What about the Belgian children’s education?

This blog is as much an aide memoire for myself as anything else – somewhere for me to record what I still have to research.

And schooling is a whole area still to be explored.

In all, 75 Belgian refugee children passed through Tunbridge Wells (though the maximum at any one time was only 35), and arrangements were made with the Borough’s schools to give them free education as required [1].

Some were taught by Belgian nuns staying at at Clayton’s Farm, and most of the younger children attended St Augustine’s Catholic Primary School. However, King Charles and Murray House Church of England Schools certainly took in one boy and two girls, and the Girls’ High School had one pupil who was being supported by the Old Girls of the school.  There were boys at Skinners’ School and also at Tonbridge School (see note [3]), and from February 1915 a number of Belgian refugee children attended the newly-opened Sacred Heart Convent School at Beechwood on Pembury Road [2].

This contemplation of the Belgian children’s schooling has been prompted by my discovery this morning while sorting papers of some forgotten notes made from the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser some years ago (only consultable on microfilm in the library – sadly not (yet?) on the wonderful British Newspaper Archive).

“Tunbridge Wells Advertiser, 18th May 1917:  Mariette CARMON joined Murray House School in October 1914.  Kent Higher Education Committee consented in July last that she be educated at the County School in recognition of her good work.”

In July 1916, according to the Kent and Sussex Courier (which is on the British Newspaper Archive) Murray House School Annual Sports afternoon at the Nevill Ground included the presentation of ‘a charming scene’ from Hiawatha in which Mariette CARMON played Chibiabos, musician and close friend of Hiawatha, and an M. Carmon – Mariette? – was awarded a swimming certificate and badge.

Now here’s the thing: is she a Belgian refugee?  Did I assume she was because of her name? Or did the newspaper say that she was?  A slap on the wrist for poor note-taking and back to the library and the microfilm machine! [Update: see comments below]

And then on to the school records in Maidstone, at the Kent History and Library Centre, where the records for the other local schools are also held…

Meanwhile, if you can help, please do get in touch!  Thank you.


Interestingly, only in early 1918 was a Belgian School started up in Tunbridge Wells, and that thanks to Mr Albert LE JEUNE [3], Honorary President of the Club Albert.  Head of the school was Professor Gaston WOLVERSPERGES, a refugee from Antwerp, who with his wife Irma had arrived in Tunbridge Wells from Leicester in August 1917.  His registration papers show frequent visits to the LE JEUNE family residence, Stanton House in Pembury, which suggests they already kinew each other – maybe Mr Le Jeune arranged for him to come to Tunbridge Wells especially to set up the school?

WOLVERSPERGES Gaston Cert Reg reverse
Extract from the reverse of Mr WOLVERSPERGES’s registration document in the Belgian National Archives

I found no record of this school in the local Kent press or records. It was an article in L’Independence belge of 7th August 1918 which alerted me to its existence.  It seems that that year the celebrations for Belgian National Day on 21st July had included the school prize-giving and recitations in French and Flemish of poetry and prose by the children.  The purpose of the school, the article explained, was to complement the ‘instruction’ the children were already receiving in English schools.  Pupil numbers were growing, and the mothers and fathers were very grateful to Professor WOLVERSPERGES for the devotion with which he carried out his difficult task.

WOLVERSPERGES Gaston cropped
Refugee Registration Form – undated but probably 14/15 given Prof WOLVERSPERGES’ age

The registrations documents I consulted show that Gaston WOLVERSPERGES was born in Schaerbeek, Brussels, on 8th June 1875 and that his home address was 11 rue du Lys, Berchem, Antwerp.  A teacher of Geography and History, he spoke both French and Flemish.  Once in the Tunbridge Wells area he and his wife lived first at 16 Meadow Road in Southborough, and later, from February 1918, at 9 Cambridge Street.  He was employed as a teacher at ‘Lingfield School’ and if that’s Lingfield in Surrey, those records are in Woking!


Notes

[1] Report of the Borough of Tunbridge Wells Refugees Committee, May 1919, a copy of which was found for me by Michael Amara of the Belgian National Archives.

[2] Information gleaned from the local newspapers, and from the Beechwood Sacred Heart Convent & School Archives held at Barat House, Roehampton.

[3] Albert LE JEUNE was a future Belgian senator and apparently had an English grandmother whose identity I have still to discover. He and his wife Gabrielle played an active part in both the local and Belgian communities. Their sons attended Tonbridge School.  More about the family in a future post.

