Belgians in Somerset

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.

An extract from Lullington School log book, showing the admittance of two Belgian pupils in January 1915.

An extract from Lullington School log book, showing the admittance of two Belgian pupils in January 1915.

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.

An extract from the Burrowbridge School log book of 6 Nov 1914, showing fund raising by the school pupils for Belgian refugees.

An extract from the Burrowbridge School log book of 6 Nov 1914, showing fund raising by the school pupils for Belgian refugees.

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.

A group collecting for Belgian Refugees at the corner of George Street and Norbins Road, Glastonbury, c. 1915.

A group collecting for Belgian Refugees at the corner of George Street and Norbins Road, Glastonbury, c. 1915.

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.


Somerset Remembers on Tour #3

On Monday  22 December the Somerset Remembers touring display and showcase were removed from Glastonbury Abbey, the last venue for this exhibition.

The display consisted of three identical banners and two showcases with eight different objects. This allowed it to be seen in 30 venues across Somerset.

The tour started in March at Taunton library, and the first showcase was displayed at Chard Museum in April.

Banner and Show Case at Chard Museum in April

Banner and Showcase at Chard Museum in April

The display was designed to promote the project throughout the county and the temporary exhibition at the Museum of Somerset.

It was also used by venues to complement their own First World War exhibitions.

In Frome Museum in October

The second set of objects as seen in Frome Museum during October

A wide variety of venues displayed the exhibition including major county events such as The Royal Bath & West Show in May, and RNAS Yeovilton Air Day in July.

It is estimated that over 85000 people visited the touring exhibition during 2014.

Last Chance to see Somerset Remembers Exhibition

There is just a couple weeks left to see the Somerset Remembers exhibition at the Museum of Somerset. The exhibition is on display until 3 January 2015.

The exhibition tells the story of how the county was affected by the events of 1914-18 and how people have remembered the war, and those lost in it. It focuses on the wider impact of the war on the county and looks at themes such as women and children, agriculture and local efforts to support troops.



There are objects, photographs and costumes for visitors to enjoy, as well as telegraphs, medals and weapons. The exhibition also features artwork by Somerset artist Jon England.

The museum is open from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm (last entry 4.30 pm) Tuesday to Saturday, and Bank Holiday Mondays. Entry to the museum and the exhibition is free.





Wiveliscombe hosts Commemoration Rugby Match

Pupils from Kingsmead School, Wiveliscombe, will be playing a special rugby match on Wednesday 17 December.

Following a morning of First World War themed activities at the school, a rugby match will be played on the memorial recreation ground from 2.00–3.00 pm by pupils from Years 10 and 11.

Shortly before the match at 1.45pm the Last Post will be played followed by the carol Silent Night.

The match commemorates the presentation of the recreation ground to the people of Wiveliscombe in honour of those lost during the war.

The ‘Rec’, as it is known locally, was opened on 6th June 1920, and also features a stone obelisk memorial to those who died. One of these men was the sportsman Lieutenant Ralph E.Hancock.

Wiveliscombe soldier, Lieut. R.E. Hancock, 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment.  Killed in Action 29 October 1914.

Lieut. R.E. Hancock, 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment. Killed in Action 29 October 1914.

The event is also inspired by the Christmas Truce of 1914 and recognises the power of sport to bring people together.

The Somerset Remembers touring exhibition will be on display at the Rugby Club during the afternoon and members of the public will have the opportunity to discuss the First World War with experts.

Refreshments will also be available at the Rugby Club for spectators.

Last Chance to Visit Weston-super-Mare Museum’s First World War Exhibition

There’s just one week left to visit Weston-super-Mare Museum’s First World War exhibition, ‘Five Lives, Five Stories: North Somerset People and the First World War’.

The exhibition looks at the impact of the First World War on the lives of five North Somerset people, tracing their stories before, during and after the war.


•Weston-super-Mare Museum Image courtesy of Weston-super-Mare Town Council

Weston-super-Mare Museum               Image courtesy of Weston-super-Mare Town Council

The people who feature were selected because of the diverse roles they played during the war:

  • Robert Cruse (1878-1917) who fought with A Company, ‘Bristol’s Own’, 12th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment
  • Edith Graves-Knyfton (1876-1964) who worked as Vice-President for the British Red Cross for Weston-super-Mare District
  • Alfred Leete (1882-1933) who designed the most iconic image of the First World War showing Lord Kitchener
  • Harry Mogg (1860-1929) who led Mogg’s Military Prize Band at recruitment events and fundraising concerts
  • Beatrice Page (1889-1972) who was the first female tram driver in the country

Entry to the exhibition, which runs until Saturday 13 December, is free. The museum is open 10.00 am to 4.00 pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

For further information please visit Weston-super-Mare Museum, Burlington Street, Weston-super-Mare, BS23 1PR, call 01934 621028 or email

Picture Credits:

Robert Cruse                  Image courtesy of North Somerset Council

Edith Graves-Knyfton     Image courtesy of Graves-Knyfton Archive

Alfred Leete                     Image courtesy of North Somerset Local Studies Collection

Harry Mogg                     Image courtesy of North Somerset Council

Beatrice Page                 Image courtesy of Press Association Images