Tunbridge Wells goes to Belgium…

Yesterday I gave a short talk at a Studienamiddag organised by the Study Centre for Flemish Music (Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Musiek), with specific reference to some of the Belgian musicians and artists who were in Tunbridge Wells during the First World War.  It was short and fairly superficial, but I thought I’d post it here for posterity, with some links.

There were a number of very interesting papers delivered, not least one by Jan Dewilde on Belgian women composers Eva Dell’Acqua and Maria Matthijssens which included a performance by Belgian soprano Eloise Mabille of two songs., “Villanelle” (dell’Acqua) and “Chaperon rouge” (Matthijssens).

My own presentation was followed by a performance of Frederic Bonzon’s “En Ardenne” by young oboist Balder DendievelYoung oboist Balder Dendievel and pianist Kristien Devolder take their bows after a performance of Frederic Bonzon's "En Ardennes" in Ghent in February 2018

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay for the evening concert.  Had I done so I would have heard a performance of Peter Benoit’s Troisieme fantaisie, op. 18 which was played in a concert at the Club Albert in Tunbridge Wells on 1st January 1916 by Jef Denyn.

Frederic Bonzon (1850-1926) and the Royal Tunbridge Wells Belgian refugees, 1914-1919

Gooie namiddag, damens en herren….

It’s a great honour to be with you today to share in this 20th anniversary celebration and I thank Jan Dewilde for inviting me to speak. I must also thank him for his help in finding out more about Professor Bonzon when all I had was a scrap of music and an address.

But to start at the beginning –

As you will know only too well, during and after the terrible events of August 1914, something like a quarter of the population of Belgium fled, on foot, in carts, taking what they could carry, in many case with only the clothes they stood up in. Perhaps members of your own families were among them.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like.

They fled to neutral Holland, to France and to the United Kingdom – 250,000 people – men women and children – made their way across the English Channel by whatever means possible, and in such numbers that in one week after the fall of Antwerp on 10th October 1914, 26,000 fugitives landed at Folkestone.

And among their number were 64 year old Professor Frederic Bonzon, his wife Marie Therese Faviesse and their grown-up daughter Marthe who arrived in Folkestone on 9th October 1914. We don’t know how they travelled, simply that they arrived and were soon in lodgings in the town.

Folkestone had become a veritable “town of refugees”.  Many of those arriving were destitute, others were able to support themselves.

In early September the British Government had offered hospitality to any refugees from Belgium for as long as it was needed and soon a Central Refugees Committee was established in London followed by voluntary committees around the country.  A scheme was put in place for receiving and registering the refugees.

On arrival in Folkestone, most people were sent to dispersal centres in London set up in public buildings like Alexandra Palace and Earls Court. The local committees around the country identified possible lodgings in their towns and villages and the refugees were then sent on to them.

Others went directly from Folkestone to the care of a local committee, and this was the case for the Bonzon family for in December 1914, just in time for Christmas, they are at a house in Tunbridge Wells – 11 Linden Park – a large 16-roomed house round the corner from the famous Pantiles. Unfortunately the house no longer exists. [1]

They shared the house with at least two families from Ostend  – the Tanghe-Vanhercke-Groven family and the sister of painter James Ensor, her daughter and family and the painter’s friend and muse, Augusta Boogaerts and her nephew.

The house was one of those provided by the local refugees committee and had been lent rent-free by a local builder.  The fact that the Bonzon family was given lodgings in one of the houses provided by the Committee suggests that they had left Antwerp with very little and were not able to support themselves.

The Tunbridge Wells committee had been set up by the Mayor in September/October 1914 and during the ensuing 4 1/2 years the committee looked after a total of 297 men, women and children, providing housing, clothing, and schooling, and often helping them find local employment.  This number was augmented by those who were able to support themselves or stay with friends.

We learnt recently that one of the self-supporting families – the Meeus-Havenith family from Antwerp, chose to come to Tunbridge Wells simply because the novelist Thackeray had once lived there!

So what was the town the Bonzon family and others found themselves in, like?

The Pantiles (Wikipedia)

Tunbridge Wells in 1914 was – a fashionable spa town,a royal municipal borough and market town, about  55 kms from London and about the same from Folkestone,with a population of about 36,000. It owed its existence to the discovery of its iron-rich spring water (similar to that in Spa here in Belgium) in the 17th century after which  it became a favourite destination for royalty and fashionable society. In the 19th century the town began to attract more permanent residents. The surrounding countryside was ideal for walks and rides and early guide books of the town described the country houses that could be visited in the area.