 

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“Where is my mother and my father?” Arthur GHISLAIN from Quaregnon

In addition to civilians, there were also wounded and medically-discharged (‘réformés’) Belgian soldiers in Tunbridge Wells.  I have already mentioned a couple – Prosper DEBERGH and Richard VAN HAWEGHEM (about whom, I know, I have promised more). Another has occupied my thoughts the past few days – Arthur GHISLAIN of the 9e régiment de ligne, no. 58,855.

At 10pm on Sunday 25th October 1914, Miss Katherine POTT, Commandant of the Speldhurst and District Voluntary Aid Detachment (Kent 74) of the British Red Cross Society [1], received notice to call up her Detachment and prepare for the arrival of wounded Belgian soldiers at the newly converted Bidborough Court – a house to the north of Tunbridge Wells which had been kindly lent by Mr Henry Joseph WOOD J.P. of The Manor House in West Malling.  By 11pm all her staff of 20 qualified members, plus probationers and support staff, had arrived and were ready to receive the wounded.

Forty Belgian soldiers arrived at Tunbridge Wells Central Station around 1 in the morning and were conveyed to Bidborough Court and Royal Victoria Hall Southborough.  By 5am they had all been attended to.

“The first call, on Sunday, October 25th, 1914, would have tested the efficiency of a much more experienced staff, for thirty Belgians were sent at the shortest notice direct from the trenches at Dixmude ; but everything was ready, and all was carried through without a hitch, the Speldhurst Men’s Bearer Squad rendering most useful assistance.”  Kent’s Care for the Wounded (1915)

The Tunbridge Wells Advertiser of 30th October reported that one of the wounded Belgians, “a very young man named Arthur GHISTRAIN”, kept asking “Where is my mother and father?”

He was from the 9th ‘régiment de Ligne’, service no. 58,855, and the article went on to wonder what he would find when he returned to his “beloved chateau” – presumably a reference to the Petit-Château barracks [2] in Brussels where the 9th régiment de ligne was quartered in 1914 before being mobilised, rather than to his family home.

Searches for an Arthur GHISTRAIN proved fruitless, but then I struck gold in the online Archive of Belgian War Press : there I found an Arthur GHISLAIN, same regiment, same service number, and at Bidborough Court.  His home town is given as ‘Quargnon’ and I am guessing it should be ‘Quaregnon’, near Mons – I know, guessing is not an acceptable research method, but…

Arthur Ghislain, 9th regiment de ligne, 58,855, from Quargnon ?(Quaregnon?), seeks his parsnts. Bidborough Court, Tonbridge Wells.
Advertisement placed in L’Independence belge of 4th November 1914

On 6th November 1914, the Kent & Sussex Courier reported that one of the soldiers ‘who speaks a little English’ had discovered the whereabouts of his mother who was at Dover and that she had visited him that week ‘to their mutual delight’.  Was this young Arthur? I hope so…

I wonder what became of him? I believe he survived the war, though only because his name does not appear on the online Belgian War Dead Register

And there’s a tantalising reference on Facebook [3] to an Arthur GHISLAIN in Quaregnon who was a champion ‘balle-pelote’ player in 1934.  Now I wonder…

Please do get in touch if you can add to his story – merci – thank you – dank u well.


[1]  “During WW1, Tunbridge Wells would have a total of 18 VAD hospitals (not all at the same time), since it was particularly suited to VAD World War I criteria:
– being reasonably close to Folkestone and Dover, both major ferry ports;
– it had a great number of large houses, which could be ideal as auxiliary hospitals and many of which were either unoccupied or occupied on only a seasonal basis;
– its population had a significant surplus of women, who were generally seen as the natural carers of the sick and ill and by inference, the wounded.”    from  The Shock of War – Chapter 6: How Tunbridge Wells coped with the military-wounded (John Cunningham and Ed Gilbert) (2014)

[2] From 1950-1985 the ‘Petit Chateau’ in Molenbeek St Jean was the recruiting and selection centre of the Belgian Army.  Since 1986 it has been a reception centre for asylum seekers.

