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11 July 2018

Belgian Refugees in the First World War (Portslade, Hove & Brighton)

Judy Middleton 2018

copyright © J.Middleton
A silk greetings card from the 
First World War period


Belgium should have been safe because she was a neutral country, as recognised under the 1839 Treaty of London. However, the Germans chose to ignore this and on 3 August 1914 launched an unprovoked attack by invading Belgium with 30,000 highly trained soldiers. The invasion was so swift and brutal that the Germans had reached Brussels by 20 August, despite the heroic resistance of Belgian troops.

copyright © The Sidney Mail (Trove Newspaper Archive)

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums,
 Brighton & Hove
King Albert spent the War years on 
active duty for the Allies, his HQ was in 
the Belgium coastal town of De Panne, 
 the only area of Belgium not to be 
occupied by German troops.
Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines (Mechelen), had to leave Belgium abruptly on 20 August when he heard that Pope Pius X was on his deathbed, and then he had to stay in Rome for the election of the next pope – Benedict XV. It was the cardinal's duty to travel to Rome but it must have been an anxious time for him to be away from his flock at such a critical juncture. At Christmas 1914 he wrote a long and heartfelt pastoral letter to his scattered and shell-shocked flock.

The cardinal itemised the destruction in Louvain – not only was the cathedral church partially destroyed and the episcopal palace bombed, but the magnificent library was burned down, plus the scientific installations of the university – ‘all this accumulation of intellectual, of historic, and of artistic riches, the fruit of the labours of five centuries – all is in the dust.'

A third part of all the buildings in Louvain were no more – some 1,074 dwellings had disappeared, and in the suburbs 823 houses were destroyed by fire. In the cardinal’s diocese alone, the Germans killed thirteen priests or religious. He wrote 'A disaster has visited the world, and our beloved little Belgium, a nation so faithful in the great mass of her population to God, so upright in her patriotism, so noble in her King and Government, is the first sufferer. She bleeds.’

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Cardinal Mercier (Primate of Belgium) was one of the most important voices of resistance
 to the German occupation. His ‘Pastoral Letter’ was published as a booklet of 32 pages 
and circulated around Belgium and other European countries, detailed the brutality 
and atrocities inflicted on Belgian civilians. Belgian Priests who read out this 'Pastoral Letter'
in Churches to their congregations were arrested.

Portslade Leads the Way
copyright © J.Middleton
St Mary's Catholic Primary School, 
Church Road, Portslade in August 2018
(renamed the 'Portslade Hostel' between 1914-18)

The English public were shocked at the violence and wanton destruction, and there was a great wave of sympathy for the Belgians. The Roman Catholics felt particularly concerned because they were of the same ‘household of faith’.

At Portslade, the Roman Catholics under the leadership of Father Kerwin (Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Denis), were the first to step forward and offer shelter to Belgian refugees. Father Kerwin’s housekeeper and a Mr Ferrer rendered invaluable help.

The Catholic Women’s League rallied around, turning the newly built St Mary’s School in Church Road, Portslade, into a temporary haven. The first task was to make improvised bedding out of calico sheets stuffed with straw and bran – later on a generous firm donated 18 beds. One female dormitory had white coverlets, while another had blue ones. The dormitories were called Stella Maris and St Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary) and religious pictures adorned the walls. When refugees arrived, it was touching to see that although they had abandoned their homes in haste, they ensured they took their treasured rosaries and holy pictures with them.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Belgian Refugees at St Mary's School, Portslade

The corridor was made into a comfortable sitting room complete with piano, and there were also newspapers and periodicals in their own language. Plenty of toys were provided for the children, and even a bath was installed. The Annual Report stated that 'an object of great joy to the Belgian mothers is the English bathroom with hot and cold water at hand, where they can bath their babies with so little trouble.' The men's dormitories were downstairs. Curtains were hung at the windows, and school desks were made to serve as tables. A gas oven was installed and ladies took it in turn to do the cooking.

The Mayoress of Brighton and her working party provided 150 sets of children’s clothes.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Belgian Refugees at St Mary's School, Portslade 

With regard to provisions, a local butcher donated a large joint of meat while Portslade's allotment holders shared their crops of vegetables. Clothes were donated, and money was forthcoming – one generous lady guaranteed to provide £3-10s a week to help defray the expenses incurred. Individuals such as the wives of the two Mews brothers who owned Portslade Brewery donated money too. Mrs Herbert Mews earned a special mention as being ‘invaluable for her gifts and personal service'. People who might like to see how the money was spent were welcome to visit between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. The Bishop of Lewes, and the vicar of Brighton visited the premises and expressed their ‘cordial approval’.

