Refugees began to arrive in October 1914 and were met with great public sympathy. Stories of atrocities in the press created an image of “brave little Belgium” and coupled with the fear of invasion, especially after the shelling of the east coast in December 1914, empathy towards the refugees increased. At a recruitment meeting in the Public Hall at Biddulph, “Mr. Stocker dwelt on the treachery and ferocity of Germany towards Belgium – unfortunate little Belgium, whom not even the lying Press of Germany could pretend was responsible for the war.”
A ‘War Refugees Committee’ co-ordinated voluntary relief work nationally and more than 2,500 local committees, supported by local authorities, were set up across the country. Hundreds of charity initiatives and events were organised to support the refugees.
What was the response of the Biddulph community to the call for help? Can opinions of both locals and their guests be uncovered? Were they welcomed eagerly into the community? Is there evidence of tensions, differing attitudes, resentment or suspicion? Although sources of information are sparse it is hoped that some impressions can be gleaned which will provide insight, limited though it may be, into this period. Sources used include press reports that appeared in both the Chronicle and the Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel, St. Lawrence Parish Magazines for 1914 and 1915 and local knowledge.
The Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel of October 31st 1914 reported on the decision to convene a public meeting at Biddulph. This was in response to a letter from the Local Board inviting the town to offer help and suggesting that “each district should do its best to provide for the Belgian refugees.” A report of the meeting appeared in the Chronicle the following week. There was talk of using the hospital (presumably the one for infectious diseases at Brown Lees) and mention was made of offers to house refugees at Biddulph Moor. Both were discounted. Dr. Craig was against the use of the hospital and it was considered that Biddulph Moor was much too isolated for the refugees “unless they were used to a country life.” It was thought that the lack of empty houses in Biddulph would make housing families difficult. The town clerk commented that Congleton people “had responded exceedingly well in making provision for the refugees.”
Indeed, neighbouring communities appear to have galvanised themselves into action earlier. Biddulph lagged behind the village of Endon which had welcomed refugees from October. Kidsgrove, Tunstall and Congleton all appear to have supported refugees before Biddulph; by January 12th 1915 the Sentinel reported that an extra eight refugees arrived at Kidsgrove, “bringing the total to 15.”
By the first week of November a committee had been organised to decide how many refugees Biddulph could take. Mr. Heath offered to take a dozen people at Knypersley Hall but he “couldn’t undertake to keep them all himself” and the Unionist Club reported that they had arranged to lodge and board two people at the house of Mr. Houghton, the club steward. However the committee felt that Biddulph would not be called upon to help as the Chronicle reported, “On account of the refugees from Belgium being adequately provided for in the Potteries, no definite action has yet been necessary on behalf of the local Committee appointed to deal with this very urgent matter.” This belief was a result of the view of the Mayor of Stoke, that no more refugees were to be provided for in the Potteries, which was reported in the Sentinel on November 7th. Consequently, the committee felt that they should be prepared and have funds available, but housing refugees in Biddulph was unlikely. Mr. Cole said “it would not do for Biddulph to be unprepared. It was quite certain they could not have them unless there was some sort of a fund and he thought it a privilege and almost a duty to provide for these homeless, moneyless people.”
Action had still not been taken by the middle of January as the Sentinel reported that the Biddulph committee “wish to state that no action has been taken by them since their preliminary meeting in November, owing to the fact that the Belgian refugees had stopped coming over and adequate provision had been made for those already in this country.”
However, the local community sprang into action in terms of fund raising for the Belgian cause. In December 1914 the junior branch of the YMCA had donated to the Belgian Refugees Headquarters: three vests, five scarves, three bonnets, four hats and four dolls (St. Lawrence Parish Magazine for December 1914). A concert given by the Royal Olympic Co. at the Public Hall was one of the first major events followed by the ingenious idea promoted at the Crown and Cushion “of throwing coins on the ceiling with a cork and tin tack attachment” which raised £1. Events were eagerly organised by many groups and individuals.
Although housing had already been provided privately for a handful of Belgians in Biddulph the committee appeared inactive on behalf of the parish as a whole. This apparent sluggishness to take up the challenge of housing the refugees drew comment from the Vicar in the parish magazine for February 1915, “The Misses Bird have set an excellent example in the matter of Belgian Relief. They have provided accommodation for a family on their own premises. Others will be put up at Knypersley Hall shortly, and others still will follow. Congleton was too previous in this matter. Biddulph has been slow; but now that we have got going our people will see to it that their guests from among a nation to whom we owe so much of gratitude, admiration, and sympathy, shall have as good cheer as we can manage to give them while they stay here.”
