Guest blog post by Cyriel Boeynaems : The Boeynaems family during the First World War

It is a pity that we no longer have the complete correspondence to and from the Boeynaems family who fled to England during WW1, especially as the letters sent from the refugees’ addresses in England may contain important material. But that exchange of letters has not yet been found. Only seven letters and a dozen postcards, all sent to England, have been preserved. This was enough to make up a puzzle, one with many missing pieces. No full story, rather a list of events and locations.

At the outbreak of the First World War the family of Florent Boeynaems and his wife Marie Coosemans had 14 children. They lived in Antwerp at no 5 Prinsstraat. By profession father Florent Boeynaems was a notary.

Florent Boeynaems     X     Marie Coosemans

         1860-1915                            1866-1946

Their children Age in 1914
Ferdinand (Fernand)                   1889-1918 25
Paul                                                1891-1958 23
Hélène                                           1892-1944 22
Hubert                                           1893-1961 21
Marthe                                          1895-1940 19
Jean (Jan)                                      1897-1969 17
Suzanne                                        1898-1982 16
Yvonne                                          1900-1986 14
Florent (Flor)                                1901-1980 13
Pierre (Piet)                                  1903-1986 11
Joseph (Jos)                                  1906-1984 8
Marie Louise (Mimi)                   1908-2004 6
Jacques (Jaak)                              1909-1995 5
Ludovic                                          1910-1996 4

Mother Marie Coosemans was the half-sister of Florent Coosemans, chairman of the Club Albert in Tunbridge Wells during WW1. Florent Coosemans was married to Louise Martin. His father Ferdinand Coosemans married twice. His first wife passed away shortly after Marie Coosemans’s birth in 1866.

Ferdinand Coosemans 1°X  Maria Van Welde

    1828-1926                                1829-1866

Their children Married to
Constant Coosemans 1861-1923 Marie Van Goethem
Marie Coosemans 1866-1946 Florent Boeynaems

Ferdinand Coosemans 2°X  Anne Cornélie Van de Wiel

       1828-1926                                 1836 – 1906

Their children Married to
Caroline Coosemans 1871-1959 Charles Cnoops
Florent Coosemans 1872-1947 Louise Martin
HortenseCoosemans 1873-1935 Felix Goris
BertheCoosemans 1875-1950 Alfons Steyaert

1913 was a glorious year for the Boeynaems-Coosemans family. Two silver jubilees. Father Florent Boeynaems celebrated his 25th anniversary as a notary. And the couple also celebrated 25 years of marriage in November.This seemed the best moment to gather the children together for a family photo. A unique picture because the Boeynaems children looked as they did just before leaving for England.

Boeynaems photo 1

When the German troops were on the outskirts of the city of Antwerp on 7 October 1914, the Civil Guard of the city of Antwerp was dissolved. Paul Boeynaems had served in the Civil Guard since 1912 as an artilleryman. In the grip of fear and horrible stories, people fled to the Netherlands in panic and large numbers.This was also the case with the Boeynaems family.

The Boeynaems children left without their parents. According to a story recorded by Marie-Louise Boeynaems in 1999, the children gathered back in the parental house in the Prinsstraat and had to say good-bye one after the other to their father and mother. From the Netherlands they travelled to England. Some of their uncles and aunts also fled to England: Uncle Florent and Aunt Louise (Coosemans-Martin), Uncle Charles and Aunt Caroline (Cnoops-Coosemans) and Uncle Gustave and Aunt Marie (Simons-Boeynaems / Marie was the sister of Florent Boeynaems). It is not clear whether other family members followed and if everyone left together with the children. Even the exact date of departure remains unknown.

 

1914 The Boeynaems children were certainly all at a permanent address, either in the Netherlands or in England, by 13 October 1914. Other family members, including possibly their mother, Marie Coosemans, left the city when the first bomb hit Blindestraat in Antwerp. They stayed in Standdaarbuiten and Oudenbosch in the Netherlands. In a letter dated 13 October 1914 (from Standdaarbuiten), the children were informed about the confused situation in the Netherlands. Everyone was looking for family members there. The van Meerbeeck family of Wilrijk near Antwerp was also being sought by other relatives. Hélène Boeynaems was engaged to, and married in 1915, René van Meerbeeck, son of the family in question. Due to fear and on the advice of the local authorities, Ferdinand and Paul were advised not to return to Belgium. But before the end of February 1915, the parents and Ferdinand were already back at home in Antwerp. Son Ferdinand returned home to help his father Florent Boeynaems who was in ill health.