Miss McNalty served as housekeeper and matron of the Portslade Hostel (St Mary's School)

First Arrivals
copyright © G.Osborne
The double gabled roof of St Mary's School
next to Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Denis
in 1914. 
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for
 granting permission for the reproduction
 of the above photograph. 

The first arrivals from the German invasion turned out not to be Belgian nationals, but Russian Jews from Antwerp and Liège, and they arrived on 3 September 1914 - one of the party only spoke Yiddish. But the very next day a larger contingent came to Portslade, including whole families. It is interesting to note that the Annual Report described them as arriving at the ‘trim new school standing where fields are still uncovered by the advancing tide of houses.’ The Russian Jews were diamond cutters, and they were found employment.

An early arrival was a professor from Louvain with his wife and family – fortunately for them they were away on holiday when war broke out. They managed to bring some money with them and so stayed at Portslade for only one night before finding convenient lodgings in Hove. Then Lady Gifford came forward and offered to lend her house at Chichester to the professor and his family for three months.

Dr Helen Boyle (of Lady Chichester Hospital fame) took in two refugee families. (Dr Boyle was the cousin of Revd Vicars Armstrong Boyle the vicar of St Nicolas Portslade)

Another family had the good fortune to possess American investments and thus would not be reliant on relief funds. But others were not so fortunate - an educated family of independent means, left in such haste that they were now penniless.

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
One of the groups of Belgian refugees that stayed at St Mary’s School, Portslade
which included the Very Revd Canon Henry Otto of Malines (Mechelen) Cathedral (seated) and 
Baroness Beyens (standing in centre) wife of Baron Beyens, the former  Belgian Ambassador to Germany.
 (In 1921 Baron Beyens was appointed Ambassador to Pope Benedict XV and in 1922 to Pope Pius XI)

Among other arrivals at Portslade were Canon Henry Otto of Malines (Mechelen) Cathedral, and Baroness de Beyens, wife of the former Belgian minister in Berlin. Canon Otto soon moved on to the Convent of Notre Dame de Zion at Worthing, while the Baroness went to live in Hove and served on the Belgian Relief Committee.
 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Madame Jeanne Lemmens wearing a Belgian lace 
headdress outside St Mary's School, Portslade.

A notable matriarch was 76-year old Madame Jeanne Lemmens who had given birth to no less than 24 children, the majority of them being refugees as well..

Some working-class people arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. The majority of refugees were described as ‘French-speaking peasants’ but when Antwerp fell to the Germans, there was an influx of Flemish-speakers. Some families with numerous members, often eight or nine people, refused to be separated, which provided quite a headache for the organisers. But most refugees were very grateful for the warm welcome and assistance.

Between 3 September and 17 October 1914, some 69 families passed through the Portslade hostel. The total number, including children, came to 230. Some of their occupations were as follows:

13 farmers or agricultural labourers
4 wood carvers
3 tailors
3 diamond cutters
2 hairdressers
1 bricklayer
1 mineworker
1 shoemaker
1 carpenter
1 carriage painter
1 butcher
troupe of acrobats

Amongst the better class of refugee from Louvain were an inspector of woods and forests, and an insurance agent.

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Two smartly dressed Belgian refugee families, of which the Brighton Herald described as 'a better class of refugees’ the same newspaper lamented months later, that it was very difficult to find employment for these ‘better classes’ as they had no practical skills, unlike their fellow countrymen staying in the area who were helping with the War effort by working in factories or on the land.

On 17 October 1914 the whole of Sussex was declared a prohibited area, and thus no more refugees came to Portslade.

Terrible Stories

The reporter from the Brighton Herald particularly noticed a young woman with a tiny baby in her motherly arms. The woman was Josephine van Loo, and as she could only speak Flemish, an interpreter had to be sought before she could unfold her story. Josephine came from the village of Wilselaen, near Louvain. Josephine’s sister-in-law was a midwife and attended the birth of this infant. Two days after the birth, German soldiers started to pillage the houses in the village.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The unfortunate mother was roused from her bed, and she, her husband and baby hid in the cellar, and the villagers also took refuge in their cellars. When all seemed quiet outside, Josephine crept from her cellar to check on the welfare of her neighbours. She found the new mother dead, still cradling her baby in her mutilated arms from which both hands had been cut off at the wrist. The husband had been taken away.

