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.

 

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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.