(Cfr. Letters dated  October 13, 1914 and March 2, 1915)

1915  To avoid censorship and loss of mail, the letters were sent to and from Belgium via intermediaries in the Netherlands. In the first months of the war, the Boeynaems family had two intermediaries Mr. Reinemund and Mr. Mattheezen in Bergen op Zoom. Paul and Jean Boeynaems left England and travelled to France to offer themselves as volunteers in the Belgian Army. Paul signed up in Rouen on 19 February 1915 and Jean did the same in Parigné-l’Evêque on 29 April 1915. Both brothers kept in touch with the rest of the family in England via their sister Marthe. She became the point of contact of the family in England. From the address on a card from Paul Boeynaems it becomes clear that Marthe and probably the other children were at 22 Alwine Mansions, Wimbledon, London on 14 March 1915. Was this the first refugee address in England? Meanwhile, the state of health of father  Florent Boeynaems deteriorated. He had already received the last rites. Hélène Boeynaems and her brother Hubert had to return urgently to help in the family. The letter asking for help was dated 26 March 1915 and was addressed to Hélène Boeynaems at 44 York Road,Tunbridge Wells via an intermediary, Mr. Van Nieuwenhuize. The trip was arranged in collaboration with Mr. Léon Van Nieuwenhuize who stayed at 8 College Road, Harrow, London.The brother of Alice Van Nieuwenhuize also had to return to Belgium and it is probable one of the small Boeynaems children travelled with them. The journey was via Vlissingen (Flushing) in the Netherlands.

 Boeynaems 3a  Boeynaems 3b

In Antwerp, the brothers Ferdinand and Hubert tried to save their father’s notarial practice. Ferdinand was training to be a notary and was a welcome help in the practice. Brother Hubert  mainly helped in the administration. As planned Hélène married René van Meerbeeck in the summer. Paul Boeynaems started officer training in Bayeux (F) in July 1915. As an ex-civil guard he was deployed as an instructor. Jean Boeynaems left for the Front.The brothers kept in touch and saw each other during a military leave in De Panne in Belgium. The Boeynaems children moved from York Road to Capilano, 154B Upper Grosvernor Road, Tunbridge Wells. They were there certainly in August 1915. Sometime later in the year they moved to 19 Beltring Road, Tunbridge Wells. Here they definitely were on 26 November 1915. At the end of August 1915, Marthe Boeynaems received a postcard from her sister Hélène in which she told her about her marriage with René van Meerbeeck. The postcard was sent via an intermediary in Moensel near Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

Ludovic /Marie-Louise/JacquesBoeynaems 4 The three youngest Boeynaems children posing in Spring /Summer in St. John’s Recreation Ground in the immediate vicinity of 19 Beltring Road in Tunbridge Wells

Jacques and Ludovic wore their sailor suits as in the picture from 1913.

The war year of 1915 ended on a sad note. Father Florent Boeynaems and the children in England never saw each other again. Florent Boeynaems died on Christmas Eve 1915. He was just 55 years old.

 

(cfr. Letters dated 2 March 1915 and 26 March 1915 –  postcards dated 14 March 1915, 20 April 1915, 1 August 1915,  16 August 1915, 26 November 1915 and17 December  1915)

