What are the chances?  The MATTHIEUWIS family from Mechelen

When I was transcribing the 1916 Scott Album a couple of years ago, some of the names were a struggle to decipher.  Such as this one which, after a year or two, and much Googling, I decided was MATTHIEUWIS :p25_matthieuwis

And it stuck in my mind. 

The full entry is :

Matthieuwis jB         J. Verschueren           Mad. Verschueren

Bailles de Fer 14, Malines

Mad.  Matthieuwis        Jos. Verschueren      Jose Devrory

Fast forward to today :

We’re discussing the creation of a database of those who signed the Scott album and what to include, and for reference I turned to one available online for the refugees who were in Glasgow – and got side-tracked. 

I started looking for familiar names, just in case.  I knew the refugees moved around. Not just within Tunbridge Wells, but also the UK.  We’d not yet found any who came to Tunbridge Wells from Glasgow, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. 

As I scanned the (very long) list of names, one leapt out at me : MATTHIEUWIS, Jean and Barbara, both 66, c/o Little Sisters of the Poor, 180 Garngadhill [1], Glasgow, whence they departed on 16th October 1914 – no onward address given.

But their address in Belgium is given as “Balde Fer 14, Malines” – surely a mis-spelling/transcription of “Bailles de Fer”.  Has to be the same family if not the same people… doesn’t it?

[1] Now Roystonhill

King’s Day, 15th November 1914

Sunday 15th November was an important date in the calendar for the Belgian Community : it was (and still is) King’s Day – la Fete du RoiKoningsdag – the King’s feast day [1] – and the day was celebrated in style in 1914 by the refugees and their hosts.

- The World's Work, 1919:Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30736306 https://archive.org/stream/worldswork38gard#page/634/mode/2up,
King Albert I by Richard Neville Speaight

The Belgian flag was flown over most of the town’s public buildings, the Belgians themselves sported ribbons in their national colours of black, gold and red, and a full account of the proceedings was given in the local press the following Friday [2].

The day began with a Mass and the singing of patriotic hymns (though no mention on this occasion of a Te Deum) at St Augustine’s Catholic Church at which the huge congregation spilled out into Hanover Road.  A special choir of Belgian refugees, including the Sisters of Mercy from Malines, was conducted by M. Denyn, and Canon Keatinge preached at length on the debt owed to the Belgian people by English Catholics whose forebears had taken refuge across the Channel during the reign of Elizabeth I.

After the service, the Belgians marched from the church to their temporary homes on Upper Grosvenor Road (at this early stage probably numbers 32 (Cintra House) and 47 (“the Belgian Hostel”), waving Belgian flags and singing their National Anthem, cheered on by crowds of local people who lined their way.

In the afternoon, the Belgian community gathered in the room lent to them for that purpose at the Constitutional Club on Calverley Road, to celebrate “their courageous King Albert”.  M. Ernest KUMPS, provisional President of the newly-formed Belgian Club Albert, expressed their thanks for the “many kind attentions” they were receiving in Tunbridge Wells, and to the Mayor and the Corporation for the telegram they had sent King Albert to mark the occasion.

The next day a grand concert was held in the Pump Room [3] on The Pantiles, organised by Mr Frank HIRD [4] in the presence of the Mayor and Mayoress. Nearly 600 people, mostly Belgians, from all parts of the district, attended, according to the Kent & Sussex Courier, which described it as “a gathering unique in the history of the town”. The entire programme was in French with performances by local artistes who kindly gave their services – there was a short play in French [5], a ballet solo (which was so enjoyed it had to be repeated), recitations, piano solos – and an imitation of farmyard animals by a Miss Parbury.


Mr Hird received the ultimate accolade for the celebration when one of those attending shook him warmly by the hand and delared that it was “just like being at home”.

The occasion ended with the Allies’ National Anthems and was followed by refreshments : coffee, not tea – of course.

[1] King’s Day – 15th November is the feast day of both St Leopold and St Albert, and has been celebrated as King’s Day since 1866, during the reign of Leopold II.  It is not a national public holiday, but is traditionally marked with a Te Deum at the Cathedral in Brussels, and a secular ceremony at the Belgian Federal Parliament.

