King’s Day, 15th November 1914

Sunday 15th November was an important date in the calendar for the Belgian Community : it was (and still is) King’s Day – la Fete du RoiKoningsdag – the King’s feast day [1] – and the day was celebrated in style in 1914 by the refugees and their hosts.

- The World's Work, 1919:Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30736306 https://archive.org/stream/worldswork38gard#page/634/mode/2up,
King Albert I by Richard Neville Speaight

The Belgian flag was flown over most of the town’s public buildings, the Belgians themselves sported ribbons in their national colours of black, gold and red, and a full account of the proceedings was given in the local press the following Friday [2].

The day began with a Mass and the singing of patriotic hymns (though no mention on this occasion of a Te Deum) at St Augustine’s Catholic Church at which the huge congregation spilled out into Hanover Road.  A special choir of Belgian refugees, including the Sisters of Mercy from Malines, was conducted by M. Denyn, and Canon Keatinge preached at length on the debt owed to the Belgian people by English Catholics whose forebears had taken refuge across the Channel during the reign of Elizabeth I.

After the service, the Belgians marched from the church to their temporary homes on Upper Grosvenor Road (at this early stage probably numbers 32 (Cintra House) and 47 (“the Belgian Hostel”), waving Belgian flags and singing their National Anthem, cheered on by crowds of local people who lined their way.

In the afternoon, the Belgian community gathered in the room lent to them for that purpose at the Constitutional Club on Calverley Road, to celebrate “their courageous King Albert”.  M. Ernest KUMPS, provisional President of the newly-formed Belgian Club Albert, expressed their thanks for the “many kind attentions” they were receiving in Tunbridge Wells, and to the Mayor and the Corporation for the telegram they had sent King Albert to mark the occasion.

The next day a grand concert was held in the Pump Room [3] on The Pantiles, organised by Mr Frank HIRD [4] in the presence of the Mayor and Mayoress. Nearly 600 people, mostly Belgians, from all parts of the district, attended, according to the Kent & Sussex Courier, which described it as “a gathering unique in the history of the town”. The entire programme was in French with performances by local artistes who kindly gave their services – there was a short play in French [5], a ballet solo (which was so enjoyed it had to be repeated), recitations, piano solos – and an imitation of farmyard animals by a Miss Parbury.

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Mr Hird received the ultimate accolade for the celebration when one of those attending shook him warmly by the hand and delared that it was “just like being at home”.

The occasion ended with the Allies’ National Anthems and was followed by refreshments : coffee, not tea – of course.


[1] King’s Day – 15th November is the feast day of both St Leopold and St Albert, and has been celebrated as King’s Day since 1866, during the reign of Leopold II.  It is not a national public holiday, but is traditionally marked with a Te Deum at the Cathedral in Brussels, and a secular ceremony at the Belgian Federal Parliament.

[2] K & S Courier, Friday 20th November 1914

[3] The Pump Room was demolished in 1964 and replaced by the lovely Union House

[4] Journalist and author Frank (Francis) HIRD was the adopted son and companion of sculptor Sir Ronald Gower of Mayo House on Mount Ephraim.  Frank Hird was well known in the town for “organising amateur entertainments in aid of good works” (Kent & Sussex Courier, July 1915).  In November 1914 he was helping out at West Hall VAD Hospital, and in October 1915 he became Secretary to the newly-opened Kingswood Park VAD Hospital.  From 1917-1918 he was a Church Army Commissioner at the Front.  Sir Ronald died in 1916 and Frank Hird in 1937.  They are buried together at St Paul’s Rusthall.

[5]”Doctoresse et Couturier” by Julien Berr de Turique, a one-act play about a female doctor and a male dressmaker, who, after a series of misunderstandings, end up married – of course.  The part of the dresssmaker was played by the Hon. Stephen Powys.

 

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]