1916  Paul Boeynaems requested his transfer to the Front and in February 1916 he joined the same regiment as his brother Jean. In a letter of 6 September 1916 we read that mother Marie Coosemans and her son Joseph Boeynaems were in Kerkom (Boutersem) in Belgium to visit Aunt Regina Van Welde. Regina was the sister of Maria Van Welde, the deceased mother of Marie Coosemans. They stayed for a few days. Joseph Boeynaems was no longer in England. Either he had always stayed at home, or he went to Antwerp with Hélène and Hubert in 1915. After the death of their father, the children in England received extra moral support from their uncle Gustave and Aunt Marie (Simons – Boeynaems). In Tunbridge Wells the Belgian refugees regularly paid tribute to the members of their reception committee. In July 1916 two special members of the Mayor’s Belgian Refugees Committee were honoured for their care, reception and committed engagement towards the refugees: the sisters Amelia and Louisa Scott. They received an album filled with all kinds of drawings, paintings, texts, poems and musical pieces, and the signatures and names of the Belgian refugees. In this album, “The Misses Scott Album”, were texts written by Florent Coosemans and his wife Louise Martin and also name cards with the names of the Boeynaems children, Marthe, Suzanne, Florent, Yvonne, Pierre, Jacques, Marie-Louise and Ludovic.In a letter to his sister Marthe, Ferdinand Boeynaems tried to make it clear that life in occupied Belgium was much worse than in England. There was a lot of hardship and scarcity. Forced by circumstances and in their own best interests, the children were encouraged by Ferdinand to stay in England. If necessary, they could move to another location and might also ask for advice from the rest of the family who were in situ or even from their brother Paul. Marthe was temporarily employed as a volunteer at the West Hall Hospital in Tunbridge Wells. It was one of the Red Cross’s Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospitals in Tunbridge Wells. Marthe was not a nurse but the hospital could use all available help; in the hospitals there were also Belgian wounded. She probably remained there for a while because her brother Paul sent her a postcard at that address in September 1916:  West Hall Hospital, Chilston Road, Tunbridge Wells.

(Cfr.Postcards of 16 February 1916, 2 March 1916, 7 September 1916 and a letter of 8 September 1916)

 1917  The children left Tunbridge Wells late in 1916 or early 1917. They moved to London and first settled in South Kensington: at 18 Onslow Gardens and 2 Gledhow Gardens. In that same year, they moved to  21 Russell Square in central London. This was their last address in England. They moved in above the offices of the newspaper “De Stem uit België” (trans: “The Voice of Belgium”) published by Canon Floris Prims, well known to the family Boeynaems. Suzanne and possibly Marthe and Yvonne Boeynaems were also employed there in the office. In January or February 1917, Jean and Paul Boeynaems were on leave in England and were photographed with their brothers and sisters for a family photo. The photo was taken by Sketches – 72 Oxford Street, London.

Boeynaems 6

 

 

 

-Yvonne/Florent/Suzanne/Paul-

 

-Jean/Marthe/Pierre/Marie-Louise-

 

-Jacques/Ludovic-

 

 

In May 1917 a first child was born to Hélène Boeynaems and René van Meerbeeck: Monique van Meerbeeck. In that same year, the Boeynaems children learned of the death of their great uncle and great aunt Jean Hagenaers and his wife Louise Boeynaems, their great aunt Régina Van Welde and their aunts Marguerite Boeynaems and Marie Boeynaems. At the end of 1917 Marie-Louise Boeynaems had fallen ill at St Leonards-on-Sea School and spent a week recuperating with her sisters in London. Son Florent who was on school holidays in London wrote a long letter to his brother Pierre with all the news from 21 Russell Square and his experiences at his new school in Norwood.

(Cfr. Postcard of 25 March  1917, letter of 10 December 1917)

1918  In January Marthe Boeynaems received news from Antwerp from her sister Hélène and her brother Joseph. The postcards were sent from the Netherlands through the intermediary of Mr. Van Herck, a stone merchant in Sluiskil Terneuzen. To mislead the German occupier and to make  the name of the final recipient clear in writing the address, Marthe’s first name was linked to the intermediary’s last name. Hubert sent a postcard to Eug. De Roeck in England for news about the death of Marie Boeynaems, the wife of Gustave Simons. This card also went through Terneuzen.

Boeynaems 7a boeynaems 7b

Hélène van Meerbeeck and little daughter Monique were visiting the family in Prinsstraat.

 boeynaems 8

Hubert – Ferdinand

Hélène – mother Marie Coosemans – Monique – Joseph

In the background, between Joseph and Ferdinand, is Paul Boeynaems’s picture in military uniform

Jean Boeynaems was wounded in the war and taken to a hospital in Le Havre (F) on 1 October. Paul Boeynaems was mentioned in dispatches on November 8 during the liberation of the Ertvelde canal during the final offensive. Yvonne Boeynaems returned to Antwerp in late 1918.

On the day of the Armistice Ferdinand Boeynaems died, as a result of the Spanish flu. Joy quickly turned to sadness. Not long before, he was smiling in a family photo at home in Prinsstraat.

