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 www.birtley-elisabethville.be or view this short film “The Birtley Belgians” or this one “The Belgian Colony of Birtley 1916-1919” on YouTube.


Notes

(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.

Advertisements

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.

Belgians 001


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