Creative Connections

Above image is a photo of a postcard in Tunbridge Wells Museum

Not a lot of blogging has been going on as I recover from our little Belgian Week back in July, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been busy!  I thought I’d share a creative writing piece which was the result of a workshop organised at Tunbridge Wells Museum over the summer by local writer Caroline Auckland for the Friends of the Museum as part of Heritage Open Days 2017.creative wrtigin workshop posterThe piece was inspired by the Tunbridge ware exhibits in the Museum – I had previously discovered a link between Tunbridge ware maker Thomas Barton and the town’s refugees from Belgium.

Thomas Barton Tunbridgeware
Tunbridge ware exhibits in Tunbridge Wells Museum

Here it is.  I hope you enjoy it…

Connections

Inspired by the Thomas Barton Tunbridge ware collection in Tunbridge Wells Museum

As she stood before the cabinet containing her precious Tunbridge ware, Mary Ann Figgett wondered what her guests would be like – well, not exactly guests – they were actually lodgers – but she knew she would have to look after them, treat them like friends. So had said the written instructions she had received from Mrs Guthrie of the Mayor’s Belgian Refugees Committee: treat them like friends, put yourself in their shoes – and please serve them coffee not tea.

Three women were coming to stay, refugees from war-torn Belgium, “plucky little Belgium” whose Army and people had slowed down the German advance across Belgium, at great cost to themselves, and so protected England from invasion. She remembered the Mayor, Charles Whitbourn Emson, saying in the autumn of 1914 that, as the brave Belgians had stood up to the invader, they must all show their gratitude by helping those from that country now taking refuge in Tunbridge Wells.

Miss Figgett was used to lodgers. For many years she and her sister Lizzie had lived with their father’s sister Mary Barton, and her husband Thomas, in their house on Mount Ephraim – the quaint old house known as the Tunbridge Ware Manufactory and Repository – where in addition to working in the shop and around the house, they had helped their aunt run the apartments rented out to visitors. One family she remembered with particular fondness – Mrs Gielgud and her two little boys who with their nursemaid had spent the Easter holidays with them in 1901. They had kept in touch for a while, and she still treasured the photograph Mrs Gielgud had sent her after the birth of little Arthur John some three years later.

Aunt Mary had died in 1891 and Uncle Thomas had felt the blow keenly. He had had a stroke not long after the Gielguds’ stay, and his two nieces had nursed him until he had finally succumbed to his illness on 14th July 1903. He had left everything to Mary Ann. A kind and generous man, well-loved in the town as well as by his family, he had considered his nieces his adopted daughters, and had also been guardian to a young dressmaker, Fanny Thompson, who had lived with her widowed mother in the Gilead Terrace cottages just along Mount Ephraim. Mary Ann remembered Fanny’s wedding – she and Lizzie had been bridesmaids, and Uncle Thomas had proudly walked the bride down the aisle of Christ Church, and afterwards entertained the guests to the wedding breakfast in his own home. He had taught her much about hospitality and generosity and caring for those less fortunate than oneself.

After his death, “the Misses Barton”, as they were known by so many in the town, had stayed on at the Mount Ephraim house, and continued to make up and sell Tunbridge ware items in the shop, as well as rent out the apartments. She remembered how hard it had been to keep everything going, and when her sister Lizzie’s health began to fail they realised the time had come to move to more manageable – and hopefully modern – accommodation.

40 York Road had just nine rooms (as opposed to the fifteen of 86 Mount Ephraim) – space enough for her and Lizzie, and a couple of lodgers. But since Lizzie’s death nearly a year ago in November 1915, the house had seemed too big and very empty, and so she had decided to respond to the Mayor’s request for hospitality for some of the Belgians in the town.