But by the autumn of 1914 it had also become a military centre

Soldiers encamped on Tunbridge Wells Common 1914
Photo: Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery

with thousands of soldiers encamped in tents on the Common and billeted in empty houses in the town.

A notable feature of the town, was its religious-ness – it was predominantly Church of England and non-conformist, and well-known for its more Puritan tendencies. In 1914 there were 9 Anglican Churches, 9 non-Conformist chapels, a Quaker Meeting House and one Catholic church, St Augustine’s

St. Augustine's with school
St Augustine’s Church and school

which became the spiritual home of the Belgian community, the scene of national celebrations such as the Belgian National Day and King’s Day, of marriages and baptisms, and sadly also of funerals.

A refugee priest from Mechelen, from SS Peter and Paul Church, Fr Louis Lemmens , ministered to the refugees until he left the town in mid-1915 when his place was taken by Fr Josef Peeters from Lint.

In November 1914 St Augustine’s was packed for the celebration of King’s Day, the traditional Te Deum was sung, led by a choir under the direction of one of the town’s refugees from Belgium – none other than the great Beiaardeer Josef Denyn who had arrived from Mechelen in October 1914 with his wife, their 6 children and his wife’s sister.

Denyn family

This photo of Jef Denyn and his family – for which I am most grateful to Koen Cosaert of the Koninklijke Beiaardschool in Mechelen – was probably taken some time in late 1917 as missing from it are Mr Denyn’s  youngest daughter Emma and his wife Helene who tragically died during the family’s exile in Tunbridge Wells, in 1916 and 1917.  Their graves are in the town’s cemetery. [2]

Tunbridge Wells already had a thriving musical life, with choral societies and orchestras, 2 or 3 theatres, and of course frequent concert parties & this continued throughout the war years,  with performances not only by local musicians, professional & amateur, but also by visiting Belgian performers, often themselves refugees, such as Mme Helene Feltesse from the Brussels Opera and the violinist Eugene Ysaye.  [In fact, Mr Isaye himself spent a few week in Tunbridge Wells in 1914 with his family (and their cook – and his Stradivarius. according to newspaper accounts) following their dramatic escape from Knokke in a fishing vessel.]  And concert programmes in the town included music by Belgian composers such as Peter Benoit and Eva dell’Acqua whose “Villanelle” we will hear later I believe.

Unfortunately I have no found evidence of works by Profesor Bonzon being performed in Tunbridge Wells, nor of any performances given by him or his family – maybe simply because the oboe doesn’t lend itself to solo performance in the same way as piano, violin or voice.

In March 1915 Prof Bonzon was joined in Tunbridge Wells by his son Charles’s wife, Laure, and her 6 year old son Andre – they had been in Manchester, in the north of England – and in May 1915 Laure returned to Belgium, leaving her son with his grandparents and aunt. And the following year the family moved to apartments in a house nearer the centre of the town – just along from the Opera House.

28 Dudley Road
28 Dudley Road (Photo Caroline Auckland)

We have a photo of little Andre Bonzon with a group of Belgian children in the garden of a house in Tunbridge Wells.Belgian ChildrenThe photo belongs to the LIMPENS family, descendents of the MEEUS-HAVENITH family from Wynegem, whose grandparents are also in the photo – see the little boy in school uniform – probably Frederic MEEUS.  Schooling was provided free of charge in local primary and secondary schools, but there was also a Belgian School in Tunbridge Wells, set up – probably in a private house – in  early 1918 to provide instruction in French and Flemish to the children, alongside their English education.

And while the children needed to continue their education, the adults wanted and were encouraged to work – though it was made clear not at the expense of local workers.  Tunbridge Wells did not have the industry of other parts of the country, where the refugees were employed in munitions or aircraft factories for example, but there were certainly opportunities to work – as domestic staff in one of the big houses for example and Professor Bonzon’s daughter, Marthe, obtained a position as a Governess with the Talbot family in nearby Bidborough – possibly in response to this advertisement placed in the Kent and Sussex Courier of 7th May 1915 :

Newspaper Ad Required immediately young French of Belgian lady to take charge of one little girl - Mrs Talbot, The Grey Lodge, Bidborough

BONZON Marthe 1919 04 17 CoA Blue cropped
Marthe Bonzon Registration document

Marthe worked for them until  she and her family returned to Antwerp in April 1919.

