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_pantiles2c_28royal29_tunbridge_wells2c_kent2c_england2c_ca-_1895
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.

cw-emson-bust

 

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…

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Creative Connections

Above image is a photo of a postcard in Tunbridge Wells Museum

Not a lot of blogging has been going on as I recover from our little Belgian Week back in July, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been busy!  I thought I’d share a creative writing piece which was the result of a workshop organised at Tunbridge Wells Museum over the summer by local writer Caroline Auckland for the Friends of the Museum as part of Heritage Open Days 2017.creative wrtigin workshop posterThe piece was inspired by the Tunbridge ware exhibits in the Museum – I had previously discovered a link between Tunbridge ware maker Thomas Barton and the town’s refugees from Belgium.

Thomas Barton Tunbridgeware
Tunbridge ware exhibits in Tunbridge Wells Museum

Here it is.  I hope you enjoy it…

Connections

Inspired by the Thomas Barton Tunbridge ware collection in Tunbridge Wells Museum

As she stood before the cabinet containing her precious Tunbridge ware, Mary Ann Figgett wondered what her guests would be like – well, not exactly guests – they were actually lodgers – but she knew she would have to look after them, treat them like friends. So had said the written instructions she had received from Mrs Guthrie of the Mayor’s Belgian Refugees Committee: treat them like friends, put yourself in their shoes – and please serve them coffee not tea.

Three women were coming to stay, refugees from war-torn Belgium, “plucky little Belgium” whose Army and people had slowed down the German advance across Belgium, at great cost to themselves, and so protected England from invasion. She remembered the Mayor, Charles Whitbourn Emson, saying in the autumn of 1914 that, as the brave Belgians had stood up to the invader, they must all show their gratitude by helping those from that country now taking refuge in Tunbridge Wells.

Miss Figgett was used to lodgers. For many years she and her sister Lizzie had lived with their father’s sister Mary Barton, and her husband Thomas, in their house on Mount Ephraim – the quaint old house known as the Tunbridge Ware Manufactory and Repository – where in addition to working in the shop and around the house, they had helped their aunt run the apartments rented out to visitors. One family she remembered with particular fondness – Mrs Gielgud and her two little boys who with their nursemaid had spent the Easter holidays with them in 1901. They had kept in touch for a while, and she still treasured the photograph Mrs Gielgud had sent her after the birth of little Arthur John some three years later.

Aunt Mary had died in 1891 and Uncle Thomas had felt the blow keenly. He had had a stroke not long after the Gielguds’ stay, and his two nieces had nursed him until he had finally succumbed to his illness on 14th July 1903. He had left everything to Mary Ann. A kind and generous man, well-loved in the town as well as by his family, he had considered his nieces his adopted daughters, and had also been guardian to a young dressmaker, Fanny Thompson, who had lived with her widowed mother in the Gilead Terrace cottages just along Mount Ephraim. Mary Ann remembered Fanny’s wedding – she and Lizzie had been bridesmaids, and Uncle Thomas had proudly walked the bride down the aisle of Christ Church, and afterwards entertained the guests to the wedding breakfast in his own home. He had taught her much about hospitality and generosity and caring for those less fortunate than oneself.

After his death, “the Misses Barton”, as they were known by so many in the town, had stayed on at the Mount Ephraim house, and continued to make up and sell Tunbridge ware items in the shop, as well as rent out the apartments. She remembered how hard it had been to keep everything going, and when her sister Lizzie’s health began to fail they realised the time had come to move to more manageable – and hopefully modern – accommodation.

40 York Road had just nine rooms (as opposed to the fifteen of 86 Mount Ephraim) – space enough for her and Lizzie, and a couple of lodgers. But since Lizzie’s death nearly a year ago in November 1915, the house had seemed too big and very empty, and so she had decided to respond to the Mayor’s request for hospitality for some of the Belgians in the town.

