Belgians and Orchids in Jarvis Brook

Today I have (almost) become an expert on orchids – ok, let’s just say I certainly know a lot more about them than I did this morning!

A couple of years ago I exchanged emails with the great-granddaughter of Jules Jacques DE COENE, a Belgian who was an orchid grower at the Stuart Low Orchid Nursery in Jarvis Brook from around 1912.  I filed our exchange away for future consideration as Mr De Coene wasn’t a wartime refugee and wasn’t connected with Tunbridge Wells.

Lately I’ve been looking at Belgians in Crowborough and thought I’d take another look.

Well, first of all let me say that I had no idea Jarvis Brook was home to such a prestigious and world-renowned orchid nursery for so many years [1] – or that I lived so close to its former site!  Or for that matter that Belgium had produced such stars in the orchid-growing firmament!

The Orchid Review monthly magazine of July 1914 devoted several pages to the nursery – you can read the complete article here – but in summary, it moved from Bush Hill Park, Enfield, Essex, to Brookhurst, Walshes Road, Crowborough, around 1910 [2], driven away by the deterioration of the orchid-growing environment caused by an increase in building and, it seems, fog. I found this advertisement in the Sussex Agricultural Express of 15th July 1910.  Could that be when Stuart Low moved his nurseries?

1910 07 15 Brookhurst Nursery Jarvis Brook for sale_Sussex Agricultural Express+cropped
Brookhurst Nurseries for sale in 1910 (Sussex Agricultural Express, 15th July 1910)

In Jarvis Brook, Stuart Low’s nursery found a sheltered position “in the Sussex heights” some “500 ft above sea level”, enjoying clear air and sunshine, and protection from the wind.  Twenty-five glasshouses in two blocks were erected, and the orchids thrived in their new home. [3]

“One by one the old Orchid firms are disappearing from the metropolitan area, being driven by the exigencies of space, or the prevalence of fog and the absence of sun during the winter months, to seek fresh fields and pastures new for the culture of their plants.”                                                              The Orchid Review, July 1914

In charge of cultivation in 1914 was Gent-born Edward (Edwin?) TACK“the greatest authority on cattleya orchids in the world” according to his obituary – who had arrived in Britain around 1894 and came to Crowborough in 1908.  He died at his home in Jarvis Brook – Ingleside on Western or possibly Walshes Road – in October 1930 after a long illness, and his funeral was well-covered in the local press [4]. Sadly Edward/Edwin had lost his only son, also Edward, in 1915 at the age of just 11.  The boy was a member of the 1st Crowborough Scout Troop and on the outbreak of war had been among a group who had gone to Newhaven to act as despatch carriers along the coast – though I don’t think that had any direct bearing on his untimely death. Scouts from Crowborough, St Johns, and Withyham made up a guard of honour for his coffin which was draped with the Union flag (Kent & Sussex Courier, 12 March 1915).

Six years later, in November 1936, the daughter of Jules DE COENE married at All Saints Church in Crowborough and one of Edward TACK’s daughters was her bridesmaid.  The DE COENE family had arrived in Jarvis Brook from Essex about the same time as the TACK family – also from the Essex orchid nursery, and Jules DE COENE was eventually to be in charge of the Jarvis Brook nursery according to his obituary in 1943 (Kent & Sussex Courier, 19 March 1943). The family moved into Ingleside at some point, and were still living there in 1939 (next door to the Plough and Horses public house (now flats)).

1939 DE COENE Ingleside Walshes Road
Source : (Original data: Crown copyright images reproduced by courtesy of TNA, London England. 1939 Register (Series RG101), The National Archives, Kew, London, England)

Also employed at the Nursery was another Belgian, George VERBOONEN, who had possibly come to England amongst the refugees when war broke out, as he was at the time visiting Europe from Brazil according to this article about the history of the Etablissement P.M. Binot, later the Orquidario Binot, in Brazil [5] – though in the 1911 England Census he is already living at Orchid Cottage, Western Road, Crowborough, and so presumably already working for Stuart Low. And he had witnessed Jules DE COENE’s marriage in New Cross two years earlier in 1909 (coincidentally in the same church as my great-grandparents’ wedding in 1891!).

Unfortunately I didn’t revisit any of this information before going to the Belgian Archives the other week or I could have looked him up.  Next time…

I do wonder whether any Belgian refugees were employed there, or indeed whether the DE COENE, TACK and VERBOONEN families were involved in helping their compatriots in the town.  Young Edward TACK was a pupil at King Charles the Martyr Boys School in Tunbridge Wells and I know that the school took in one or two Belgian children (see blogpost What about the Belgian children’s education?).