Going home was never far from the minds of the refugees, and finally after the Armistice in November 1918, this was possible – thought not until early 1919. The British government chartered ferries to provide free passage first to Antwerp and then also Ostend,   The local committee in Tunbridge Wells reported that by May 1919 all the Belgian refugees had returned .

The Belgians had been in Tunbridge Wells for four and a half years and in that time were gradually absorbed into the life of the town.  In the first year the newspapers were full of stories and reports of Belgian National Day and King’s Day and social events held at the Belgian social club, the Club Albert.

Their presence now is hardly known about, but they did leave at least two memorials of their stay.



The first is an almost life-size bust of the then Mayor, Mr Whitbourn Emson, who was chair of the refugees committee during the whole period.

It was commissioned and paid for by the Belgian Community from sculptor Paul Van Den Kerckhove, himself a refugee who stayed in the town with his wife and two daughters, and it stands today in the lobby to the Council Chamber in Tunbridge Wells Town Hall.


The other “memorial” is much smaller but perhaps more important – certainly from a researcher’s point of view –

SCOTT cover 1and that is a souvenir album signed by some 180 Belgians and presented to two Tunbridge Wells sisters, Amelia and Louisa Scott, who both worked tirelessly to help the refugees from Belgium.

Indeed Amelia Scott was awarded the Golden Palms of the Order of the Crown by the King of the Belgians for her work.

But the souvenir album was a very special thank you from the people she helped, and it was there that I came across this :

BONZON_Music 8

Professor Bonzon’s Oboe piece – En Ardennes – alongside which he wrote Hommage respectueux de l’auteur a Mesdemoiselles Scott Tunbridge Wells le 22 juillet 1916…

…And this seems a fitting place to stop as the moment has arrived for you to hear that very piece of music.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak today.  And please don’t hesitate to talk to me or contact me later if you would like to know more, or indeed if you yourselves can add to our research. [3]

Thank you.

[1] This morning  I found this fascinating blog post by Ed Gilbert about 10 Linden Park – maybe number 11 was similar?

[2] See earlier blog The refugees who never went home

[3]  Afterwards I spoke to a gentleman who believes a member of his family married one of Jef Denyn’s daughters (and will let me know), and to Koen Cosaert, Director of the ‘Jef Denyn’ Beiaardschool in Mechelen, who told me that in letters held in their archives Jef Denyn wrote that the family chose Tunbridge Wells as it was cheaper than London!  I also discussed with Mr Cosaert the possibility of a Carillon piece by W.W. Starmer’s being played in Mechelen in June 2019 – fingers crossed…


Births, Marriages and Deaths

Today I stumbled upon another birth in the Tunbridge Wells Belgian Community, that of Françoise Marie Isabelle Louise Madeleine Cornélie, daughter of Jean-Baptiste and Madeleine VAN DE PUT-MEEUS, on 30th April 1915.

The child’s parents had married in Wyneghem near Antwerp on 9th June 1914 – the bride was the daughter of the town’s Mayor, M. Hippolyte MEEUS, and the newspaper Le Courrier d’Anvers devoted a quarter of its front page on 19th June 1914 to coverage of the celebrations, describing how the marriage party made its way from the church to the MEEUS home, their way lined with a large and “sympathique” crowd of well-wishers.

As the young couple set off for their honeymoon in Biarritz and the Swiss Lakes, they couldn’t have known that only a few weeks later they would be fugitives from war.

MEEUS Madeleine_VAN DE PUT Jean_Marriage-Le_courrier_d'Anvers_1914 06 19
Jean Baptiste VAN DE PUT and Madeleine MEEUS in Le Courrier d’Anvers, 19th June 1914

The MEEUS family’s story I have not yet told on this blog, but you will find some of it in the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society book The Shock of War (ed. John Cunningham), in the Chapter I contributed about the Belgian refugees in Tunbridge Wells.  The Mayor and his wife both died in Tunbridge Wells in 1915, six months apart.  Lavish funerals were held at St Augustine’s and their bodies laid to rest in the Cemetery Mortuary Chapel until the end of the war when they were repatriated and buried in the family vault.


But I digress.  My intention today was simply to list the Births, Marriages and Deaths I have so far come across and for which I have the certificates, so here goes.


