Sometime last year – or maybe the year before – the idea of marking the First World War Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells in some way wandered into my mind. Some sort of “Anglo-Belgian Friendship Event” to run during 2017, maybe over the Belgian National Day weekend in July. And perhaps we would be able to trace some descendants of the families who could join us…
Then when the Community Research Project was proposed, we decided we would round it up with an event for project volunteers on Belgian National Day, 21st July 2017 at which the Project’s Heritage Trail would be launched.
And now all of a sudden we have a mini-festival on our hands! Tunbridge Wells Belgian Week 2017 is now ‘a thing’. Wow! Thanks to a gang of volunteers who have taken up the idea, a variety of events celebrating all things Belgians will be happening in the week 15th-23rd July.
And I am delighted to say that family members from Belgium will be joining us for the weekend.
Among the events so far confirmed are :
A Concert on Saturday 15th July at St Paul’s Church Rusthall, featuring local singers and musicians performing works by local and Belgian composers and others. Main items on the programme are James Whitbourn‘s Son of God Mass for choir, organ, and soprano saxophone, and a piece for oboe and piano by Frederic Bonzon who was one of the refugees in Tunbridge Wells in the years 1914-1919 and a Professor at the Antwerp Conservatorium. There will be a Retiring Collection at the Concert for the present-day work of Tunbridge Wells Welcomes Refugees
Costumed role-players from CREATE will be on hand to guide visitors round the new Heritage Trail on the morning of Saturday 22nd July
A friendly T20 Cricket Match at the Bayham Cricket Ground between TWBC Royals and the Royal Brussels Cricket Clubfrom 11am on Saturday 22nd July (please note change of venue & date).
An impro show by local groupClaqueurs Impro and Improfiel from Leuven in Belgium on the evening of Saturday 22nd July at King Charles Church Hall
A Country Walk and Picnic – perhaps a re-creation of that organised by the Belgians in July 1917 to celebrate their National Day – period costume optional!
Unfest Sunday Session @ the Forum on Sunday 23rd July 1pm-7pm – music, DJ, food, drink and much more, including a screening of Jozef Devillé’s 2012 film The Sound of Belgium
We are also in discussion with a number of local hostelries regarding their adding a Belgian theme to their menus during the week – keep an eye on the website (see below) to find out more.
And we would also encourage local groups and organisations to follow suit – maybe a book group could read a book by a Belgian author, or a film society screen a Belgian film, or… or… Whatever takes your fancy! Just let me know and I’ll put it on the website.
What makes this all an even crazier idea is the fact that we have no funding. All events will need to fund themselves. Unless anyone fancies sponsoring, say, printing costs of posters etc? Just a thought.
Meanwhile, a website has gone quietly live – you’ll find it at www.twbelgianweek2017.org.ukDo keep an eye on it as it will be regularly updated as more details become available.
And for more information, or indeed if you would like to organise an event, please contact me via my contact page.
P.S. Unfortunately the tree-planting isn’t happening just yet as it’s the wrong time of year.
On 20th October 1917, Belgian soldier Louis Jean Albert TANGHE, 25, married Jeanne Marie Colette DEMEURISSE, 29, at St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Tunbridge Wells. The ceremony was conducted by Catholic priest, Fr Joseph PEETERS, and local Registrar Arthur S. WISEMAN.
The marriage certificate is fascinating, not least because it brings together so many strands of our project research, and throws up so many questions.
I do already know the answers to some of them, but I’ll start with some of the questions without the answers, and perhaps the answers will conveniently provide future blog posts either on here or on the project blog which you will find at http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/rtwbelgians 
St Augustine’s Church : the old church was on the corner of Hanover Road and Grosvenor Road, and was the spiritual home of most of the Belgian refugees.
Do we have an image of the building?
Is the wedding noted in St Augustine’s parish records?
Final Report of the Borough of Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees Committee (May 1919) (my own copy)
Album given to the Misses Scott by the Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells (22 July 1916) – Women’s Library @ LSE (All photos of the album, apart from the one credited to Anne Logan, were taken by me, Alison Sandford MacKenzie, on a mobile phone – with apologies for the poor quality)
 I will add links to any answers or post them alongside the questions, so do check back!