[3] Mons 2015 – Le Grand-Ouest a Quaregnon : Souvenir 103. Je me souviens que le club de jeu de balle du Rivage attribuait chaque année le grand prix Pierre Demars, du nom d’un excellent joueur d’autrefois. Le comité invitait toutes les équipes de nationale. J’avais huit ou neuf ans. C’étaient des équipes de haut niveau, le tournoi attirait la grande foule. C’est ça qui m’a donné l’envie de jouer. Mes camarades et moi, on voulait s’y mettre mais on ne savait pas jouer. Monsieur le curé Van Vlezemans, qui était un amateur de jeu de balle, nous a initiés. Le dimanche (on n’avait rien comme distraction, à l’époque, à part la messe et le patronage), on allait jouer. C’est comme ça que ça a commencé. Et puis, Arthur Ghislain est arrivé. Il avait fait partie de l’équipe de 1934 (qui a joué la finale du championnat de Belgique). Il nous a pris en main. À l’époque, je ne savais pas livrer. Il paraît que je servais comme une fille. Le service, c’est tout un art ! Il faut savoir synchroniser certains mouvements sur un temps très bref : coup de rein, impulsion de la balle, retournement… Il nous a appris tout ça. Et puis, on y a mis du sien. On s’est entraînés : le mur de l’école, c’était notre fronton. Je ne sais pas comment il tient encore ! Un bête mur de briques, pas du tout lisse, donc les balles pouvaient aller n’importe où ! Pas d’autre entraînement que celui-là. Des heures et des heures, on tapait. Boum, boum, boum ! Il nous tombait des gouttes comme ça ! Notre secret, c’était le mur !

 

A tangent I had to follow…

The writings of Irish Roman Catholic Katharine Tynan-Hinkson have distracted me this morning, and I have come across the following moving extract which has both a Belgian and a Tunbridge Wells and Southborough connection.

Katharine Tynan and her family lived for less than a year (1910-1911) in Southborough and in 1916 she published a volume of reminiscences entitled ‘The Middle Years’ in which she was less than complimentary about the townspeople. There were however a number of exceptions as the extract shows : the Irish curate in question was the Rev. Horace Stirling Townsend Gahan, Curate of St Thomas’s Church, who went on to be Anglican Chaplain in Brussels in 1914.

“There was another person who came and went that summer and played cricket with the children on the Common, who has recently acted a part which shall not be forgotten. Some time in the preceding winter the vicar’s wife had asked me to tea to meet the new curate. “Such a good Irishman !” she said. “You will be so much interested in each other.” I was rather doubtful about it. The new curate belonged to a militant Irish Low Church family, and since I had come to Southborough I had become militant on my own side — at least when I came up against the other militancy. Still the Vicar’s wife and I were friends, so I agreed to go, having protested that we should probably make a battle-ground of her drawing-room.

“The new curate was certainly very Irish to look at – he had in fact the face of an Irish priest: he was Irish, although he hated the Pope ; and there was enough kindly Irish about him to make me forget my antipathies. And I really think he forgot his.

“Of course, his views were very narrow – too narrow even for Southborough – and he banned other people’s cakes and ale in a way which made other people rather indignant. But – perhaps it was the Irish – beginning with a strong prepossession against him, I came in time to like him. There was a streak of the poet in him and the visionary. I used to meet him on the Common talking to the cows, and he would observe the birds by the hour together.

“It was an odd association between him and the Catholic Irish children, who, as soon as they were free, would sally down the Common to his lodgings and call to him peremptorily to come and play cricket. He used to come as soon as he could and play as seriously as though he were playing for his school or ‘varsity. Other children came and joined in, and Father Pat, as we had learnt to call him, used to keep them in order, even the small boy who owned the ball and wanted to go home with it when he was “Out.”

“Southborough generally came to call him Father Pat, and when he was so addressed publicly he took it very well, ascribing its origin to the proper source, but bearing no malice.

“The other day Father Pat, the Rev. Horace Gahan, turned up as the fearless and faithful chaplain of Edith Cavell’s last hours, the man to whom we owe an immense debt for his witnessing to that lofty soul. I could have foretold it of him. He would be perfectly fearless, devoted and sincere. A good hand to hold in those last moments on earth. For what he was to Edith Cavell, for the immeasurable service he rendered us by setting her there on her pedestal for us to see plain – Sancta Editha – let us remember and praise Father Pat of the Great Summer.”

Those who helped

I’ve been hunting down the local people who worked tirelessly to support the town’s Belgian guests and have put up some new pages about the two committeees looked at so far – that for Clayton’s Farmhouse, Ashurst, and the Mayor’s Borough Committee. Some members of the former also sat on the latter. The research (and writing up) is ongoing.  Some great stories.

It is notable that most of them were women. Many of them were working in VAD hospitals, at least one as Commandant and several as nurses, others were Poor Law Guardians, all were wealthy and influential, and many were related to each other either by blood or marriage.