The Memories of Crowborough/Rotherfield Facebook Group alerted me to the fact that during the Second World War, on 26th September 1940, the Nursery was bombed, with two civilian casualties.  Presumably the nearby railway line was the target?  Or maybe the pilot was simply jettisoning his bombs before returning home.  The casualties were 14-year-old nursery assistant Reginald William PAIGE, and nursery Manager Ernest RADFORD who had only been in the post for a year or even less.  His home, the aforementioned Orchid Cottage, took a direct hit (Kent & Sussex Courier, 4th October 1940) – his wife survived, suffering ‘only’ from shock. The Courier reported that in all sixteen bombs fell in the area – a local pub lost roof tiles (the Plough and Horses?) and windows were broken in a nearby Chapel as worshippers were leaving after a thanksgiving service.

I was about to make a crass comparison.  Instead I will simply mention that this land may well be about to disappear under a housing development – plans are in for 163 homes to be built on the site of Orchid Riding Centre.

Let’s hope the Stuart Low Orchid Nursery is at the very least remembered in the road names…

[1] There are even orchids named after Crowborough – here’s one …and  Jarvis Brook too…

[2] I haven’t yet found the precise date – Edward TACK apparently came to Jarvis Brook in 1908 according to his obituary in the Kent & Sussex Courier, 24th October 1930).  I also don’t know when the Nursery closed, but it was still there in 1965.  Bernard Lorimer JORDAN had been Manager of Brookhurst Nurseries and was there in the 1911 Census.  Was he Manager of Stuart Low’s?  He moved on to Rockington Nurseries, Blackness Road – Jordan’s Nursery – now also closed and earmarked for development.

[3] The 1914 article also has this to say about the Nursery’s location, and travelling there – those familiar with the current Uckfield Line may (or may not) appreciate its sentiments (and if you’re following the directions, don’t forget to stop off at The Wheatsheaf on the way…) : “The journey from London is through some of the most lovely scenery in Surrey and Sussex, and is, in fact, quite a holiday jaunt, whether taken by rail or motor. The London, Brighton, and South-Coast Railway have now started a direct and accelerated service, and most trains avoid the change at Groombridge. The Nurseries are some ten minutes walk from Crowborough Station, on the side of a gentle slope, and are about eleven acres in extent.” 

[4] Edward TACK’s obituary in the Kent & Sussex Courier also mentions that he had worked on the estate of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild in France before coming to England.  A casual google reveals that the de Rothschilds were orchid fanatics.

[5] The Orquidario (Etablissement P.M. Binot) was set up by Pedro BINOT in 1870 and initially imported orchids from Brazil to Belgium. According to this online article, George VERBOONEN was Pedro Binot’s stepson and became director following the death of his step-father in 1911 – perhaps after the Census on 2 April 1911???

Stuart  Low’s Jarvis Brook Orchid Nursery in 19561956 Stuart Low photo


From Tunbridge Wells to Birtley : The DEBERGH-RAVYTS family from Dendermonde

Note: Updated 21 July 2016

On Monday morning I received a Birth Certificate through the post – always a very exciting moment, and an excellent start to the week.

Paula Caroline Alphonsine DEBERGH born at Elisabethville, Birtley, Co. Durham, on 26 January 1917

The trail had started a couple of years ago when I was at London’s Imperial War Museum consulting the private papers of Lady Matthews, wife of Tunbridge Wells JP Sir John Bromhead MATTHEWS, KC.

In her entry for Sunday 21st February 1915, Lady MATTHEWS wrote : “I went to a Belgian soiree last night, run on money I have received from an unknown American Friend. About 80, all ages and classes, were crammed together in a stuffy annex, & listening with joy to the music.  Afterwards they would have buns and coffee. 

“A young wounded soldier & a Flemish dressmaker sat, the cynosure of all eyes. They wore white flowers, & were stiff with new garments.  They had been married at the Registrar’s at 8 a.m. that day.  I do not know what they had to marry on save the English Government grant of 5/6 each a week.” (1)

A quick search, and another order fulfilled by the General Register Office, had revealed that on Saturday 20th February 1915, 25 year old Prosper Leopold DEBERGH married 26 year old Marie RAVIJTS at St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, Tunbridge Wells.

1915 02 20 DEBERGH marriage cropped compressed

I then lost track of them until my visit earlier this year to the National Archives in Brussels to consult the refugee registration documents held there, where I found evidence that the DEBERGHs had moved on to the Birtley munitions factory in 1916 and had had a daughter.

In 1918 Prosper DEBERGH’s repatriation document only mentions him and his daughter, and I haven’t (yet?) found a document for his wife, though I would have expected her to be on the same one.

