It is common knowledge that as the German army advanced through Belgium in 1914 refugees fled their progress, but who would have expected that so many Belgian families would seek refuge in Somerset.
During the course of the war 250,000 Belgian nationals came to the UK. Most landed at the eastern sea ports; Folkestone, Tilbury, Margate, Dover, Hull and Grimsby. In some places ‘Belgian villages’ were created, which were run by the Belgian authorities, but few communities across the country remained unaffected by the influx from Europe.
The War Refugees Committee (WRC) coordinated a wide network of voluntary relief work. Appeals for accommodation and support were published, and within two weeks they had received 100,000 offers.
Research by the Somerset Remembers volunteers has shown how the largest ever refugee influx to our country affected Somerset.
On the 10 October 1914 the Weston Mercury newspaper reported that twelve refugees had been given accommodation at The Shrubbery. Two days later around seventy Belgians arrived in Taunton, where they were welcomed by Mayor George Hinton and a Boy Scout Guard of Honour, at a ceremony at the Municipal Buildings. On 19 October a number of Belgian Refugee arrived in Wells and were housed in Chamberlain Street and at Portway Lodge. Whilst Yeovil provided homes for 250 individuals and families, who arrived throughout October.
But it wasn’t just the large towns that played host. In Barrington a vacant cottage, known as ‘Victoria’ was donated to the cause. It was painted and furnished through charitable donations and on 1 January 1915 at “only 8 hours’ notice, a family of Refugees arrived: Alphonse Vin aged 24 polisher from Berchem, near Antwerp, his wife Josephine and their child Alphaise aged 18 months with only a small hand bag.” Whilst the Weston Mercury reports throughout autumn 1914 of the arrival of refugees, being houses in Weare, Churchill and East Brent. Other parishes who provided accommodation were Aller, Ashwick, Blagdon, Castle Cary, Chapel Allerton, Chard, Creech St Michael, Henstridge, Ilminster, Midsomer Norton, Portishead and Street.
Throughout the war fund raising continued to support the Belgians who had remained at home, but also to provide for those who had come to England. In seems that the families were maintained by charitable donation, often in houses given rent and rate free, until they were able to support themselves. This extract from the Baltonsborough parish return illustrates this:
The money-raising efforts of the village have been many and various. In the autumn of 1914 the plight of the Belgian refugees stirred the village to action. A public meeting was held, and it was decided to offer hospitality to one family. One resident lent a house rent free; others lent furniture, house linen crockery etc; and sufficient weekly subscriptions were promised to provide maintenance in food and clothing.
The first family received, father, mother, and five small sons stayed six months; but the man, who was a waiter, not being strong enough for agricultural work, and being unable to obtain work locally at his own calling, they returned to London, and a second family took their place. This family of father, mother and nine children the eldest only thirteen, had been land workers in their own country, and quickly adapted themselves to their new conditions. They were still in the village at Midsummer 1918 but had been self-supporting for nearly two years, the family having increased meanwhile by the birth of another son and daughter.
In total we know of 51 Somerset communities who housed Belgian refugees and undoubtedly far more gave monetary support to the various charities, but apart from the references to them in the archives held at the Somerset Heritage Centre, little other evidence of them has been left behind.