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.

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


World War One Exhibition at Midsomer Norton South Station

The volunteers of the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust have prepared an exhibition in the Museum at Midsomer Norton South Station to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War.

They have researched the role of the Station in the life of the town during the conflict.  The Somerset and Dorset Railway and all the railway companies of Britain played a very large part in the War.

World War 1 Exhibition and Midsomer Norton South Railway Museum

World War 1 Exhibition and Midsomer Norton South Railway Museum

Soldiers, sailors and early airmen,  as well as many thousands of animals, were transported to the battlefields of Europe and further afield  by train.  This journey often started from their familiar, local station.

They have used contemporary household objects of the period to contrast with the written testimony of local people to try and show the impact of the first really global conflict on a small Somerset town and its inhabitants of all ages.

 For further information, or to book for a group visit contact: Barry Bax or Zaida Haworth  on 01458 833314

Vanished Lives: Remembering Buckland St Mary’s War Dead

The Somerset Remembers project team are always happy to receive news about local commemorative projects from across the county.

“In Buckland St Mary over the last year we’ve been researching the lives of the men on our War Memorial.  The results of this will be on display in our Vanished Lives Exhibition, which will be on in Buckland St Mary Church from Saturday August 23 – Monday August 25 at 10.30-4.00 each day, with a Service of Remembrance at 10.30am on Sunday the 24th.

Buckland St Mary War Memorial

Buckland St Mary War Memorial

Local families have been generous in sharing their mementos.  We’re particularly indebted as well to the help we’ve had from the Somerset Heritage Centre, especially archivist Liz Grant, and are grateful for the permission from them and the Somerset Military Museum Trust for the use of contemporary photographs.

We’ll be showing all the data we’ve assembled on the thirteen WW1 and two WW2 men whom the parish lost.  Much to our delight we discovered in the Church, but in a position rather hidden from sight, the Memorial Board which commemorates the fact that ‘In Thanksgiving for England’s Victory in the Great War 1914-1919 and for the Restoration of Peace the Clock was Placed in the Tower.’  It then lists the 66 men ‘connected with this Parish who Served’, marking with a cross those who died.

There will be short biographies of each man, backed up by, among other things, excerpts from Census records, Battalion War Diaries, photographs, wills, surviving Service Records, newspaper reports and school records, and the 19th Century Parish registers. The books we’ve used will be there for you to look at too.

There’ll be displays of contemporary documents – photographs of the Western Front and Palestine, and of Buckland St Mary –  maps, drawings, satire, poetry and propaganda posters.”

For further information please contact: Rosanna Barton – – 01460 234213 or Val Pym – – 01460 234804

Mystery Photograph: Can you help?

A Belgian historian has been in touch recently about the presence of Belgian refugees in Chard during the First World War. In particular the family of Charles Dooreman.

Charles was the son of Leopold Dooreman and Malvina De Clerck. Charles also had a sister Angela, and the family were living as refugees in Chard between 1914 and early 1919. They lived in the ‘The Brewery House’, and Charles attended a primary school to learn English. He looks taller and older than the other pupils in the photograph.

Do you recognise this school or the people in this photograph?

If you have any information about this photograph or Belgian refugees in Somerset during the First World War please contact:


A photograph from a Chard school 1915/1916. Charles Dooreman is in the second row ; second from the right .

Charles Dooreman (second row ; second from the right) at a school in Chard 1915/16

Tales from the Parish Returns: The Lusitania

The sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915 is one of the most infamous events in maritime history.

On 7 May 1915, just 11 miles from the coast of Ireland, the Lusitania was struck by torpedoes fired by German submarines. 2,001 passengers lost their lives. The sinking of the Lusitania caused an international outcry, especially in the United States of America, as 128 out of 139 US citizens on board lost their lives.

The parish return for North Petherton shows a Somerset link to the vessel.