In the same room at the hostel, the reporter saw an old woman wearing a white cap with a shawl crossed over her shoulders. She was there with her two daughters and seven grandchildren. But none of the women knew whether their husbands were alive or dead. The reporter was glad to tell them that a lady from Mayfield had come to take them to live in her beautiful house.

Refugees arriving at Heron’s Gyll, Uckfield, told of the terrible German atrocities they had been forced to witness. They saw Belgian soldiers having their noses slit through, ears cut off and eyes gouged out, ten-year old Belgian girls having their hands cut off, the village priest being shot in the street, and bayonets stuck into babies. One couple with three young children saw two of their children killed by the Germans who also led away their eldest child, a ten-year old girl. These outrages were done on purpose in a policy known as Schreklichkeit (frightfulness) in order to subdue Belgian resistance quickly through sheer horror.

An Enlarged Committee
 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums,
Brighton & Hove
Princess Clementine of Belgium visited
the refugees in Portslade and Hove, she
also visited wounded Belgian soldiers
at the 2nd Eastern General Hospital
in Dyke Road, Hove.
(The Princess was the wife of
Prince Napoleon Victor Bonaparte
pretender to the French throne)

It was probably inevitable that the original small committee centred in Portslade would have to be enlarged to cope with increased responsibilities. The local Press, while admiring the way the Catholic Women’s League had devoted themselves to the cause of Belgian refugees, remarked somewhat cryptically, ‘of course they were not long allowed to remain alone in this noble work’.

Perhaps the good Catholic women felt their noses had been put out of joint by the influx of well-meaning ladies from Hove who lived in comfortable circumstances and had useful social connections with which to further the cause. These women were adept at fund raising and this became very important once the first enthusiasm for helping those forced to flee from gallant, little Belgium had tapered off.

The new committee was as follows:

Mrs Montague Williams (chairwoman)
Mrs Jones (wife of the Bishop of Lewes)
Hon Clare Rendel
Two Misses Harmer
Mrs Mews (wife of Herbert Mews co-owner of Portslade Brewery)
Mrs Allpress (an ‘assiduous worker’)
Mrs Alpe
Madame La Baronne de Maire
Mrs F.R. Richardson (Hon treasurer) of 37 Medina Villas
Miss Zoé Ethel Grimwood (Hon secretary) of 60 Wilbury Road

Mrs Richardson also ran a depot for clothing the refugees at 4 Adelaide Crescent, with a Flemish tailor in attendance to assist with alterations, and a shoemaker. Miss Grimwood was in charge of a home for refugees in Chesham Place, Brighton.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Some of the wounded Belgian soldiers and two priests at the 2nd Eastern General Hospital, Dyke Road, Hove, 
whom Princess Clementine of Belgium visited.

An Entertainment at Hove Town Hall

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

copyright © J.Middleton
Fire Superintendent Louis Lacroix 
from Brighton Fire Brigade who 
gave valuable assistance as an interpreter.
Around 400 Belgian refugees and a number of wounded Belgian soldiers attended a splendid tea and entertainment at Hove Town Hall. The Mayor and Mayoress of Hove, and the Mayor and Mayoress of Brighton greeted them.

Also in attendance were Revd Archdall Hill, vicar of Hove, Canon Connelly, Alderman Barnett Marks, and Fire Superintendent Lacroix from Brighton Fire Brigade who gave valuable assistance as an interpreter.

The hall was decorated with palms and flowers, and there were crackers on the tables. Two banners adorned the concert platform – one in French, the other in Flemish – with the message Accept Our Best Wishes for 1915.

Sydney Harper played selections on the organ, ladies sang duets and trios, and Master Ernest Kapinski played his violin. There was also a show of Kinematograph pictures.

A large number of gifts had been sent over from the USA, and these supplemented by toys provided locally, were distributed amongst the Belgians.

Fundraising Concerts, Lectures and Flag Days
 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums,
Brighton & Hove

Numerous concerts were staged with the object of raising money for Belgian refugees. One of the most notable took place at the Dome in October 1914 when Clara Butt and Kennerley Rumford performed there. Concerts were also given in many hotels and were enthusiastically patronised.

On 10 February 1915 Dr E.J. Spitta gave a lecture at Hove Town Hall, illustrated by maps and lantern slides. The audience were shown before and after shots of Rheims cathedral and Dinant, both sad casualties of the Germans, as well as scenes in the fighting lines. When a photograph of King Albert of the Belgians appeared on the scene, the Belgian National Anthem was played.

