Belgian National Day 1918

Just one hundred years ago, the Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells held its usual celebration of Belgium’s National Day on 21st July – their fourth in exile – but unlike in the early years of the war, it didn’t seem to merit a mention in the local press.  However it was covered in the Belgian newspapers in the UK – in the Metropole d’Anvers of 3rd August, and the Independence belge of 7th August 1918 (source hetarchief.be)

I find the articles particularly interesting as we learn that the ‘flu’ was already in evidence; that M. Florent COOSEMANS was still President of the Club Albert, and the Secretary was now Mr LEFEVER [1]; there is also the first (and so far only) mention I have found of a recently-created Belgian school in the town, under the directorship of Professor WOLVERSPERGES, and thanks to the efforts of M. Albert LE JEUNE, Honorary President of the Club Albert.

July 21st that year fell on a Sunday – it’s not clear whether the celebrations were held on that day, or spread across the week.  There had been no resident Belgian Catholic priest in the town since Abbé LEMMENS had returned to Belgium in August 1915 [2], but Abbé PEETERS, we are told, made a point of travelling up from his home in St Leonards to sing the traditional Te Deum and address his compatriots.

My blog-posting record being currently at an all-time low, I thought that rather than take weeks to write my own account of the festivities, I’d offer a (rough) translation of the article from the Metropole newspaper. Here goes :

From La Metropole d’Anvers, 3rd August 1918

Belgian National Day in the Belgian colony of Tunbridge Wells

“This year, as in previous years, the Belgians of Tunbridge Wells were keen to celebrate their national holiday in a worthy manner.

“Apart from a few “influenced” by the Flu”, all made it their duty to attend the Te Deum sung by Father PEETERS, who had insisted on going to Tunbridge Wells for this purpose, and followed by an address by him full of patriotism, of a sense of resignation to the current sorrows and deprivations but also of hope for the future of Belgium and in the unity of all parties and all opinions to guarantee the rebirth of our dear homeland after the victory.

“A part quelques «influencés» par le « Flu » tous se sont fait un devoir d’assister au Te Deum chanté par M. l’abbé Peeters….”

“The singing of La Brabançonne by all present closed this moving ceremony.

“In addition, a charming little family celebration organised by the Club Albert, with the generous help of M. and Mme Albert LE JEUNE, brought together all the Belgians at the Club’s premises last Saturday.

“Without a doubt, the highlight of this celebration was the distribution of prizes to the pupils of the Belgian school. This school – of recent creation – is also the work of M. Le Jeune. It complements the education most of our children receive in English schools. Professor WOLVERSPERGES has been entrusted with the directorship of the school, and he carries out his task with a rare devotion and a marvellous success

“The ever-increasing number of pupils is evidence of how much his work is appreciated. M. Albert LE JEUNE, the worthy Honorary President of the Club Albert, opened the meeting with a speech reminding us of the importance of the day we were celebrating, as well as our duties as Belgians. M. COOSEMANS, President of the Club, thanked M. LE JEUNE, as well as Mme LE JEUNE who had also made it her duty to attend the meeting, for their tireless devotion to the colony; M. LEFEVER, Secretary of the Club, on behalf of the fathers and mothers of the families, thanked Professor WOLVERSPERGES for his dedication to fulfilling his difficult task, and congratulated him on the results obtained.

“Then M. WOLVERSPERGES, after reading the list of Prize Winners, gave the floor to his pupils, who, in French and Flemish, in verse and prose, provided proof of their declamatory talents.  Finally the distribution of the prizes, followed by the traditional tea, concluded this delightful gathering to the satisfaction of all, young and old.”


Brabanconne
La Brabançonne”  – translation by The Times correspondent in Brussels during the war years

[1] Auguste LEFEVER and his wife Gabrielle DECAUX were from Antwerp, and in Tunbridge Wells with their four primary-school-aged children, Jean, Marie-Louise, José, and Albert, and M. Lefever’s sisters.  Clearly the family would have been very pleased that the children were at last able to receive tuition in their own language.  I wonder which Tunbridge Wells school they attended.
[2] Click here to link to an article about the Belgian Comunity and St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church

 

What about the Belgian children’s education?

This blog is as much an aide memoire for myself as anything else – somewhere for me to record what I still have to research.

And schooling is a whole area still to be explored.