There had been a Belgian family – an aunt and uncle and their half a dozen little nieces and nephews – living two doors down at number 44 the previous year. They had fled the city of Antwerp in the autumn of 1914 and told her many stories of the hardships they had suffered on their journey to England. How she had felt for the little children when they described being taken to say goodbye to their parents who were staying behind, not knowing whether they would ever see them again! They were very interested in the pieces of Tunbridge ware she still owned, and she was able to tell them that there was a connection with their home country as her uncle had always told her that the inspiration for Tunbridge Ware was similar pieces made in the town of Spa in Belgium. They told her that Spa was in the Ardennes mountains near the German border. It was the part of their country first invaded by the Germans and now under occupation. They had told her that Tunbridge Wells reminded them all of holidays they had spent in Spa, that the waters there were just like the Tunbridge Wells water : rich in iron, and just as liable to stain everything a rusty red. The similarities were comforting, but at the same time made them long more and more for home.

Mary Ann hoped that by opening her doors to some of their compatriots she could both give them some comfort in their exile and fill the emptiness in the house. One of her lady guests, Mme Sperlaeken, was, she understood, about her own age and spoke English; the other two were her unmarried daughters. This would be their seventh home in Tunbridge Wells in the two years they had been here. She was determined that they should not have to move again.

It was nearly time. Just one last thing to do, and as she placed three carefully-chosen pieces of Tunbridge ware on the table in the guests’ sitting-room, she heard female voices outside in the street. She took a deep breath, and concentrated very hard as she went to open the door:

“Bonjour Madame. Bienvenue à ma maison. Vous êtes chez vous.”

Alison MacKenzie
September 2017


Notes:

  • The first Belgian family referred to is the COOSEMANS-BOEYNAEMS family.  Read their story in this guest blogpost by Cyriel Boeynaems here
  • The Belgian town of Spa (Wikipedia link), the original spa town, produced wooden ware (“bois de Spa”) from the early 17th century.  The wooden objects were made from natural wood or from wood soaked in the ferruginous spa waters giving it a greyish or brownish tint; many of these objects were subsequently decorated in various ways, mostly with gouache but also with Indian ink, by encrusting mother-of-pearl, ivory or precious metals.  Early Tunbridge ware was also painted.

    Spa ware
    Spa ware (from the website of the Museum in Spa http://www.spavillaroyale.be/spip.php?rubrique6

Here’s a link to a film about a present day restorer and maker of Spa ware, Micheline Crouquet  http://www.spavillaroyale.be/spip.php?article304  (in French, but very visual).

  • Louise SPERLAEKEN (nee VAN DE WALLE) and her grown-up daughters Georgina and Yvonne were from rue Royale/Koninklijke straat, Ostend, and moved into 40 York Road in September 1916 according to their registration documents (held in the National Archives in Brussels).  It’s not clear when they actually arrived in Tunbridge Wells but a list of refugees from Ostend published in “De Vlaamsche Stem” on 26 September 1915 shows that Mme SPERLAEKEN was then at 26 Guildford Road.
    1915 09 26-Refugees from OSTEND_Addresses_De_Vlaamsche_stem__algemeen_Belgisch_dagblad-004-CC_BY-SPERLAEKEN_VAN HERCKE_VANDEVALLE
    From De Vlaamsche Stem (HetArchief.be)

    According to the registration documents, they also lived at numbers 8, 38 and 58 Upper Grosvenor Road, 20 and 30 Guildford Road (but no mention of 26), and 44 Lime Hill Road… Hopefully they were able to stay at Miss Figgett’s apartments until they left Tunbridge Wells.


  • Oh and finally, here’s a transcription of the 1901 Census entry for 86 Mount Ephraim (Ref RG13/752) : 1901 Census Barton Gielgud transcription-page-001Kate and Frank GIELGUD’s third child, Arthur John GIELGUD, the future Sir John GIELGUD, actor and director, was born on 14 April 1904, followed by sister Frances Eleanor in 1907.  I wonder whether they spent any other holidays in Tunbridge Wells?

*Sarah Elizabeth, known as Lizzie according to an article n the Kent & Sussex Courier which I could probably find if you would like the reference.

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

willems-clementine_christiane_is-this-them-in-beechwood-photo

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)

cw-emson-bust
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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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.

