A Belgian family at Heron’s Ghyll

(*Updated 9 November 2018)

It has been such an age since I wrote anything.  Real life has rather got in the way.  There’s plenty in the pipeline though for when things calm down again!

I’m busy just now, helping out with an Armistice Centenary event in the village of Fairwarp in the Ashdown Forest, which prompted me to get side-lined and see if I could find any Belgian families living there during the First World War.

There was just one, living in nearby Heron’s Ghyll, a family of five from a village between Leuven (Louvain) and Mechelen (Malines).  Their story is a horrifying one.  This article from the Sussex Express of 2nd October 1914 says it all :

Newspaper article heading
Article from the Sussex Express, 2nd October 1914 (from British Newspaper Archive)

By the kindness of Mrs F.J. HOPE [1], a peasant family of refugees from Belgium are now comfortably housed at Herons Ghyll near Uckfield.

They arrived on Saturday by the 5.9 train, but their coming was not generally known so that they did not get as warm a reception as would otherwise have been the case. As it was, a small crowd assembled to greet them, and gave visible signs of the welcome which is most assuredly theirs.

On leaving the train it was seen that they comprised a family of five, and all were carrying such of their goods as they possessed, which were tied up in bundles. The father, to the buttonhole of whose coat was tied a label inscribed “Catholic Women’s League” naturally carried the most bulky of the parcels, and the mother, in addition to three bundles tied in cloths, carried an infant. There was a small boy, who looked proudly happy carrying what few of the family possessions he could, while his younger sister, in addition to a doll which she clasped as tightly as if fearing its confiscation, and which by its newness did not suggest its having come from Germany [sic] also bore a small package. They were a forlorn-looking group and pending the departure of the train which brought them, placed themselves and their belongings on a seat on the platform, but it was only a moment before the kindly Stationmaster, Mr PARKER, took them in hand and conducted them to a waiting landau, which was to take them to their new home.  There was an expression of unexpected pleasure as they took their seats in the carriage, and as it drove away a cheer from the spectators followed them.

Like most peasants in Belgium, they speak only the Flemish language which seems to be but little known.  Our representative went to Herons Ghyll on Wednesday to interview them, and found that they were comfortably housed with Mrs DUTTON [2], the wife of the coachman, who is away doing his duty to his country.  French is as unintelligible to these unfortunate people as English, but the Rev. Father BURT [3] was good enough to tell us what he had learnt of their sad history, and what an appalling tale it was.

Their home, he said, had been in a village between Louvain and Malines. The family had originally consisted of six children, but two of them had been killed by the Germans, whilst another had disappeared when they fled from a cellar in which they had been hiding, when opportunity offered for escape.  The parents fear that this child, though only a girl of ten years, has fallen into the hands of the Germans.

The sights of which they were eye witnesses are almost too terrible to relate.  They say that the German soldiers treated those of their Belgian captives in a most inhuman manner.

These refugees, it is said, actually saw the Germans cut off the ears, gouge out the eyes, and split the noses of their hapless prisoners, and in their own village, girls of only 10 years of age had their hands cut off, and even babies were bayonetted.  They were compelled to stand and see their own priest fetched out and shot in the road before their eyes.  On escaping they walked all the way to Ostend, and arrived in England absolutely destitute, the man not even having a shirt to his back.

Of the family the man appears to be the most obsessed with the fate which has befallen them, and spends much time brooding over their awful experiences and the loss of his children.  He has asked to be found some employment with which to occupy his mind, and this, we understand, will be given him on the estate where he is at present a guest.


In November 1914, the following appeared in the Belgian newspaper De stem uit België :

1914 11 13-VAN OOSTERWIJK Mr_Stables_Heron's Ghyll seeks news of family De_stem_uit_België-cropped
from De stem uit België , 13th November 1914 “Mr. A. VAN OOSTERWIJK [seeks news] of his family, c/o Stables, Heron’s Ghyll, Uckfield, Sussex.” (hetarchief.be)
A couple of months later, in January 1915, a longer request is published :

1915 01 15 VAN OOSTERWIJK family_Stables Herens_Uckfield_De stem uit België hetarchief be
from De stem uit België, 15th January 1915
VAN OOSTERWIJK. Alfons, from Campenhout-Sas [4], with wife Josephina Feyaerts and 3 children asks for news of his little girl 9 year old Julia and of his parents and brothers and sisters from Boortmeerbeek and also of Gustaaf van Oosterwijk and wife Louis Feyaerts and child and other members of the van Oosterwijk family and Isabelle de Pris from Wespelaar.  They are staying at Stables Herens, Uckfield (Sussex), England.

I think we can safely assume that this is the family referred to in the article.  I wonder whether they were ever reunited with their little girl?  I would so like to think so.  Perhaps I will find out more on my next visit to the archives in Brussels and Kew.


