR

Albert LE JEUNE, Hon. President of the Club Albert of Tunbridge Wells, went on to be a Belgian Senator for the Antwerp region – my photo of his family’s entry is very blurred, so here instead is Madame Florent COOSEMANS’ painting of Bruges and a poem of homage to Great Britain which I presume she wrote herself since she doesn’t credit anyone else…

p4_Coosemans_Mme - Bruges cropped
Contribution from Madame Florent COOSEMANS

Mayor EMSON and Doctor WILSON thanked the gathering on behalf of the Committee and the doctors, and the evening concluded with a concert and the National Anthems of Belgium and Britain.

concert 1916
Concert programme, Belgian National Day 1916
Concert performers :
Mons. J. DENYN, Mr. O. GROVEN, Madame O. GROVEN, Mlle & Mme DENYN, Mons. DELATTRE, Mons. R. DAVELUY, Mons. R. CLAEYS, Mr WHITBURN, Miss Sylvia WRIGHT, Miss Suzy SWAN.

SCOTT invitation 2 cropped
Invitation to the Misses SCOTT for the event on 22 July 1916

Notes:

[1] Photos taken on my mobile phone

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“Where is my mother and my father?” Arthur GHISLAIN from Quaregnon

In addition to civilians, there were also wounded and medically-discharged (‘réformés’) Belgian soldiers in Tunbridge Wells.  I have already mentioned a couple – Prosper DEBERGH and Richard VAN HAWEGHEM (about whom, I know, I have promised more). Another has occupied my thoughts the past few days – Arthur GHISLAIN of the 9e régiment de ligne, no. 58,855.

At 10pm on Sunday 25th October 1914, Miss Katherine POTT, Commandant of the Speldhurst and District Voluntary Aid Detachment (Kent 74) of the British Red Cross Society [1], received notice to call up her Detachment and prepare for the arrival of wounded Belgian soldiers at the newly converted Bidborough Court – a house to the north of Tunbridge Wells which had been kindly lent by Mr Henry Joseph WOOD J.P. of The Manor House in West Malling.  By 11pm all her staff of 20 qualified members, plus probationers and support staff, had arrived and were ready to receive the wounded.

Forty Belgian soldiers arrived at Tunbridge Wells Central Station around 1 in the morning and were conveyed to Bidborough Court and Royal Victoria Hall Southborough.  By 5am they had all been attended to.

“The first call, on Sunday, October 25th, 1914, would have tested the efficiency of a much more experienced staff, for thirty Belgians were sent at the shortest notice direct from the trenches at Dixmude ; but everything was ready, and all was carried through without a hitch, the Speldhurst Men’s Bearer Squad rendering most useful assistance.”  Kent’s Care for the Wounded (1915)

The Tunbridge Wells Advertiser of 30th October reported that one of the wounded Belgians, “a very young man named Arthur GHISTRAIN”, kept asking “Where is my mother and father?”

He was from the 9th ‘régiment de Ligne’, service no. 58,855, and the article went on to wonder what he would find when he returned to his “beloved chateau” – presumably a reference to the Petit-Château barracks [2] in Brussels where the 9th régiment de ligne was quartered in 1914 before being mobilised, rather than to his family home.

Searches for an Arthur GHISTRAIN proved fruitless, but then I struck gold in the online Archive of Belgian War Press : there I found an Arthur GHISLAIN, same regiment, same service number, and at Bidborough Court.  His home town is given as ‘Quargnon’ and I am guessing it should be ‘Quaregnon’, near Mons – I know, guessing is not an acceptable research method, but…

Arthur Ghislain, 9th regiment de ligne, 58,855, from Quargnon ?(Quaregnon?), seeks his parsnts. Bidborough Court, Tonbridge Wells.
Advertisement placed in L’Independence belge of 4th November 1914

On 6th November 1914, the Kent & Sussex Courier reported that one of the soldiers ‘who speaks a little English’ had discovered the whereabouts of his mother who was at Dover and that she had visited him that week ‘to their mutual delight’.  Was this young Arthur? I hope so…

I wonder what became of him? I believe he survived the war, though only because his name does not appear on the online Belgian War Dead Register

And there’s a tantalising reference on Facebook [3] to an Arthur GHISLAIN in Quaregnon who was a champion ‘balle-pelote’ player in 1934.  Now I wonder…

Please do get in touch if you can add to his story – merci – thank you – dank u well.


[1]  “During WW1, Tunbridge Wells would have a total of 18 VAD hospitals (not all at the same time), since it was particularly suited to VAD World War I criteria:
– being reasonably close to Folkestone and Dover, both major ferry ports;
– it had a great number of large houses, which could be ideal as auxiliary hospitals and many of which were either unoccupied or occupied on only a seasonal basis;
– its population had a significant surplus of women, who were generally seen as the natural carers of the sick and ill and by inference, the wounded.”    from  The Shock of War – Chapter 6: How Tunbridge Wells coped with the military-wounded (John Cunningham and Ed Gilbert) (2014)

[2] From 1950-1985 the ‘Petit Chateau’ in Molenbeek St Jean was the recruiting and selection centre of the Belgian Army.  Since 1986 it has been a reception centre for asylum seekers.

[3] Mons 2015 – Le Grand-Ouest a Quaregnon : Souvenir 103. Je me souviens que le club de jeu de balle du Rivage attribuait chaque année le grand prix Pierre Demars, du nom d’un excellent joueur d’autrefois. Le comité invitait toutes les équipes de nationale. J’avais huit ou neuf ans. C’étaient des équipes de haut niveau, le tournoi attirait la grande foule. C’est ça qui m’a donné l’envie de jouer. Mes camarades et moi, on voulait s’y mettre mais on ne savait pas jouer. Monsieur le curé Van Vlezemans, qui était un amateur de jeu de balle, nous a initiés. Le dimanche (on n’avait rien comme distraction, à l’époque, à part la messe et le patronage), on allait jouer. C’est comme ça que ça a commencé. Et puis, Arthur Ghislain est arrivé. Il avait fait partie de l’équipe de 1934 (qui a joué la finale du championnat de Belgique). Il nous a pris en main. À l’époque, je ne savais pas livrer. Il paraît que je servais comme une fille. Le service, c’est tout un art ! Il faut savoir synchroniser certains mouvements sur un temps très bref : coup de rein, impulsion de la balle, retournement… Il nous a appris tout ça. Et puis, on y a mis du sien. On s’est entraînés : le mur de l’école, c’était notre fronton. Je ne sais pas comment il tient encore ! Un bête mur de briques, pas du tout lisse, donc les balles pouvaient aller n’importe où ! Pas d’autre entraînement que celui-là. Des heures et des heures, on tapait. Boum, boum, boum ! Il nous tombait des gouttes comme ça ! Notre secret, c’était le mur !