A Belgian Flag Day was held on 2 October 1915 to raise funds for refugees in Brighton and Hove, and it was stated that there were over 260 people in the two towns that needed help. There were special flags for cars, decorations for horses and dogs, and people were asked to hang out their own flags, either Belgian ones or others belonging to Allied forces. To publicise the event, a group of Belgian children paraded through the two towns – the boys dressed as Belgian volunteers of 1830 while girls were dressed as Flemish or Walloon peasants.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The Belgian children who took part in the Flag Day Procession through Brighton & Hove.
The boys are wearing the uniforms of the Belgian Volunteers of 1830 which stands for so much in the history of Belgium, the girls are wearing Flemish & Walloon peasant costume. The children were organised by Madame Renkin Du Bois.

Stallholders were posted at St Andrew’s Old Church, Hove Town Hall, First Avenue, Palmeira Square, St Ann’s Well Gardens, Montefiore Road, York Road, and other locations in Brighton.
 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
A photograph of one of the actual lapel Belgium flags 
on sale on the streets of 
Brighton, Hove & Portslade in 1915.

Good weather would have helped and as a reporter from the Sussex Daily News remarked 'If only it had been a fine day'. Instead, it poured with rain. Even so, the Belgian Flag Day managed to raise in excess of £600. To round off the eventful day there was a popular concert.

Unfortunately, Mr Marchant had to give up organising concerts in some Brighton hotels in 1915 owing to lighting restrictions.

The local churches were always ready to take collections in aid of the refugees – with All Saints being a particular high scorer. For example, the Annual Report for 1915 recorded that there were 48 donations amounting to £142 plus a collection amounting to £32-11-2d.
 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums,
 Brighton & Hove

At around this time, John Galsworthy penned an impassioned letter headed Britain Will Not Let Belgium Starve. John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was a popular author and a friend of Joseph Conrad. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature and is best remembered today for writing The Forsyte Saga, a series of seven novels that were turned into a brilliantly successful TV series. He voiced his concern for the plight of Belgian nationals still living in Belgium, starving through lack of food. He remarked tartly that Canada and Australia – with one fifth of the size of our population - had been sending assistance to the value of £150,000 a month while from these shores there was practically nothing.

The gallant Miss Grimwood wrote in a similar vein in the Annual Report 1917 at a time when money was becoming increasingly short. She said 'It would be a disgrace to the town if subscriptions were to fail altogether and the whole cost of our refugees were to fall on the London Committee.'

The total cost of Belgian refugee work came to £13,783, and out of this sum £6,491 was raised locally.

The reality of the situation meant that able-bodied Belgian refugees were helped to find work. While this was a noble sentiment, local workmen were so fearful as to the possibilities of their own unemployment that the government was obliged to place an embargo on the employment of Belgian refugees, which was not lifted until 1916.
 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums,
 Brighton & Hove

A Belgian shoemaker took over premises at 10 Victoria Road, Brighton, where he continued to run a boot shop while the previous shoemaker was in the armed forces. Many men were found work on the land and were reported to be happy and contented while several men learnt how to make munitions at Technical Schools. Many Belgian women were employed as charwomen or as servants and indeed they were so popular that demand exceeded supply.

It was much more difficult to find employment for the better class refugees. Some men found work in London but said they found travelling every day so expensive that they moved with their families closer to their work. Women could work at dressmaking, or teaching, or looking after children but mothers with large families had to look after them and could not go out to work.

Some of those who fled in 1914 expected the war would be over within a few months, and they would be able to return home. In 1914 the expectation of a short war was a widely held belief, and many British troops heading over the Channel thought they might be back by Christmas.

22 St Aubyns
copyright © J.Middleton
22 St Aubyns, Hove

In October 1914 Mrs Lovett Cameron loaned 22 St Aubyns to the Belgian Refugee Committee. It was intended as a home for middle class Belgian refugees. Miss Behrends was the housekeeper.

Hove Council joined in the goodwill by agreeing to waive rate charges, while even the local gas company offered to reduce their bill by one third. There was free medical attention as well as free dentistry, and English classes were organised for adults.

There was a small school for children taught by a professor but later on the boys were educated at the Xaverian College, while nuns taught the peasant girls at 13 Chesham Place.