In my article for the RTW Civic Society publication, I’d hoped they’d returned to Belgium and enjoyed a long and happy married life together.  Now I fear this may not have been the case – the search continues…

Their story so far :

Prosper Leopold DEBERGH was born in Zele near Dendermonde/Termonde on 1 January 1890, the son of ‘concierge’ Theophile Debergh.  When war was declared in August 1914, Prosper Debergh was a clerk in the Justice Ministry in the town.  He joined the ’22e linie'(2) and was wounded: all I know is that by late October 1914 he was in hospital in England, at the Sandgate Royal Military Hospital near Folkestone (Het Volk, 31 October 1914). He was invalided out of the army, and eventually found his way to Tunbridge Wells where accommodation was found for him at 32 Upper Grosvenor Road, a house provided by the local RC church.

Ruins of Dendermonde - Brusselsestraat
Ruines de Termonde – Rue de Bruxelles

At the time of their marriage, his future wife, dressmaker Marie RAVIJTS, the daughter of a ‘cabaretier’, was living at 47 Upper Grosvenor Road, a former ‘Blessed Sacrament’ Convent which became known as ‘the Belgian Hostel’ (rental cost covered by the Misses McClean and Power, members of the Mayor’s Refugee Committee).  Her home was also Dendermonde, her address Brusselsestraat 2 rue de Bruxelles.

'The Belgian Hostel', 47 Upper Grosvenor Road today (2014)
47 Upper Grosvenor Road in 2014

On Saturday 20th February 1915 they were married in St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, then on the corner of Hanover and Grosvenor Roads, by the local Catholic priest, Fr. James KEATINGE, and Registrar Arthur S. WISEMAN. One of the witnesses was R. Van HAWEGHEM, another Belgian ‘soldat réformé‘ but of the ‘2e linie'(1) – more of him in a future post…

I wonder – did Prosper and Marie know each other back home in Dendermonde?  Or did they meet in Tunbridge Wells, drawn together by the common experience of exile?

In April 1916, according to his refugee registration documentation, Prosper DEBERGH (and presumably his wife Marie though she is not mentioned) was living at 37 Culverden Down, another of the houses rented by the Committee, and they were still in Tunbridge Wells in July of that year when they both signed the album given to the Misses SCOTT on 22 July 1916 by the grateful Belgian Community (subject of a future post, or even a page…).

Some time after that, and before the birth of their daughter in January 1917, they moved to Birtley where M. DEBERGH worked in the munitions factory.  Paula was born on 26th January 1917, and baptised the same day at St Michael’s Catholic Church in Elisabethville, the Belgian Catholic church (3).

In August 1918 Prosper and his daughter are confirmed as living at Hutments D.6.A. in Elisabethville, but no sign of their wife and mother, Marie.

DEBERGH Prosper W.R.Repat. cropped

In 1924, at the unveiling of the War Memorial in Dendermonde, one of the speakers was Prosper De Bergh, President of the local War Invalids’ Association (Bond der Oorlogsinvaliden), and he still held that post in 1938 when a statue was erected in memory of Princess Astrid. (Thank you Google!). Has to be him…doesn’t it?

PS I’m intrigued that on Paula’s birth certificate, her father gives his Belgian address as 71 rue Jef Lambeaux, Kiel, Antwerp, when everywhere else it is Gerechtshof, Dendermonde / Place de la Justice, Termonde…

Many unanswered questions still to be answered.

To find out more about the “Birtley Belgians” visit or view this short film “The Birtley Belgians” or this one “The Belgian Colony of Birtley 1916-1919” on YouTube.


(1) According to the 1919 Report on the work of the Tunbridge Wells Refugees Committee, ‘each individual Belgian in cases in which accommodation was provided [received] – adults 9/- per week, children 6/- per week.’  These rates were set under guidance from the Local Government Board (Wikipedia link), based on the “separation allowance” received by members of serving soldiers, and taking into account a refugee’s social class and particular needs.  

In Tunbridge Wells, thanks to generous donations from the public, the Committee was able to support the refugees without any assistance from the London Committee until December 1915.  After that and until mid-1917, the London Committee contributed one half of the cost of maintenance, and from mid-1917 the whole cost. The everage weekly expenditure of the Local Committee over the whole period was £50.

Neither the refugees nor the Belgian goverment were required to repay the monies received. 

(2) The ‘2e linie’, based in Ghent, and the ’22e linie’ (reservists) regiments, plus a group of artillery, were brought together to create the ‘2e gemengde brigade’ (the 2nd Mixed Brigade). They had their ‘baptism of fire’, suffering many casualties, on 18th August 1914 at St-Margriete-Houtem, and continued to be involved in the fighting from Antwerp to Nieuwpoort until, on 29 October, reduced to just 14 officers and 513 men, the 22e linie was disbanded.

As you can tell, I’m no military historian – a good overview here though (in Dutch).

(3) I am indebted to Bill Lawrence for his assistance with research in the Birtley records.