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

 

Births, Marriages and Deaths

Today I stumbled upon another birth in the Tunbridge Wells Belgian Community, that of Françoise Marie Isabelle Louise Madeleine Cornélie, daughter of Jean-Baptiste and Madeleine VAN DE PUT-MEEUS, on 30th April 1915.

The child’s parents had married in Wyneghem near Antwerp on 9th June 1914 – the bride was the daughter of the town’s Mayor, M. Hippolyte MEEUS, and the newspaper Le Courrier d’Anvers devoted a quarter of its front page on 19th June 1914 to coverage of the celebrations, describing how the marriage party made its way from the church to the MEEUS home, their way lined with a large and “sympathique” crowd of well-wishers.

As the young couple set off for their honeymoon in Biarritz and the Swiss Lakes, they couldn’t have known that only a few weeks later they would be fugitives from war.

MEEUS Madeleine_VAN DE PUT Jean_Marriage-Le_courrier_d'Anvers_1914 06 19
Jean Baptiste VAN DE PUT and Madeleine MEEUS in Le Courrier d’Anvers, 19th June 1914

The MEEUS family’s story I have not yet told on this blog, but you will find some of it in the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society book The Shock of War (ed. John Cunningham), in the Chapter I contributed about the Belgian refugees in Tunbridge Wells.  The Mayor and his wife both died in Tunbridge Wells in 1915, six months apart.  Lavish funerals were held at St Augustine’s and their bodies laid to rest in the Cemetery Mortuary Chapel until the end of the war when they were repatriated and buried in the family vault.

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But I digress.  My intention today was simply to list the Births, Marriages and Deaths I have so far come across and for which I have the certificates, so here goes.

1915

  • January 2nd   Death at 3 Woodbury Park Road of widow Euthalie Amelie BAL-VAN VAERENBERGH, 78, of 112 avenue du Commerce, Antwerp  – she too was repatriated after the war and buried in Antwerp.
  • February 20th   Marriage of Prosper Leopold DEBERGH and Marie RAVIJTS, both from Termonde, at St Augustine’s Catholic Church
  • February 23rd    Marriage of Oscar Edouard GROVEN and Germaine Mathilde Therese TANGHE both from Ostend, and engaged to be married before they left Belgium, at St Paul’s Catholic Church in Dover
  • March 23rd   Death at Tunbridge Wells General Hospital of baby Helene BECKER, 7 months, from measles and broncho-pneumonia.  She lies in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at Hawkenbury.
  • April 30th   Birth of Francoise Marie Isabelle Louise Madeleine Cornélie, daughter of Jean-Baptiste and Madeleine VAN DE PUT-MEEUS, at 4 Nevill Park
  • May 25th   Birth of Jacques Albert Daniel, son of Leon and Laure COEN-CHRISTIAENS from Schaerbeek, Brussels, at “Belle Vue”, 54 Mount Ephraim
  • June 26th   Death of Isabelle Adolphine Marie Ferdinande Josephine MEEUS-de MEURS, 61, the wife of Hippolyte MEEUS, distiller and Mayor of Wyneghem, at 4 Nevill Park
  • October 17th   Birth of Rose Marie, daughter of Paul and Marie Francoise VAN NULAND-HANOCQ, from Antwerp, at 7 Calverley Park Crescent
  • October 26th   Death of Hippolyte Maria Ivo MEEUS, 64, Mayor of Wyneghem, at 4 Nevill Park
  • December 2nd   Birth of Gladys Marie Virginie, daughter of Oscar and Germaine GROVEN-TANGHE (the couple who had married in Dover earlier that year), at 11 Linden Park, Broadwater Down.

1916

  • February 26th   Death at Tonbridge Workhouse Informary of Rosalie GEBRUERS-de PAUW, 58, wife of telephone fitter Sebastien GEBRUERS, who were living at 43 Grosvenor Road
  • April 12th   Marriage of munitions worker Andre VAN DEN EYNDE of Yew Cottages, Powder Mills, Tonbridge, and Annie TAYLOR, spinster, of Maidstone Road, Paddock Wood, at Tonbridge Register Office – not Tunbridge Wells, but he does pop up in the occasional concert in the town (at least I think it’s him/he) so I thought I’d include them.
  • May 1st   Death at 11 Linden Park, Broadwater Down, of Wilhelmina Florentina VANHERCKE, 66, “spinster daughter of Jean VANHERCKE cabinet-maker”
  • September 1st   Death at 154b Upper Grosvenor Road, of Josef Marie Louis , 2, son of Paul and Marie VAN NULAND-HANOCQ, from tubercular meningitis
  • September 28th   Death at 3 East Cliff Road of Emma Caroline, 12, daughter of  Mechelen ‘carilloneur’ Josef  DENYN and his wife Helene DENYN-SCHUERMANS

1917

  • February 1st   Death at 63 Grosvenor Park of Theodore VAN BENEDEN, 66, from Blaseveldt near Antwerp.  He was in Tunbridge Wells with his brother and several cousins.
  • June 13th   Birth of Genevieve Marie Josephe Julie Christiane Ghislaine, daughter of Professor Joseph WILLEMS and his wife Marguerite WILLEMS-BESME – by this time they were living in Folkestone, at 83 Bouverie Road West, where the Professor was an Adjutant in the Belgian Intelligence Service
  • June 22nd   Birth of John Emile Polidore, son of Oscar and Germaine GROVEN-TANGHE and a brother to Gladys, at 55 Culverden Park Road.  Father Oscar is now a munitions worker.
  • July 4th   Birth of Joseph Marie Odilon, son of Paul and Marie VAN NULAND-HANOCQ, at 154b Upper Grosvenor Road
  • September 23rd   Death at 3 East Cliff Road of Helene Theodore Hubertine SCHUERMANS, 55, wife of Mechelen Bellmaster Josef DENYN
  • October 20th   Marriage of Jeanne DEMEURISSE and Louis TANGHE at St Augustine’s Catholic Church

 

 

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