There had been a Belgian family – an aunt and uncle and their half a dozen little nieces and nephews – living two doors down at number 44 the previous year. They had fled the city of Antwerp in the autumn of 1914 and told her many stories of the hardships they had suffered on their journey to England. How she had felt for the little children when they described being taken to say goodbye to their parents who were staying behind, not knowing whether they would ever see them again! They were very interested in the pieces of Tunbridge ware she still owned, and she was able to tell them that there was a connection with their home country as her uncle had always told her that the inspiration for Tunbridge Ware was similar pieces made in the town of Spa in Belgium. They told her that Spa was in the Ardennes mountains near the German border. It was the part of their country first invaded by the Germans and now under occupation. They had told her that Tunbridge Wells reminded them all of holidays they had spent in Spa, that the waters there were just like the Tunbridge Wells water : rich in iron, and just as liable to stain everything a rusty red. The similarities were comforting, but at the same time made them long more and more for home.

Mary Ann hoped that by opening her doors to some of their compatriots she could both give them some comfort in their exile and fill the emptiness in the house. One of her lady guests, Mme Sperlaeken, was, she understood, about her own age and spoke English; the other two were her unmarried daughters. This would be their seventh home in Tunbridge Wells in the two years they had been here. She was determined that they should not have to move again.

It was nearly time. Just one last thing to do, and as she placed three carefully-chosen pieces of Tunbridge ware on the table in the guests’ sitting-room, she heard female voices outside in the street. She took a deep breath, and concentrated very hard as she went to open the door:

“Bonjour Madame. Bienvenue à ma maison. Vous êtes chez vous.”

Alison MacKenzie
September 2017


Notes:

  • The first Belgian family referred to is the COOSEMANS-BOEYNAEMS family.  Read their story in this guest blogpost by Cyriel Boeynaems here
  • The Belgian town of Spa (Wikipedia link), the original spa town, produced wooden ware (“bois de Spa”) from the early 17th century.  The wooden objects were made from natural wood or from wood soaked in the ferruginous spa waters giving it a greyish or brownish tint; many of these objects were subsequently decorated in various ways, mostly with gouache but also with Indian ink, by encrusting mother-of-pearl, ivory or precious metals.  Early Tunbridge ware was also painted.

    Spa ware
    Spa ware (from the website of the Museum in Spa http://www.spavillaroyale.be/spip.php?rubrique6

Here’s a link to a film about a present day restorer and maker of Spa ware, Micheline Crouquet  http://www.spavillaroyale.be/spip.php?article304  (in French, but very visual).

  • Louise SPERLAEKEN (nee VAN DE WALLE) and her grown-up daughters Georgina and Yvonne were from rue Royale/Koninklijke straat, Ostend, and moved into 40 York Road in September 1916 according to their registration documents (held in the National Archives in Brussels).  It’s not clear when they actually arrived in Tunbridge Wells but a list of refugees from Ostend published in “De Vlaamsche Stem” on 26 September 1915 shows that Mme SPERLAEKEN was then at 26 Guildford Road.
    1915 09 26-Refugees from OSTEND_Addresses_De_Vlaamsche_stem__algemeen_Belgisch_dagblad-004-CC_BY-SPERLAEKEN_VAN HERCKE_VANDEVALLE
    From De Vlaamsche Stem (HetArchief.be)

    According to the registration documents, they also lived at numbers 8, 38 and 58 Upper Grosvenor Road, 20 and 30 Guildford Road (but no mention of 26), and 44 Lime Hill Road… Hopefully they were able to stay at Miss Figgett’s apartments until they left Tunbridge Wells.


  • Oh and finally, here’s a transcription of the 1901 Census entry for 86 Mount Ephraim (Ref RG13/752) : 1901 Census Barton Gielgud transcription-page-001Kate and Frank GIELGUD’s third child, Arthur John GIELGUD, the future Sir John GIELGUD, actor and director, was born on 14 April 1904, followed by sister Frances Eleanor in 1907.  I wonder whether they spent any other holidays in Tunbridge Wells?

*Sarah Elizabeth, known as Lizzie according to an article n the Kent & Sussex Courier which I could probably find if you would like the reference.