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.
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.
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.
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 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 30thBirth 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.
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.
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
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
I have just returned from giving a talk about the First World War “Belgian Colony” of Tunbridge Wells in the Victorian Chapel at Tunbridge Wells Cemetery.
The cemetery is the final resting place of seven of the Belgian exiles who took refuge in our town, and earlier today I visited their graves with local expert Anne Bates who had prepared Belgian flags to mark them, ready for visitors in the afternoon.
We took the opportunity to place flowers on each one and wondered how many years it has been since their memory was honoured.
Four of the graves have headstones but three are unmarked.
The flags, we have left there – they are in Sections B6 and C5, Roman Catholic Sections, not far from the lower entrance on Bayham Road, should anyone care to pass by.
An impressive headstone near to the path is that of 58 year-old Rosalie GEBRUERS-DE PAUW, wife of telephone fitter Sebastien GEBRUERS, who died in the Workhouse Infirmary at Pembury on 26 February 1916.
A la pieuse mémoire de Dame Rosalie Marie DE PAUW épouse de Sébastien GEBRUERS née a Oostmalle (Prov. a’Anvers) Belgique le 26 janvier 1857 décédée a Tunbridge Wells le 26 février 1916. Priez pour elle
A few yards away are four more graves, three with monuments, one unmarked.
Two are the graves of Madame Hélène DENYN and her 12 year-old daughter, Emma, the the first wife and youngest daughter of Josef DENYN, the ‘carilloneur’ of Malines Cathedral.
Emma Carolina Maria DENYN died on 28th September 1916, just over 100 years ago, and two days after her 12th birthday, at 3 Eastcliff Road – the family’s temporary home, provided by the Refugees Committee. Her mother followed just under a year later on 23rd September 1917. Their graves are one in front of the other, so that standing in front of Madame Denyn’s cross, her daughter is just behind her.
Ici repose Dame Hélène SCHUERMANS-DENYN…
sadly the rest is difficult to read
A notre regrettée Emma Caroline Marie DENYN née à Malines (Belgique) le 26 septembre 1904
Next to Emma DENYN is 2 year old Joseph VAN NULAND who died on 1st September 1916 at 154b Upper Grosvenor Road. His parents were stockbroker Paul Francois VAN NULAND and his wife Marie HANOCQ from chaussée de Turnhout, Antwerp. Joseph had an older sister Rose-Marie who was born in Tunbridge Wells on 17th October 1915, at which time the family were living at 7 Calverley Park Crescent.
A la douce memoire de Joseph Louis Marie VAN NULAND [illegible] mars 1914
On 4th July 1917 another son was born to M. and Mme VAN NULAND. They named him Joseph Marie Odilon.
And in an unmarked plot nearby ( B6/90) lies Wilhelmina Florentina VANHERCKE, the unmarried daughter of cabinet-maker Jean VANHERCKE, who died on 1st May 1916 of pneumonia, aged 66 years.
From Ostend, she was living at 11 Linden Park, Frant Hill with, I think, her widowed sister Maria TANGHE, Maria’s daughter Germaine, Germaine’s husband Oscar GROVEN, and their baby daughter Gladys. A married brother lived in Dover where he worked on the railways. They had stayed near him and his family when they first arrived in England – at that time Germaine TANGHE and Oscar GROVEN were only ‘fiancés’ – they married in Dover on 23rd Feburary 1915.
There are two more unmarked graves – C5/115 and C5/172
7 month oldHelene BECKER, youngest daughter of basket-maker Victor BECKER, died on 23rd March 1915 at the General Hospital on Grosvenor Road – she must have been so tiny when the family fled their home at Pont-de-Loup near Charleroi.
And Theodore VAN BENEDEN, a labourer employed at the Church Army Home on Upper Grosvenor Rd, who died of pneumonia on 1st February 1917 at 63 Grosvenor Park.
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.
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.
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.
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.