[1] James Fitzalan HOPE (‘J.F.’ rather than ‘F.J.’), nephew of the Duke of Norfolk, and Conservative MP for Sheffield Brightside 1900-1906 and Sheffield Central 1908-1929, bought the house at Heron’s Ghyll in 1891 from its then-owners, the Duchy of Norfolk,.  A Roman Catholic, he commissioned the building of a Catholic Church near the house.  St John the Evangelist was opened in 1897 and consecrated on 7th September 1904.  The Belgian family very probably worshipped in this church.

Although Heron’s Ghyll strictly-speaking comes under Buxted, that the HOPE family had some connection with the village of Fairwarp is evidenced by the fact that in 1911 J.F. POPE was President of the Fairwarp Cricket Club (Sussex Express, 27th October 1911)

Mrs HOPE – or Lady RANKEILLOUR she would become when her husband was raised to the peerage in 1932 – received the Elisabeth Medal from the King and Queen of the Belgians for humanitarian work during the First World War.  In addition to helping this family of refugees, and maybe others, she was responsible for the work of equipping and running 35 soldiers’ huts in England and France which were organised by the Catholic Women’s League of which she was for a time President.

1911 Census DUTTON Herons Ghyll

[2] The DUTTON family lived at The Stables, Herons Ghyll, where Albert Edward DUTTON was employed as Coachman and chauffeur.  I am not sure where he was in October 1914, but he was first in the Sussex Yeomanry, and then, in June 1915, he was in the Royal Navy, a motor driver serving with the RNAS (Royal Naal Air Service) on HMS President II.  In August 1917 he was posted to the East Mediterranean , where he remained until 31 March 1918, becoming an Air Mechanic with the RAF on its formation the following day* (UK Royal Air Force Airmen‘s records of the First World War – Source:Ancestry/Fold3)

dutton-albert-ernest_ww1-raf-muster-roll_fold3.jpg
Albert Ernest DUTTON 205948 on RAF Muster Roll (Source:Fold3)

Albert and his wife Caroline (nee STEVENS) had 3 children, Frank (b.1908), Albert (b.1910) and Gladys (b.1911).  It must have been quite a crush in the 5-roomed house when the Belgian family moved in in October 1914.

[3] The Reverend Father Emile BURT was parish priest at St John the Evangelist Heron’s Ghyll from 1910-1922.

[4] In August 1914 the region around Kampenhout-Sas was the scene of fierce fighting. All houses in the vicinity were destroyed, and the hamlet of Relst was totally wiped off the map. In Boortmeerbeek 85 houses were burnt.  In Wespelaar 47. The parish priest of nearby Buken (Bueken), Fr H. DE CLERK, was one of those in the Diocese of Mechelen (Malines) murdered in 1914.

List of priests murdered by Germans_Malines_ Diocese
List of priests murdered in the Diocese of Mechelen (Malines) in the First World War

 

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Cintra House, 32 Upper Grosvenor Road

This house was lent to the Belgian Refugees’ Committee in October 1914 by Canon KEATINGE of St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, and I have been wondering what the connection might be.

After my talk last month, the answer was given to me by a member of the audience :  it had been owned by Mrs Mary Hannah FENWICK, a generous benefactor, who left it to the parish in her will.

To find out more, I turned first to John Cunningham’s 2013 monograph 175 Years of St. Augustine’s Parish Tunbridge Wells 1838-2013.

175-years-of-st-augustines-001

There I learnt that Mrs FENWICK, her husband and son (born 1864, and suffering from some sort of disability) were originally from Yorkshire, had lived first in Tonbridge, and then, from about 1887, at Cintra House.

She and her son converted to Catholicism, and in 1899, after the deaths of both her son and her husband, Mrs FENWICK made generous donations to St Augustine’s Church, and to the Roman Catholic community in Tonbridge for the establishment of Corpus Christi Church, in return for which she would receive an annuity and also have Masses said for her and her family in perpetuity.

“Her offer was quickly accepted” writes John Cunningham, “since no one thought for one moment that she would live for another 16 years.  Her unexpected longevity would largely wipe out any benefit from her offer……In all, Mrs Fenwick gave £8,500 and received back about £7,450 in annuities, as well as at least 2,475 Masses for the repose of her soul and those of her family.”

A mixed blessing indeed!

The parish sold Cintra House in 1918 for £763-8s-0d.

cintra-house-today1_caroline-auckland-with-name_compressed
Cintra House, 32 Upper Grosvenor Road (2016)

Further research in the British Newspaper Archive and on Ancestry fleshed out the picture a little more.

Mrs Fenwick was born Mary Hannah HALLEWELL the oldest of 8 children (6 girls, 2 boys) born to Wine Merchant Benjamin HALLEWELL and his wife Hannah of Leeds, Yorkshire, non-Conformists.  She was 38 when she married Yorkshire farmer William FENWICK, 7 years her junior, in 1862.  Their son Walter was born in Kirkby Moorside 2 years later.