 

100 years ago today – à Mesdemoiselles SCOTT

Updated 21 August 2016

On 22nd July 1916, the Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells celebrated their National Day (21st July) by honouring the ladies of the Mayor’s Refugee Committee – Mrs BURTON, Mrs GUTHRIE, Miss POWER, Mrs Le LACHEUR, Mme Le JEUNE, Miss McCLEAN, Mrs WILSON and the Misses SCOTT – and the local Doctors – WILSON, C. SMITH and GUTHRIE – who ministered to the refugees free of charge.

A ceremony and celebration was held in the Town Hall on Calverley Road to which townspeople and Belgian refugees were invited. On the evening in question the hall was packed.

At 7.30pm precisely the Mayor, Councillor Charles Whitbourn EMSON with his wife, Margaret, and Miss EMSON (presumably their elder daughter, Marjorie), arrived in the hall and were welcomed by Monsieur Florent COOSEMANS, Mrs EMSON then being presented with a floral arrangement of orchids and roses by one of the Belgian children.  Monsieur Albert LE JEUNE, Honorary President of the ‘Club Albert’ spoke patriotically of his country’s history and its links with Britain, and Monsieur COOSEMANS then spoke of the two years they had spent in exile and of the kindness afforded to them by the people of Tunbridge Wells, and by the ladies and doctors of the Committee in particular.

The reception received in this lovely county, rightly named the Garden of England, was above what the Belgian people could have expected… It took all the dexterity and amiability of the British, whose noble and chivalrous character was proverbial, to sweeten their troubles and suffering. (Kent & Sussex Courier, 28 July 1916)

While the Kent and Sussex Courier reported that a commemorative album, to which all the Belgians in the area had contributed, was then presented to Mrs EMSON as the representative of the ladies of the Committee, the Belgian press-in-exile reported that albums were given to each of the ladies of the Committee – including Belgian refugee Mme LE JEUNE – , along with bouquets of flowers.

What we know for certain is that an album was presented to the Misses SCOTT -Amelia and Louisa.  Because it still exists – in the Papers of Amelia Scott which are held in the Women’s Library @ LSE [1]

SCOTT Cover
The Album

It is an amazing resource, providing as it does a list of names of possibly all, maybe most, certainly some, of those in the area at the time.  Some entries take up a whole page – there are patriotic poems, poems of gratitude, drawings and paintings. I will never forget my excitement when I first held it in my hands back in December 2013!

I have transcribed this wonderful album, and to mark its Centenary I am today posting a new page with the names and addresses of all the signatories (see tabs above).

SCOTT3
‘Club Albert’ Committee 1916

And some fascinating discoveries as I research the names.  Among them is Josef DENYN, the famous ‘carilloneur’ of Malines, who was a close friend of local musician and composer, William Wooding STARMER, and spent the whole period of the war in Tunbridge Wells with his family;

p10_DENYN Music
Carillon Music by ‘Mechlin Bellmaster’ Josef DENYN

members of the family of painter James ENSOR of Ostend were here, and possibly his companion and muse, Augusta BOOGAERTS;

p18_Ensor_Boogaerts2
Augusta BOOGAERTS and Madame ENSOR

Albert LE JEUNE, Hon. President of the Club Albert of Tunbridge Wells, went on to be a Belgian Senator for the Antwerp region – my photo of his family’s entry is very blurred, so here instead is Madame Florent COOSEMANS’ painting of Bruges and a poem of homage to Great Britain which I presume she wrote herself since she doesn’t credit anyone else…

p4_Coosemans_Mme - Bruges cropped
Contribution from Madame Florent COOSEMANS

Mayor EMSON and Doctor WILSON thanked the gathering on behalf of the Committee and the doctors, and the evening concluded with a concert and the National Anthems of Belgium and Britain.

concert 1916
Concert programme, Belgian National Day 1916
Concert performers :
Mons. J. DENYN, Mr. O. GROVEN, Madame O. GROVEN, Mlle & Mme DENYN, Mons. DELATTRE, Mons. R. DAVELUY, Mons. R. CLAEYS, Mr WHITBURN, Miss Sylvia WRIGHT, Miss Suzy SWAN.

SCOTT invitation 2 cropped
Invitation to the Misses SCOTT for the event on 22 July 1916

Notes:

[1] Photos taken on my mobile phone

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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.

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