1919  Two letters of 9 and 10 January were the only letters from England to home in Belgium that have been preserved. In these we read that Suzanne Boeynaems was still in London. She wrote to her sister Yvonne that many refugees had already left. She also announced the departure of the René Dieltiens family,of the Denijn family and also of Mrs. Brusselmans. It is not known when all the Boeynaems children followed. After the Christmas holidays 1918/1919, Pierre and Florent Boeynaems went back to school in Upper Norwood. Jean Boeynaems left the army on 6 August 1919 and Paul on 15 August 1919. Not everyone returned to Antwerp. Marthe Boeynaems had become engaged in the meantime to a doctor from Kortrijk, Karel Depla. They married in London in 1920 and had six children. But fate struck again. The Second World War proved fatal for her. She died during a bombing raid in London in 1940. Her children and grandchildren remained in England.
(cfr Letters of  9 and 10 January 1919)

Education

As soon as it was possible the children were sent to boarding schools in England. The boys Florent, Pierre, Jacques and Ludovic Boeynaems first went to school in Stroud in Gloucestershire. Florent left the school in Stroud and moved to St Mary’s College in Upper Norwood in southeast London. Later Pierre, Jacques and Ludovic went to St Joseph’s College in Malvern Wells in Worcestershire. In 1919 Pierre and Florent Boeynaems were in St Mary’s College in Upper Norwood. Ludovic stayed for some time at St Paul’s Convent in Brighton. Marie-Louise went to Convent school in St Leonards-on-Sea, Hastings, in the county of Sussex.

Who is who

Many letters and postcards mention names that to date remain unidentified. Some readers may be able to clarify some of these names. And some names may also belong in another story.  Comments are always welcome.

The unknown individuals mentioned:

* On the flight from Belgium in 1914: Nuchelmans, Sluyts, Scrivener?
* In a letter of March 26, 1915: Leo or Léon Van Nieuwenhuize, Alice Van Nieuwenhuize and her brother?
* On a postcard of November 1915 from Jean Boeynaems: René De Jongh and Etienne?
* On a postcard of 16 February 1916 from Jean Boeynaems: Adolphe, Emmanuel, Arnold Van Kerkhoven, Lahaye, Dupuis?
* On a postcard of March 25, 1917 from Jean Boeynaems: Miss Lombart (sent a package to him)?
* In a letter of 10 December 1917 from son Florent Boeynaems:
Mrs Maria Van Bavel (was employed by ” De Stem uit België”)?
Mme. Josephine (was employed by “De Stem uit België”)?
Bouveroux, Willemsen, Maes, teachers?
Arsène, Piesen, Cornelius, fellow students of Florent and Pierre Boeynaems?
Mr. Fernand Robert?


Cyriel Boeynaems                                                                                                         13 June 2017


I am so grateful to Cyriel for this moving and personal account of his family’s experiences.  If you can help with any of his queries, or can add to his family’s story, please contact him via this blog’s Contact page.  Thank you.

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What are the chances?  The MATTHIEUWIS family from Mechelen

When I was transcribing the 1916 Scott Album a couple of years ago, some of the names were a struggle to decipher.  Such as this one which, after a year or two, and much Googling, I decided was MATTHIEUWIS :p25_matthieuwis

And it stuck in my mind. 

The full entry is :

Matthieuwis jB         J. Verschueren           Mad. Verschueren

Bailles de Fer 14, Malines

Mad.  Matthieuwis        Jos. Verschueren      Jose Devrory

Fast forward to today :

We’re discussing the creation of a database of those who signed the Scott album and what to include, and for reference I turned to one available online for the refugees who were in Glasgow – and got side-tracked. 

I started looking for familiar names, just in case.  I knew the refugees moved around. Not just within Tunbridge Wells, but also the UK.  We’d not yet found any who came to Tunbridge Wells from Glasgow, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. 

As I scanned the (very long) list of names, one leapt out at me : MATTHIEUWIS, Jean and Barbara, both 66, c/o Little Sisters of the Poor, 180 Garngadhill [1], Glasgow, whence they departed on 16th October 1914 – no onward address given.

But their address in Belgium is given as “Balde Fer 14, Malines” – surely a mis-spelling/transcription of “Bailles de Fer”.  Has to be the same family if not the same people… doesn’t it?


[1] Now Roystonhill

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.