[2] K & S Courier, Friday 20th November 1914

[3] The Pump Room was demolished in 1964 and replaced by the lovely Union House

[4] Journalist and author Frank (Francis) HIRD was the adopted son and companion of sculptor Sir Ronald Gower of Mayo House on Mount Ephraim.  Frank Hird was well known in the town for “organising amateur entertainments in aid of good works” (Kent & Sussex Courier, July 1915).  In November 1914 he was helping out at West Hall VAD Hospital, and in October 1915 he became Secretary to the newly-opened Kingswood Park VAD Hospital.  From 1917-1918 he was a Church Army Commissioner at the Front.  Sir Ronald died in 1916 and Frank Hird in 1937.  They are buried together at St Paul’s Rusthall.

[5]”Doctoresse et Couturier” by Julien Berr de Turique, a one-act play about a female doctor and a male dressmaker, who, after a series of misunderstandings, end up married – of course.  The part of the dresssmaker was played by the Hon. Stephen Powys.


A new community research project

Well now – some news!  After nearly a decade of working alone on this passion of mine which is the ‘Belgian Colony’ of Tunbridge Wells, I am now collaborating with academics from the University of Kent and University College London, and volunteers from local arts & education umbrella group Camden Road Education, Arts and Theatre Enterprise (CREATE to you and me) on a project to Discover the Belgian Community in Tunbridge Wells 1914-1918 which has recevied funding from the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC) through  Gateways to the First World War  Very, very exciting!

I shall continue to add to this blog, and also my Twitter (see feed on this page) and Facebook pages, but will also be contributing to the project’s own blog which has just gone live this very day and is Royal Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees 1914-1919

The project will use a variety of historical sources to reveal the largely forgotten history of the Belgian community in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and surrounding areas during the First World War…, the ‘colony’ that they built, and their interactions with the host community.

Volunteers will utilise digital and archival resources to make posts to [the project’s] blog about the refugees and their hosts and to produce a local Belgian Community Heritage Trail, which will be available to local people, school students and visitors to use free of charge by the end of July 2017.  It is intended that versions of the Heritage Trail will be available not only in English but also (through this blog) in Belgium’s official languages, Dutch, French, and German.

from the Introduction to the Project by Dr Anne Logan, University of Kent

So, we’re looking for volunteers to research (or help with research), to write blog posts, to help with admin, to liaise with local organisations such as school, churches and the press, to take photos of local places associated with the refugees – and these are just a few off the top of my head.

There will be twice-monthly Drop-in Sessions for volunteers to which all are welcome, and the first one is on Saturday 11th February 12.30-13.30pm at the Camden Centre in Tunbridge Wells (see [1] below for future dates).

You’ll be able to meet the project leaders, Dr Anne Logan and Dr Kate Bradley from the University of Kent, and Dr Christophe Declercq from University College London, as well as other volunteers (and yours truly of course), and find out more about the project and how you can be involved, as well as compare notes on research currently underway.

Join us!  For more information you can get in touch with me via my contact page  or email the project leaders on RTWBelgians1914@kent.ac.uk

We look forward to hearing from you!

Alion Sandford MacKenzie

P.S. Alongside the funded research project, I’m cooking up some Anglo-Belgian Friendship Events, in particular over the weekend of 21st-23rd July (21st July being Belgian National Day of course).  On the drawing board so far are a choral concert (to include music composed by one of Tunbridge Wells’s wartime guests), an impro exchange between Claquers Impro of Tunbridge Wells and Improfiel from Leuven, a cricket match, a tree-planting, perhaps a Picnic at Eridge Rocks (which is how the Belgian community celebrated their national day in 1917)…  Other ideas are floating about involving Belgian food, music, literature, art….

If you have one (an idea that is), or would like to be involved in this side of things, please get in touch via my contact page.  Thank you.

Important note : this strand has no funding, so events will need to fund themselves, or maybe we’ll get going with some crowd-funding…

[1] Volunteer Open Meetings (3rd Tuesday and 1st Saturday of the month), all at the Camden Centre: Tuesday 16th May 6.30-7.30pm, Saturday 3rd June 12,30-1.30pm, Tuesday 18th June 6.30-7.30pm, Saturday 1st July 12.30-1.30pm, Tuesday 18th July 6.30-7.30pm

Find out more by joining our Facebook Group RTW Belgians 1914