In December 1914 Monseigneur De Wachter, co-bishop of Malines (Mechelen) with the famous Cardinal Mercier, visited 22 St Aubyns to give a blessing. He wore the customary gown and cape and there was a splendid gold crucifix on his chest. Reporters from the local Press were relieved to find he had perfect fluency in English, while also speaking in French and Flemish to his co-patriots. He said, ‘We refugees must show in this country that we are not unworthy of its goodness and that we merit its benevolence. We must behave so as to uphold the reputation of Belgium in a foreign land.’ The company included members of the committee, and Mrs Sargeant, Mayoress of Hove.

On 1 January 1915 a party for Belgian refugee children was given at 22 St Aubyns where the rooms were ‘adorned with seasonal, and patriotic decorations’. There were some 60 children and more than 30 adults. After tea, the company went into another room where a large Christmas tree stretched up to the ceiling ‘brilliantly illuminated’. The tree was also covered with decorations and toys – the latter being distributed to the children. In addition, a present and a bag of sweets were given to every child. Amusements were laid on, while the gramophone provided music.

On 18 February 1915 the Duchess of Norfolk opened a club for Belgian ladies at 22 St Aubyns, which occupied one of the two spacious drawing rooms of the house.

Other Places of Refuge

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Miss Grimwood superintended the refuge at 7 Chesham Place, Brighton – described as 'one of those lofty and spacious houses'. A club for Belgian ladies also operated on these premises. Number 13 Chesham Place was known as Aldwych and for three years some 25 Flemish peasants lived there. At first there were four nuns known as the ‘Little Sisters of Malines (Mechelen)' who looked after them, but they were recalled to the mother house in May 1915.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Other Belgian refugees were to be found in Manchester Street, Kemp Town, while babies under the supervision of Miss Yell found a home in Tilbury Place, Brighton.

Winding Up

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
In February 1918 the Annual Report summed up the situation by stating that there had been a ‘diminishing output in almost every direction'. This was not seen as a bad sign because it signalled the end of their responsibilities but there were still 27 families under the committee’s care. In October 1917 number 13 Chesham Place was closed, and the clothing depot at 4 Adelaide Crescent had already ceased operations. The downside was that because of decrease in income, the committee was obliged to apply for a grant from the Local Government Board.

There was a poignant, final footnote to Father Renkin who died in 1917. Father Renkin had looked after the spiritual needs of the refugees for three years. He was invaluable because of his knowledge of Flemish and French, and had helped to solve many problems. Father Renkin was on his way to pay a pastoral visit to a Belgian family in Brighton's Preston village when a motor omnibus knocked him off his bicycle. His mother, Madame Renkin, was in exile with him, and this new loss meant that she had now given both her sons in the service of her country.

copyright © J.Middleton
This silk card, shows the flags of France, Belgium, Russia and Great Britain

copyright © D. Sharp 
Baron Walter von Bissing of Hove was
was a member of leading Brighton clubs
and Hon. Secretary of The Drive Lawn 
Tennis Club.
At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 there was one particular well known Hove resident who had a personal connection with the German occupation of Belgium and that was the German born Baron Walter von Bissing, who had became a naturalised British citizen in 1906.

Baron Walter von Bissing of Hove was the half-brother of Baron Moritz von Bissing the German Governor General of occupied Belgium and instigator of Flamenpolitik (the dissolution of the Kingdom of Belgium and the creation of separate Walloon and Flemish states) and because of the many atrocities his administration inflicted on the Belgian people, he gained the title of  ‘butcher of Belgium

Within a month of British nurse Edith Cavell being arrested in Brussels in August 1915, Baron Walter von Bissing was also arrested, not as a result of a discreet knock at the door of his home in Adelaide Crescent, instead Brighton police arrested him in full public view near Brighton's West Pier and then escorted the Baron to a holding cell at Brighton's Preston Army Barracks. 

Baron Walter Von Bissing along with his wife and two children was interned on the Isle of Man.

Baron Moritz von Bissing with his authority as the German Governor General of Belgium, refused to commute the death sentence passed by a Military Court on Edith Cavell. 

On 12th October 1915, despite international pressure for mercy, notably from the neutral countries of the USA and Spain,
Edith Cavell was put to death by a German firing squad.

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove


Belgian Refugees Scrapbook kept at Jubilee Library full of newspaper cuttings, programmes, photographs, annual reports, printed, and handwritten letters.
Cardinal Mercier, The Pastoral Letter "Patriotism and Endurance"
Middleton J, Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
Walbrook, H.H. Hove in the Great War (1920)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2018  
page layout and additional research by D.Sharp