Belgian Refugees

Some who were for a time at least Harrogate people were the Belgian refugees in World War One. Following the German invasion in August 1914, in total around 250,000 men, women and children fled to the UK. Naturally, towns on the south coast hosted thousands of refugees, but Harrogate too played its part in their reception.

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Chris Dicken.jpg
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Chris Dicken.jpg

Belgian Refugee Committee

The first arrived in the town in September 1914, with over three hundred in residence by December and by the war’s end it had provided refuge for 537 people. The Mayor, Alderman Joseph Sheffield, launched a fund to help them, which raised in total £11,000, and to administer it and coordinate hospitality a Refugee Committee was set up, based in Raglan Street. It was led by Hodgson Smith, with James Ogden acting as treasurer, and the Mayoress. The Committee arranged accommodation and many local families also took in refugees, like Mrs Auton of Regent Parade or Mrs Foster of Otley Road. Mrs Ratcliffe of Duchy Road arranged for the then empty 35 Kent Road to house some. Another empty house was given by the North Eastern Railway Company. A house and shop in the High Street, Starbeck was offered and run by the Starbeck Branch of the Church of England Men’s Society. The Primitive Methodists equipped a house in Franklin Road, as did most of the town’s churches at various locations.

The public also donated items, including clothing, as many refugees had fled with little but what they stood up in. Three girls from Belmont School took tobacco and matches to wounded Belgian soldiers being treated at a hospital in Knaresborough. Ellie Horrocks of Form V reported in the school magazine that one of them had shot ten Germans concealed in a tree, ‘surely a splendid record’ and praised the unconquerable spirit’ of ‘brave little Belgium’.

Employment opportunities were created for the men, notably a toy-making factory in Tower Street. Work was also found for some in other parts of the country. A Lost Relative Bureau was set up to help locate those separated by the conflict. The children went to the local schools. Since many were Catholics, St Robert’s School hosted some, not only pupils but their teachers too in a special refugee class. At Grove Road, the school logbook notes the attendance there, for example, of Charles Claus and Jacques Bredael, both aged seventeen, who attended for two mornings a week for lessons in English and arithmetic. There were also social activities for the refugees. The St James’ Picture Palace in Cambridge Street gave free passes for many screenings. A Belgian Band was established at the instigation of a local musician. A special club was opened with for the men a smoking room, shooting range, boxing ring, billiard table and games area. The women had a sitting room. The Catholic Girls Club was used to host an evening reception for all the refugees to meet one another.

The Prospect Hotel became a centre for activities supporting the refugees. On the outbreak of war, the hotel’s German manager, Herr Bartsch, had been interned, as were several German nationals resident in the town, and his post subsequently taken by a refugee, M. Elleboudt, in 1915. One notable event held there was a confirmation class for children on 1 June 1916, supervised by the Bishop of Belgium.

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Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg
Chris Dicken.jpg

Grenadier Guards,
Belgians Plaque (formerly in Prospect hotel)

In November 1916, the Band of the Belgian Grenadier Guards marched through the town in recognition of the work done for them, at the instigation of the King of the Belgians. After the war, they presented to the town a plaque inscribed with the words ‘As a token of ever grateful remembrance of the kindness and generosity of the citizens of Harrogate.’

Naturally, the local Harrogate papers presented a very positive picture of the town’s reception of the refugees. But there is also a wider, perhaps fuller, picture. The refugees enabled the government to highlight the evils of the enemy, the Hun as they were termed, and to present the war as a just cause in support of gallant little Belgium. A lecture was given at the Kursaal, later renamed the Royal Hall, entitled ‘Brave Little Belgium’, which showed scenes of refugees fleeing their ruined homes and featured cartoons from Punch depicting a brave little Belgian keeping a huge Kaiser at bay, who is gloating ‘You have lost everything’, to which the King of the Belgians replies ‘not my soul’. The headmistress of Harrogate College, the Ladies College, also caught this mood in her address to the girls, when she talked of the ‘unutterable suffering’ of the refugees and the atrocities perpetrated on them by the invaders, although these were later revealed to be largely fictitious. She did however, direct her fire at the German government, its people rather being ‘deluded’ and ‘dragged into a fight’. Former teacher, Dorothy Hewlett, in her history of the school, remembered a house of refugees on Clarence Drive but could not recall that ‘we had much personal contact with them’.

A. J. P Taylor, in his characteristically contrary way, many years ago now noted the initial emotional welcome given to the refugees, but went on to describe how that sympathy did not last. Many refugees were aggrieved that Britain had not actually done more to defend their neutrality. As Poland was to be in the next war it was of course occupied throughout the conflict. Many Englishmen feared the men’s competition in the labour market, particularly once hostilities ceased. Before the war ended, he concluded, ‘the Belgians were far from popular’. Historians more recently have shared this view. Certainly, once the Armistice was signed the British Government was keen to see them return home as quickly as possible, which was duly effected, although many were no doubt eager to return. In Harrogate, a farewell concert was given for them at the Spa Rooms in January 1919. On the 7 February, over a hundred Belgians left Harrogate station bound for Hull and the voyage home.

Sources of information.
There is much detail about the Belgian refugees in Harrogate in volume 2 of Malcolm Neesam’s Wells and Swells: The Golden Age of Harrogate Spa 1842-1923 (2022), which I have drawn upon for this piece.
Dorothy Hewlett, Harrogate College 1893-1973 (1981).
For records relating to Grove Road, St Robert’s and Harrogate Ladies’ College, I am grateful to the schools for permission to look at them. The Belmontonian magazine of the school is at Harrogate Library.
For a wider view of the refugee story, see A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (1965) and especially Denise Winterman, in the BBC News Magazine at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28857769
The photographs of the Refugee Committee and the Belgian Grenadier Guards are courtesy the Walker-Neesam Archive.
Photo of Belgians plaque courtesy the Yorkshire Hotel.