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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Those who helped

I’ve been hunting down the local people who worked tirelessly to support the town’s Belgian guests and have put up some new pages about the two committeees looked at so far – that for Clayton’s Farmhouse, Ashurst, and the Mayor’s Borough Committee. Some members of the former also sat on the latter. The research (and writing up) is ongoing.  Some great stories.

It is notable that most of them were women. Many of them were working in VAD hospitals, at least one as Commandant and several as nurses, others were Poor Law Guardians, all were wealthy and influential, and many were related to each other either by blood or marriage.

I’ve found links to J.M. Barrie, Edward Lear, and Alfred Tennyson, to a writer of well-known hymns, to the theatre director Tyrone Guthrie, to the women’s suffrage – and anti-suffrage – movements.

Too many tangents off on which to go!

Revenons à nos moutons…

The small committee to manage arrangements at Clayton’s Farmhouse was set up by Mr and Mrs JOHNSTONE of Burrswood, Groombridge in early September 1914.  Clayton’s closed as refugee accommodation in December 1915, as all the residents had either returned home to Belgium, or taken up work in other parts of the UK.

Later in September 1914, the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells set up the Borough Committee (the which worked until all the refugees had returned home in May 1919.

Queen Elisabeth MedalSeveral members of the Mayor’s Committee were awarded the Ordre de la Reine Elisabeth for humanitarian work by the King of the Belgians :Nora GUTHRIE, Annette WILSON, Susan POWER, Anna McCLEAN, Amelia SCOTT, Gabrielle LeJEUNE, and Alice BURTON..goldenpalm

Amelia SCOTT, Mayor EMSON, and W.C. CRIPPS were awarded the Palmes d’Or de l’Ordre de la Couronne.

Well now, I’m supposed to be concentrating on our visitors – to be honest, I’ve so much material, I don’t know where to start.  I’ll take the plunge in the next few days.

Britain responds to the human crisis

As refugees from the fighting on the Continent arrived in Dover and Folkestone, individual schemes were launched to welcome them, notably by Pastor Adolphe Petersen, Protestant Minister in Folkestone, himself a Belgian, and by writer and journalist, Flora Shaw, Lady Lugard who set up the War Refugees Committee (WRC) in London [Read more here (external link)]

On 9th September 1914, Herbert Samuel, President of the Local Government Board (LGB – forerunner of the Ministry of Health) announced in Parliament that the British Government had offered the “hospitality of the British nation” to Belgium’s war victims, and that the WRC had agreed to cooperate with his department “in the reception and distribution of the refugees“.  The work was now to be shared by the LGB, the WRC, and the Belgian War Relief Committee in Folkestone.

Appeals for offers of hospitality around the country were published in the press, and the Mayors of large Boroughs and the Chairmen of County Councils and large Urban District Councils, were asked by the LGB to form local sub-Committees and establish whether anyone in their district would be willing to offer hospitality to Belgian refugees.  Those committees were asked to communicate directly with the WRC who would be responsible for the distribution of refugees from London to various local centres.  Offers of homes were also invited for the “many educated persons of good families” who had lost homes and employment through the war, where they could be received as guests until they were able to return to their own country[1].

On 25th September a circular from the LGB announced that 6,000 refuges had so far been provided with accommodation, “fewer than expected”, and that offers of hospitality so far exceeded demand. However the situation changed after  the fall of Antwerp on 10th October, and a circular went out asking for further offers, as help was now  needed for nearly 12,000 refugees who had arrived at Folkestone.

In Tunbridge Wells, the first to respond would appear, from perusal of the local press, to have been Mr and Mrs Johnston of Burrswood, Groombridge, who in early September offered Clayton’s Farmhouse in Ashurst.  At the same time, the local branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society, based at St Augustine’s RC Church in Tunbridge Wells, appealed to Catholics in the town to come forward with offers of accommodation, free or otherwise.

These brave Belgian people have nobly done their share in opposing the German aggression, and let us do our best to show our gratitude – Mayor Whitbourn Emson

On 25th September, Mayor Charles Whitbourn Emson called a meeting of interested parties to discuss his proposal to open a Municipal Fund and set up a Borough Committee to help the refugees arriving in the town.

He wrote to the Belgian War Relief Committee in Folkestone:

Dear Sir –

I am pleased to inform you that arrangements have been made in this Borough to accommodate 30 Belgian Refugees, not of the peasant type, but of the middle class and tradespeople – 1 group of 12 to be accommodated in one house; 2 groups of 4 each to be accommodated temporarily in a lodging house; 2 groups of 3 each, ditto; 2 groups of 2 each, ditto.

I shall be glad if you can arrange for these refugees to arrive in Tunbridge Wells on Friday afternoon, and if you will kindly let me know prior to their arrival the names, relationships, and any other particulars relating to those sent, and the time of arrival.

You will no doubt arrange before they are sent that they are medically examined and have a clean bill of health.

Yours faithfully

Chas. W. Emson, Mayor.

The first families arrived at Clayton’s Farm in early October and by the end of that month nearly 100 refugees had been placed in accommodation by the Tunbridge Wells Committee.

In the months that followed, gifts of money, furniture and even homes, poured in, and lists appeared in the local press each week of those who had contributed.  Local Suffragette Miss Olive Walton, local WSPU Secretary, was one of many who made a donation of £5.

Belgians 001


[1] Letter from Lord Lytton published in the Aberdeen Journal, 17 September 1914 [British Newspaper Archive]