In all, 75 Belgian refugee children passed through Tunbridge Wells (though the maximum at any one time was only 35), and arrangements were made with the Borough’s schools to give them free education as required [1].

Some were taught by Belgian nuns staying at at Clayton’s Farm, and most of the younger children attended St Augustine’s Catholic Primary School. However, King Charles and Murray House Church of England Schools certainly took in one boy and two girls, and the Girls’ High School had one pupil who was being supported by the Old Girls of the school.  There were boys at Skinners’ School and also at Tonbridge School (see note [3]), and from February 1915 a number of Belgian refugee children attended the newly-opened Sacred Heart Convent School at Beechwood on Pembury Road [2].

This contemplation of the Belgian children’s schooling has been prompted by my discovery this morning while sorting papers of some forgotten notes made from the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser some years ago (only consultable on microfilm in the library – sadly not (yet?) on the wonderful British Newspaper Archive).

“Tunbridge Wells Advertiser, 18th May 1917:  Mariette CARMON joined Murray House School in October 1914.  Kent Higher Education Committee consented in July last that she be educated at the County School in recognition of her good work.”

In July 1916, according to the Kent and Sussex Courier (which is on the British Newspaper Archive) Murray House School Annual Sports afternoon at the Nevill Ground included the presentation of ‘a charming scene’ from Hiawatha in which Mariette CARMON played Chibiabos, musician and close friend of Hiawatha, and an M. Carmon – Mariette? – was awarded a swimming certificate and badge.

Now here’s the thing: is she a Belgian refugee?  Did I assume she was because of her name? Or did the newspaper say that she was?  A slap on the wrist for poor note-taking and back to the library and the microfilm machine! [Update: see comments below]

And then on to the school records in Maidstone, at the Kent History and Library Centre, where the records for the other local schools are also held…

Meanwhile, if you can help, please do get in touch!  Thank you.


Interestingly, only in early 1918 was a Belgian School started up in Tunbridge Wells, and that thanks to Mr Albert LE JEUNE [3], Honorary President of the Club Albert.  Head of the school was Professor Gaston WOLVERSPERGES, a refugee from Antwerp, who with his wife Irma had arrived in Tunbridge Wells from Leicester in August 1917.  His registration papers show frequent visits to the LE JEUNE family residence, Stanton House in Pembury, which suggests they already kinew each other – maybe Mr Le Jeune arranged for him to come to Tunbridge Wells especially to set up the school?

WOLVERSPERGES Gaston Cert Reg reverse
Extract from the reverse of Mr WOLVERSPERGES’s registration document in the Belgian National Archives

I found no record of this school in the local Kent press or records. It was an article in L’Independence belge of 7th August 1918 which alerted me to its existence.  It seems that that year the celebrations for Belgian National Day on 21st July had included the school prize-giving and recitations in French and Flemish of poetry and prose by the children.  The purpose of the school, the article explained, was to complement the ‘instruction’ the children were already receiving in English schools.  Pupil numbers were growing, and the mothers and fathers were very grateful to Professor WOLVERSPERGES for the devotion with which he carried out his difficult task.

WOLVERSPERGES Gaston cropped
Refugee Registration Form – undated but probably 14/15 given Prof WOLVERSPERGES’ age

The registrations documents I consulted show that Gaston WOLVERSPERGES was born in Schaerbeek, Brussels, on 8th June 1875 and that his home address was 11 rue du Lys, Berchem, Antwerp.  A teacher of Geography and History, he spoke both French and Flemish.  Once in the Tunbridge Wells area he and his wife lived first at 16 Meadow Road in Southborough, and later, from February 1918, at 9 Cambridge Street.  He was employed as a teacher at ‘Lingfield School’ and if that’s Lingfield in Surrey, those records are in Woking!


Notes

[1] Report of the Borough of Tunbridge Wells Refugees Committee, May 1919, a copy of which was found for me by Michael Amara of the Belgian National Archives.

[2] Information gleaned from the local newspapers, and from the Beechwood Sacred Heart Convent & School Archives held at Barat House, Roehampton.

[3] Albert LE JEUNE was a future Belgian senator and apparently had an English grandmother whose identity I have still to discover. He and his wife Gabrielle played an active part in both the local and Belgian communities. Their sons attended Tonbridge School.  More about the family in a future post.