News that Biddulph was to entertain 30 Belgian refugees forced action; this appears to have been as a result of the ladies of the parish and not the committee set up back in November 1914. At the beginning of February the Sentinel informed readers that, “Belgians for Biddulph – Thirty Refugees to be Entertained.” This led to the formation of a ‘Ladies Committee’ with the aim of providing for a party of six refugees at the Knypersley Hall cottage. Mrs. Heath presided over the meeting. Their objectives were practical; to source furniture and other items required for a home for the refugees. As they were now expecting thirty they also needed to raise more funds to support them. Donations and gifts of money, household items and such were needed. The newspaper printed a long list of names and details of either cash promised or items to be donated.
Newspapers reported on the generous support given to the Belgian Refugees’ Fund during February. There were gifts of furniture, groceries, vegetables, household utensils and so on. The Sentinel reported that the cottage at Knypersley Hall was now occupied and a house in John Street was being prepared. Requests for items included: blankets, sheets, pillows, cutlery, a coal scuttle and a washing tub. The John Street property was to accommodate eight or nine. At the Pool Fold cottage (belonging to Miss Bird) the Belgian family catered for themselves.
Weekly subscriptions amounted to 30s. This was collected by the Ladies Committee. They also collected 6s worth of groceries per week. Donations were received from schools, sewing groups and also from the Albion Fustian Mill employees. In a printed list of subscriptions, even the Biddulph Grange maids managed to donate 9d.
Throughout March the Sentinel reported on various fund raising efforts. At a concert held at Biddulph Moor it was stated that “Biddulph Moor, in proportion to her inhabitants, had responded most nobly to the call.” Mention was made of Mademoiselle and Monsieur Vieminokx who had performed a dance during the concert.
The St. Lawrence Parish Magazine for March 1915 carried an account of an incident that took place at Biddulph Park. Scholars of the Weslyan Biddulph Park Sunday School had “decided to give up their annual prizes in order that the Belgian Refugees might benefit. The result of this was £4 to the Belgian fund.”
Fund raising events either dwindled or were no longer reported, with March being the last month in which anything appeared in the press. Reports of committee meetings to organise and distribute relief also seem to disappear after March. Perhaps this suggests that the Belgians had become accepted and valued members of the community and no longer required financial support. Occasional mention of them can be found such as in August 1915 in the Parish Magazine: a report of the ‘Patriotic Display’ held at Biddulph Central School on August 7th at which, during tea, the Biddulph Belgian refugees were to provide music and singing.
Repatriation began in 1918. The majority had returned to Belgium by 1920. Local knowledge recalls two Belgian children adopted by a Biddulph family. They remained in the town and later married local girls. They had the distinctive first names of Kitchener and French. Local resident, Eric Walley recalls, “The boys both become coal miners and I knew the two of them, and they were as different as chalk and cheese; ‘Kitch’ was dapper and of slight build and ‘French’ was a big chap and so they were probably from two very different Belgian families.”
Details of the families that stayed in the district are scant. One Chronicle newspaper article did report that Knypersley Hall Cottage was home to Monsieur J. Cools, a railway guard who was employed at Brussels. He was living at the cottage “with four of his children, whose ages ranged from about six years to twelve. Monsieur Cools has left his wife and elder daughter in Brussels, and he has a son in the Belgian Army.”
The only photographic evidence unearthed of the Belgian Refugees is that reproduced above, courtesy of the Biddulph Museum. It is believed to have been taken at Knypersley Hall cottages in 1915.
I have not discovered any evidence that would suggest that the Belgians were not welcome. A cursory search of the Sentinel only throws up one letter to the Editor (February 15th 1915) expressing annoyance. This related to Belgians receiving ‘pocket money’ by way of providing French lessons. The writer felt that this was unfair competition which was “injuring a class of private tutors.“ On a lighter note, on February 27th, the Sentinel carried an article on “witloof: a vegetable long known in this country, but little used, is increasing in popularity here as a result of the immigration of Belgian refugees. Witloof, which is a variety of chicory and resembles somewhat a cos lettuce in shape, is blanched and used as a salad. It is largely grown in Belgium.”
Reports in the local press and parish magazine all express positive opinions of the refugees in Biddulph with admiration for their stoic response to their situation. Although they only stayed in the town for a short time, they appear to have assimilated almost seamlessly with the local community and regularly participated in local events. Their return to Belgium, like their arrival in Biddulph, appears to have been a quiet and unassuming process.