A school assembly, the WILLEMS family Part 2, and a sculpture

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On Monday I spoke to the morning assembly at Beechwood Sacred Heart School about the Belgian refugees and in particular the WILLEMS family – Christiane  and Clementine WILLEMS, aged 8 1/2 and 7 respectively, were the first pupils to arrive at the school when it opened on 2nd February 1915.

Beechwood Sacred Heart School first school photograph : Are these two little girls Christiane and Clementine WILLEMS?beechwood-1st-school-photo_2

Preparing for the talk, I realised that the next instalment of the WILLEMS family’s story is long overdue, and also that I missed the 101st anniversary of the presentation to the town by Tunbridge Wells’s Belgian Colony of the wonderful life-size bronze bust of Mayor Charles Whitbourn Emson on 22nd September 1915 (1)

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Bronze of Mayor Charles Whitbourn Emson by Paul Van De Kerckhove (1915)

This bust was made by Belgian sculptor Paul VAN DE KERCKHOVE (spelling varies) in 1915 while he was staying in Tunbridge Wells.  He undertook the work free of charge, and local artist Alexander H. KIRK (2) lent his studio on Upper Cumberland Walk to the artist.

Paul Armand Van De Kerckhove (1876-?) arrived in Tunbridge Wells from Brussels in September or October 1914, and by 1917 had moved on to London where he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1917, 1918 and 1919.

After consulting Census records in Brussels, I believe he was the son of sculptor J. Antoine VAN DE KERCKHOVE “dit NELSON” (c1849-?) but I have yet to prove it…

The bust was presented to the town of Tunbridge Wells with great pomp and ceremony at the Great Hall by President of the Club Albert, Professor Joseph WILLEMS.  There were speeches and then a concert at which leading Belgian artistes performed, not least Monsieur Jean DELVILLE (Wikipedia link), himself a refugee in London, who recited “several of his dramatic and patriotic poems” (Kent & Sussex Courier 25 September 1915).(3)

“It was the whole of Great Britain which rose vibrating with indignation at the violation of our peaceful land – it is she who called, and took under her protection, the uprooted inhabitants of our unfortunate Belgium.” Professor Joseph WILLEMS

Professor WILLEMS made a most eloquent speech at the presentation ceremony, and I offer here the translation which was published in full in the Kent and Sussex Courier on  25 September 1915 :

“The Belgian Colony feel a profound joy in being able to express today in a special manner the sentiments which animate the hearts of all its members in regard to the hospitality of England. The Belgians are glad, Mr. Mayor, to express their gratitude for the persevering self-denial with which you have devoted yourself to their interests in the painful trials they have experiences. You have in Tunbridge Wells organised a scheme carried out in a most generous and considerate way, assisting thereby a very large number of Belgians. You have maintained this work, not during some weeks or some months only (the extreme limit to which Belgium assigned her exile), but for more than a year already. My compatriots will carry away with them, as I shall, the touching remembrance of the courtesy with which you have met all our requests, the excellence of your advice, and the unvarying kindness with which you have always received us.

“In the thanks which we address to you, Mr. Mayor, we associate all those who have supported your initiative in so wonderfully generous a manner, and who continue to aid you in the task you have so nobly undertaken. We thank in the warmest manner the Belgian Refugees’ Committee which has seconded your efforts with so much tact and devotion. Their many delicate attentions, their kindly encouraging visits, each of us recalls with emotion. Our thanks also are proffered to your colleagues of the Town Hall whose obliging kindness, often put to the proof, was never found lacking; to your physicians, your surgeons, your nurses, whose devotion has called forth our deep admiration; to your fellow-citizens, who have provided us with places for re-union and amusement; to all these generous hearts, who by a thousand considerate attentions have alleviated our sufferings – in a word, to all the inhabitants of Tunbridge Wells who have done their best to soften our lot, we say with all our hearts “We thank you”.

“But, ladies and gentlemen, that which we have before our eyes in Tunbridge Wells is but an isolated example of the magnificent work which the whole of Great Britain has presented to us. Yes, it is to her our deep gratitude goes forth. It was the whole of Great Britain which rose vibrating with indignation at the violation of our peaceful land – it is she who called, and took under her protection the uprooted inhabitants of our unfortunate Belgium.

“Finally, we are proud of being able to express our feelings in a durable and appropriate memorial. We have had the good fortune of possessing amongst us a talented artist, who, with delightful spontaneity, offered to undertake a work which the Belgian Colony could never have ventured to propose to him. Sprung from a family of artists, Monsieur Vande Kerckhove, by his individual genius, has attained the highest rank in his profession. His works are amongst those which enforce attention, and you will see for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, that in the execution of the bust of the Mayor the artist has proved himself worthy of his high reputation. This work, Mr. Mayor, we express the hope of seeing placed in the Council Chamber of your Town Hall. It will be a public proof of our gratitude, a souvenir of the stirring times in which our countries have aided each other; and after our return to our devastated but indomitable land, freed from the odious barbarian yoke, when any of you cast your eyes on this gift, you will recall with gratification the signification of this bronze, and will give a thought to the exiles of today whom you comforted so greatly in the time of their distress. In the name of the Belgian Colony, and as a token of our gratitude, I present to the town of Tunbridge Wells the bust of its respected Mayor.”


(1)  The bust is on display in the lobby of the Council Chamber in Tunbridge Wells Town Hall. Do go and see it.
(2) Alexander Horace KIRK and his wife Constance MORTIMORE lived at Brook Cottage, Upper Cumberland Walk, and were both artists.  Alexander Kirk painted a notable portrait of  W.C.CRIPPS in 1914 on the occasion of Mr Cripps’s Silver Jubilee as Town Clerk. Constance Mortimore described herself as a “miniature painter” on the 1911 Census. Their only son, John Alexander Carnegie, tragically died at the age of 8 on 29 January 1918.
(3) The Mayor also received a commemorative album signed by all members of the Belgian community of Tunbridge Wells and district – no doubt similar to those presented to Amelia and Louisa Scott and the other ladies of the committee in 1916.

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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.

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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.