I’ve found links to J.M. Barrie, Edward Lear, and Alfred Tennyson, to a writer of well-known hymns, to the theatre director Tyrone Guthrie, to the women’s suffrage – and anti-suffrage – movements.

Too many tangents off on which to go!

Revenons à nos moutons…

The small committee to manage arrangements at Clayton’s Farmhouse was set up by Mr and Mrs JOHNSTONE of Burrswood, Groombridge in early September 1914.  Clayton’s closed as refugee accommodation in December 1915, as all the residents had either returned home to Belgium, or taken up work in other parts of the UK.

Later in September 1914, the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells set up the Borough Committee (the which worked until all the refugees had returned home in May 1919.

Queen Elisabeth MedalSeveral members of the Mayor’s Committee were awarded the Ordre de la Reine Elisabeth for humanitarian work by the King of the Belgians :Nora GUTHRIE, Annette WILSON, Susan POWER, Anna McCLEAN, Amelia SCOTT, Gabrielle LeJEUNE, and Alice BURTON..goldenpalm

Amelia SCOTT, Mayor EMSON, and W.C. CRIPPS were awarded the Palmes d’Or de l’Ordre de la Couronne.

Well now, I’m supposed to be concentrating on our visitors – to be honest, I’ve so much material, I don’t know where to start.  I’ll take the plunge in the next few days.

The Belgian Colony of Tunbridge Wells 1914-1919

During the years 1914-1919 the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells was home to some 300 Belgian refugees, men, women and children.  This blog will be a random selection of research into the families, and their lives in exile.

I discovered the Belgians’ story in 2008 during research for a Community Play “The Vanishing Elephant”, written and directed by Jon Oram of Claque Theatre, which dramatised some of the history of the Camden Road area of Tunbridge Wells in the years 1880-1918.

Subsequently I was aThe Booksked by Tunbridge Wells Civic Society to contribute a chapter on the Belgian refugees to a local history monograph, “THE SHOCK OF WAR – Tunbridge Wells on the Home Front 1914-1918” which was published in 2014.

The book can be ordered from Tunbridge Wells Civic Society.

Since then I have continued to research the individual families and have set myself the task of tracing them all.

Extract from Chapter 8 of “The Shock of War” :

“Introduction 

“On 4th August 1914 the German Army crossed into Belgium, and by 15th October, Zeebrugge and Ostend on the Belgian coast were under German occupation.[1] During those two and a half months, town and cities were besieged and captured – Liege, Brussels, Namur, Louvain[2], Malines, Termonde, Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and town and villages in between, were overrun and in many cases all but destroyed. The British newspapers were full of the brutality of the invading army – innocent civilians killed and tortured, their homes ransacked and razed to the ground, women and children used as human shields – and of the bravery of “gallant little Belgium” in holding up the Uhlans, thereby buying time for Britain and France.

“On 17th August, the Belgian Government left Brussels to set up first in Antwerp, then Ostend, and finally on 13th October in the French port of Le Havre. And 1½ million Belgians – almost a quarter of the population – also fled their country to escape the terror – to Holland, to France, and about 225,000 of them to Britain.

“There were many tales of brutality by the invading forces and while some of the worst of these were subsequently discredited, they were a useful propaganda tool at the time. The personal stories of those refugees who arrived in Tunbridge Wells bear witness to what happened. Some 300 Belgians spent time in Tunbridge Wells between 1914 and 1919 [3]. Though relatively small in number, this self-styled “Belgian Colony” made a huge impact on the life of the town at the time, but has been largely forgotten since.”

This is their story.


[1] Note re place-names: where there is no obvious Anglicised version of a Belgian place-name, the version most commonly used by the Tunbridge Wells refugees themselves at the time has been opted for, almost invariably the French rather than Flemish version.

[2] The congregation of St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Tunbridge Wells had a particular interest in the sacking of the University city of Louvain (Leuven) on 26th August 1914 as the church’s assistant priest,  Fr Calnan, had gone to the University there in October 1913.

[3]  In total 78 men, 144 women, 35 boys, and 40 girls were looked after by the Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees Committee [Archives de la Guerre. Comité officiel belge pour l’Angleterre (réfugiés belges en Angleterre). Archives Générales du Royaume, Bruxelles]. The maximum at any one time was 96 adults and 35 children [1919 Report of Belgian Refugees Committee, Borough of Royal Tunbridge Wells]  This number was augmented by those who were able to support themselves, or who were given hospitality privately.