  • January 2nd   Death at 3 Woodbury Park Road of widow Euthalie Amelie BAL-VAN VAERENBERGH, 78, of 112 avenue du Commerce, Antwerp  – she too was repatriated after the war and buried in Antwerp.
  • February 20th   Marriage of Prosper Leopold DEBERGH and Marie RAVIJTS, both from Termonde, at St Augustine’s Catholic Church
  • February 23rd    Marriage of Oscar Edouard GROVEN and Germaine Mathilde Therese TANGHE both from Ostend, and engaged to be married before they left Belgium, at St Paul’s Catholic Church in Dover
  • March 23rd   Death at Tunbridge Wells General Hospital of baby Helene BECKER, 7 months, from measles and broncho-pneumonia.  She lies in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at Hawkenbury.
  • April 30th   Birth of Francoise Marie Isabelle Louise Madeleine Cornélie, daughter of Jean-Baptiste and Madeleine VAN DE PUT-MEEUS, at 4 Nevill Park
  • May 25th   Birth of Jacques Albert Daniel, son of Leon and Laure COEN-CHRISTIAENS from Schaerbeek, Brussels, at “Belle Vue”, 54 Mount Ephraim
  • June 26th   Death of Isabelle Adolphine Marie Ferdinande Josephine MEEUS-de MEURS, 61, the wife of Hippolyte MEEUS, distiller and Mayor of Wyneghem, at 4 Nevill Park
  • October 17th   Birth of Rose Marie, daughter of Paul and Marie Francoise VAN NULAND-HANOCQ, from Antwerp, at 7 Calverley Park Crescent
  • October 26th   Death of Hippolyte Maria Ivo MEEUS, 64, Mayor of Wyneghem, at 4 Nevill Park
  • December 2nd   Birth of Gladys Marie Virginie, daughter of Oscar and Germaine GROVEN-TANGHE (the couple who had married in Dover earlier that year), at 11 Linden Park, Broadwater Down.


  • February 26th   Death at Tonbridge Workhouse Informary of Rosalie GEBRUERS-de PAUW, 58, wife of telephone fitter Sebastien GEBRUERS, who were living at 43 Grosvenor Road
  • April 12th   Marriage of munitions worker Andre VAN DEN EYNDE of Yew Cottages, Powder Mills, Tonbridge, and Annie TAYLOR, spinster, of Maidstone Road, Paddock Wood, at Tonbridge Register Office – not Tunbridge Wells, but he does pop up in the occasional concert in the town (at least I think it’s him/he) so I thought I’d include them.
  • May 1st   Death at 11 Linden Park, Broadwater Down, of Wilhelmina Florentina VANHERCKE, 66, “spinster daughter of Jean VANHERCKE cabinet-maker”
  • September 1st   Death at 154b Upper Grosvenor Road, of Josef Marie Louis , 2, son of Paul and Marie VAN NULAND-HANOCQ, from tubercular meningitis
  • September 28th   Death at 3 East Cliff Road of Emma Caroline, 12, daughter of  Mechelen ‘carilloneur’ Josef  DENYN and his wife Helene DENYN-SCHUERMANS


  • February 1st   Death at 63 Grosvenor Park of Theodore VAN BENEDEN, 66, from Blaseveldt near Antwerp.  He was in Tunbridge Wells with his brother and several cousins.
  • June 13th   Birth of Genevieve Marie Josephe Julie Christiane Ghislaine, daughter of Professor Joseph WILLEMS and his wife Marguerite WILLEMS-BESME – by this time they were living in Folkestone, at 83 Bouverie Road West, where the Professor was an Adjutant in the Belgian Intelligence Service
  • June 22nd   Birth of John Emile Polidore, son of Oscar and Germaine GROVEN-TANGHE and a brother to Gladys, at 55 Culverden Park Road.  Father Oscar is now a munitions worker.
  • July 4th   Birth of Joseph Marie Odilon, son of Paul and Marie VAN NULAND-HANOCQ, at 154b Upper Grosvenor Road
  • September 23rd   Death at 3 East Cliff Road of Helene Theodore Hubertine SCHUERMANS, 55, wife of Mechelen Bellmaster Josef DENYN
  • October 20th   Marriage of Jeanne DEMEURISSE and Louis TANGHE at St Augustine’s Catholic Church



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


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.


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.



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.

© 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.