In 1871 the family was still in Yorkshire, but by 1881 they had moved to Dry Hill Park, Tonbridge, to a house called Heather Bank. Walter died at the age of 22 in early 1886, and it was perhaps after that that his parents moved from Tonbridge to Tunbridge Wells.  In 1887 they paid for a classroom to be made in the crypt of St Augustine’s Church in his memory (Kent and Sussex Courier 15 July 1887).

William FENWICK died on 19 September 1890 and was buried in the FENWICK family grave at All Saints Church, Kirkby Moorside. His widow lived on at Cintra House for another 15 years or so, moving in around 1905 to Gensing Lodge Convent in St Leonards on Sea, a home for elderly Catholic ladies run by Augustinian Sisters from France (1).

There she lived until her death on 5 September 1915.  Canon James KEATINGE, parish priest of St Augustine’s, was executor of her will.

However, that was in 1915.  She must already have left Cintra House in the care of Canon KEATINGE when she moved to St Leonards, as it was in October 1914 that the Belgian refugee families moved in.

In the 1911 Census the house was the home of widow Charlotte Georgiana MORRIS from London, but in Kelly’s Directory for 1914, 32 Upper Grosvenor Road has no entry – presumably it was by then one of the many empty houses in Tunbridge Wells.

Among the Belgians who lived there was Prosper DEBERGH from Dendermonde, the subject of an earlier blog post, and also Miss Adele VAN OBBERGEN from Louvain who escaped a fine under the Lighting Order in early 1916, the Mayor reminding her when she appeared before the bench that she was “living in a house which was being kept up by people in the town” and asking her “and the other guests to see that the lights were properly shaded” (Kent & Sussex Courier, 14 February 1916).

So there it is, some of the story of Cintra House.

Thank you to Caroline Auckland for the photos of the house as it is today.


Notes

(1) I think I am right in saying that the building on Upper Maze Hill is now part of St Michael’s Hospice – please correct me if I’m wrong.


 

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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.

 

The Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells 1914-1919

During the years 1914-1919 the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells was home to some 300 Belgian refugees, men, women and children.  This blog will be a random selection of research into the families, and their lives in exile.

I discovered the Belgians’ story in 2008 during research for a Community Play “The Vanishing Elephant”, written and directed by Jon Oram of Claque Theatre, which dramatised some of the history of the Camden Road area of Tunbridge Wells in the years 1880-1918.

Subsequently I was aThe Booksked by The Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society to contribute a chapter on the Belgian refugees to a local history monograph, “THE SHOCK OF WAR – Tunbridge Wells on the Home Front 1914-1918” which was published in 2014.

The book can be ordered from Tunbridge Wells Civic Society.

Since then I have continued to research the individual families and have set myself the task of tracing them all.

Extract from Chapter 8 of “The Shock of War” :

“Introduction 

“On 4th August 1914 the German Army crossed into Belgium, and by 15th October, Zeebrugge and Ostend on the Belgian coast were under German occupation.[1] During those two and a half months, town and cities were besieged and captured – Liege, Brussels, Namur, Louvain[2], Malines, Termonde, Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and town and villages in between, were overrun and in many cases all but destroyed. The British newspapers were full of the brutality of the invading army – innocent civilians killed and tortured, their homes ransacked and razed to the ground, women and children used as human shields – and of the bravery of “gallant little Belgium” in holding up the Uhlans, thereby buying time for Britain and France.

“On 17th August, the Belgian Government left Brussels to set up first in Antwerp, then Ostend, and finally on 13th October in the French port of Le Havre. And 1½ million Belgians – almost a quarter of the population – also fled their country to escape the terror – to Holland, to France, and about 225,000 of them to Britain.

“There were many tales of brutality by the invading forces and while some of the worst of these were subsequently discredited, they were a useful propaganda tool at the time. The personal stories of those refugees who arrived in Tunbridge Wells bear witness to what happened. Some 300 Belgians spent time in Tunbridge Wells between 1914 and 1919 [3]. Though relatively small in number, this self-styled “Belgian Colony” made a huge impact on the life of the town at the time, but has been largely forgotten since.”

This is their story.


[1] Note re place-names: where there is no obvious Anglicised version of a Belgian place-name, the version most commonly used by the Tunbridge Wells refugees themselves at the time has been opted for, almost invariably the French rather than Flemish version.

[2] The congregation of St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Tunbridge Wells had a particular interest in the sacking of the University city of Louvain (Leuven) on 26th August 1914 as the church’s assistant priest,  Fr Calnan, had gone to the University there in October 1913.

[3]  In total 78 men, 144 women, 35 boys, and 40 girls were looked after by the Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees Committee [Archives de la Guerre. Comité officiel belge pour l’Angleterre (réfugiés belges en Angleterre). Archives Générales du Royaume, Bruxelles]. The maximum at any one time was 96 adults and 35 children [1919 Report of Belgian Refugees Committee, Borough of Royal Tunbridge Wells]  This number was augmented by those who were able to support themselves, or who were given hospitality privately.