A Belgian family at Heron’s Ghyll

(*Updated 9 November 2018)

It has been such an age since I wrote anything.  Real life has rather got in the way.  There’s plenty in the pipeline though for when things calm down again!

I’m busy just now, helping out with an Armistice Centenary event in the village of Fairwarp in the Ashdown Forest, which prompted me to get side-lined and see if I could find any Belgian families living there during the First World War.

There was just one, living in nearby Heron’s Ghyll, a family of five from a village between Leuven (Louvain) and Mechelen (Malines).  Their story is a horrifying one.  This article from the Sussex Express of 2nd October 1914 says it all :

Newspaper article heading
Article from the Sussex Express, 2nd October 1914 (from British Newspaper Archive)

By the kindness of Mrs F.J. HOPE [1], a peasant family of refugees from Belgium are now comfortably housed at Herons Ghyll near Uckfield.

They arrived on Saturday by the 5.9 train, but their coming was not generally known so that they did not get as warm a reception as would otherwise have been the case. As it was, a small crowd assembled to greet them, and gave visible signs of the welcome which is most assuredly theirs.

On leaving the train it was seen that they comprised a family of five, and all were carrying such of their goods as they possessed, which were tied up in bundles. The father, to the buttonhole of whose coat was tied a label inscribed “Catholic Women’s League” naturally carried the most bulky of the parcels, and the mother, in addition to three bundles tied in cloths, carried an infant. There was a small boy, who looked proudly happy carrying what few of the family possessions he could, while his younger sister, in addition to a doll which she clasped as tightly as if fearing its confiscation, and which by its newness did not suggest its having come from Germany [sic] also bore a small package. They were a forlorn-looking group and pending the departure of the train which brought them, placed themselves and their belongings on a seat on the platform, but it was only a moment before the kindly Stationmaster, Mr PARKER, took them in hand and conducted them to a waiting landau, which was to take them to their new home.  There was an expression of unexpected pleasure as they took their seats in the carriage, and as it drove away a cheer from the spectators followed them.

Like most peasants in Belgium, they speak only the Flemish language which seems to be but little known.  Our representative went to Herons Ghyll on Wednesday to interview them, and found that they were comfortably housed with Mrs DUTTON [2], the wife of the coachman, who is away doing his duty to his country.  French is as unintelligible to these unfortunate people as English, but the Rev. Father BURT [3] was good enough to tell us what he had learnt of their sad history, and what an appalling tale it was.

Their home, he said, had been in a village between Louvain and Malines. The family had originally consisted of six children, but two of them had been killed by the Germans, whilst another had disappeared when they fled from a cellar in which they had been hiding, when opportunity offered for escape.  The parents fear that this child, though only a girl of ten years, has fallen into the hands of the Germans.

The sights of which they were eye witnesses are almost too terrible to relate.  They say that the German soldiers treated those of their Belgian captives in a most inhuman manner.

These refugees, it is said, actually saw the Germans cut off the ears, gouge out the eyes, and split the noses of their hapless prisoners, and in their own village, girls of only 10 years of age had their hands cut off, and even babies were bayonetted.  They were compelled to stand and see their own priest fetched out and shot in the road before their eyes.  On escaping they walked all the way to Ostend, and arrived in England absolutely destitute, the man not even having a shirt to his back.

Of the family the man appears to be the most obsessed with the fate which has befallen them, and spends much time brooding over their awful experiences and the loss of his children.  He has asked to be found some employment with which to occupy his mind, and this, we understand, will be given him on the estate where he is at present a guest.


In November 1914, the following appeared in the Belgian newspaper De stem uit België :

1914 11 13-VAN OOSTERWIJK Mr_Stables_Heron's Ghyll seeks news of family De_stem_uit_België-cropped
from De stem uit België , 13th November 1914 “Mr. A. VAN OOSTERWIJK [seeks news] of his family, c/o Stables, Heron’s Ghyll, Uckfield, Sussex.” (hetarchief.be)
A couple of months later, in January 1915, a longer request is published :

1915 01 15 VAN OOSTERWIJK family_Stables Herens_Uckfield_De stem uit België hetarchief be
from De stem uit België, 15th January 1915
VAN OOSTERWIJK. Alfons, from Campenhout-Sas [4], with wife Josephina Feyaerts and 3 children asks for news of his little girl 9 year old Julia and of his parents and brothers and sisters from Boortmeerbeek and also of Gustaaf van Oosterwijk and wife Louis Feyaerts and child and other members of the van Oosterwijk family and Isabelle de Pris from Wespelaar.  They are staying at Stables Herens, Uckfield (Sussex), England.

I think we can safely assume that this is the family referred to in the article.  I wonder whether they were ever reunited with their little girl?  I would so like to think so.  Perhaps I will find out more on my next visit to the archives in Brussels and Kew.


[1] James Fitzalan HOPE (‘J.F.’ rather than ‘F.J.’), nephew of the Duke of Norfolk, and Conservative MP for Sheffield Brightside 1900-1906 and Sheffield Central 1908-1929, bought the house at Heron’s Ghyll in 1891 from its then-owners, the Duchy of Norfolk,.  A Roman Catholic, he commissioned the building of a Catholic Church near the house.  St John the Evangelist was opened in 1897 and consecrated on 7th September 1904.  The Belgian family very probably worshipped in this church.

Although Heron’s Ghyll strictly-speaking comes under Buxted, that the HOPE family had some connection with the village of Fairwarp is evidenced by the fact that in 1911 J.F. POPE was President of the Fairwarp Cricket Club (Sussex Express, 27th October 1911)

Mrs HOPE – or Lady RANKEILLOUR she would become when her husband was raised to the peerage in 1932 – received the Elisabeth Medal from the King and Queen of the Belgians for humanitarian work during the First World War.  In addition to helping this family of refugees, and maybe others, she was responsible for the work of equipping and running 35 soldiers’ huts in England and France which were organised by the Catholic Women’s League of which she was for a time President.

1911 Census DUTTON Herons Ghyll

[2] The DUTTON family lived at The Stables, Herons Ghyll, where Albert Edward DUTTON was employed as Coachman and chauffeur.  I am not sure where he was in October 1914, but he was first in the Sussex Yeomanry, and then, in June 1915, he was in the Royal Navy, a motor driver serving with the RNAS (Royal Naal Air Service) on HMS President II.  In August 1917 he was posted to the East Mediterranean , where he remained until 31 March 1918, becoming an Air Mechanic with the RAF on its formation the following day* (UK Royal Air Force Airmen‘s records of the First World War – Source:Ancestry/Fold3)

dutton-albert-ernest_ww1-raf-muster-roll_fold3.jpg
Albert Ernest DUTTON 205948 on RAF Muster Roll (Source:Fold3)

Albert and his wife Caroline (nee STEVENS) had 3 children, Frank (b.1908), Albert (b.1910) and Gladys (b.1911).  It must have been quite a crush in the 5-roomed house when the Belgian family moved in in October 1914.

[3] The Reverend Father Emile BURT was parish priest at St John the Evangelist Heron’s Ghyll from 1910-1922.

[4] In August 1914 the region around Kampenhout-Sas was the scene of fierce fighting. All houses in the vicinity were destroyed, and the hamlet of Relst was totally wiped off the map. In Boortmeerbeek 85 houses were burnt.  In Wespelaar 47. The parish priest of nearby Buken (Bueken), Fr H. DE CLERK, was one of those in the Diocese of Mechelen (Malines) murdered in 1914.

List of priests murdered by Germans_Malines_ Diocese
List of priests murdered in the Diocese of Mechelen (Malines) in the First World War

 

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