Parish Return Extract for North Petherton

Parish Return Extract for North Petherton

It records that the Fish family of North Petherton, were aboard the ship.  It then relates how Mrs Fish, her three children and Miss Rogers, a sister, were struck by the sinking:

The youngest child was drowned, and the second-a girl- was in the water, but was kept afloat by the mother who wore a lifebelt. When rescued all but the mother thought the child dead and those in the boat wanted to throw her overboard. In her devotion however, the mother refused to believe that the girl was no more and steadfastly declining to part with her, applied herself to resuscitation and had the joy of witnessing the child regain consciousness. Miss Rogers, who wore a blanket coat, was in the water for more than an hour. She must have become unconscious, as she has no idea how she was saved, her first recollections were of being in a boat and someone giving her coffee.

The passenger lists for the Lusitania provides the family’s names:

Sarah Mary Fish, age unknown

Eileen Fish, aged 10

Marian Fish aged 8

Joan Fish aged 5 months

They were travelling as second class passengers from Toronto. There are several Rogers listed, but the only Ms Rogers on the passenger list, also sailing 2nd class from Toronto, is Elizabeth Rogers (age unknown), so we can assume this was Sarah Fish’s sister.

The 1911 census for North Petherton shows the family living with Sarah’s mother, Elizabeth Ann Rogers. We can see that Sarah was 28 on census night and was born in North Petherton. Her children, Sadie Eileen Fish and Marion Enid Fish were both born in Bristol. The 1911 census reveals an Elizabeth Rogers born in North Petherton, working as a Ladies Costumer’s assistant in Eastbourne, Sussex. Could this be the sister?

The marriage register for North Petherton shows us that Sarah Mary Rogers married Joseph Fish of Redland, Bristol, a contractor, on 18 August 1903. We can assume that Joseph Fish was serving in the armed forces at the time of his family’s voyage on the Lusitania, but without further information we cannot confirm this.

What we can confirm is that no Joseph Fish with a wife of Sarah is listed on the Commonwealth War Graves website, which hopefully suggests that wherever he was on 7 May 1915, he was later reunited with his family.

For more information on the Lusitania visit:

For the passenger lists visit:

1914 centenary – a personal response

Wilf Deckner was born in 1952 in Northern Germany. He came to the UK over 40 years ago and was educated at the universities of Manchester and Oxford. For the past twenty-odd years he has worked in the Somerset Library Service and now works as an assistant at the Somerset Heritage Centre.

Having serious misgivings over the apparent direction and tone of the coming World War One commemorations, almost a year ago he started writing a sequence of poems, entitled ‘What Somerset Remembers, What Somerset Forgets’.

Each of these pieces deals with an individual aspect of the war, employing a mix of narrative, lament and polemic to raise questions concerning the gap between reality and remembrance, between critical reflection and unthinking partisanship, in order to clarify his own position with regard to these issues, and in the hope that others, too, might find them of use in this respect, even if only in opposition to what they say.

What Somerset Remembers, What Somerset Forgets
Dedicated to the memory of Isaac Rosenberg (Bristol, November 1890 – April 1918, Fampoux/Arras)

“And some there be, which have no memorial”
(Apocrypha: Ecclesiasticus 44:9)

Prologue: Beyond Time and Place

In August 2014, when Somerset puts on display
Its documents and memorabilia, does Somerset
Remember what they’re not: merely exciting objects,
A sad and sobering sight instead, reeking of death,
A country’s headlong rush into collective madness
One hundred years ago? Does Somerset remember
To challenge us through an unflinching scrutiny,
Not smother painful insights with easy consolation?

In August 2014, does Somerset remember neither
Our reverence nor patriotism are enough
To grasp the consequences of war still felt today?
Does Somerset remember, assembling information
Becomes a pointless exercise, without an over-arching
Context to integrate these facts into a whole,
Whereas centenary events that don’t discomfort
Reduce remembrance to a worthless game?

In August 2014, does Somerset remember nothing
Beyond its boundaries, mistaking Tolstoy’s maxim,
“For true universality, speak of your village”,
To mean its memories make sense in isolation?
Does Somerset remember, its tragic local
Losses are mirrored in the senseless waste
Of human life on all sides of the conflict?

Does Somerset remember the war as a grim time
For Somerset, but worse for Europe’s nations,
On whose terrain the war was fought, enduring
Far heavier losses even amongst aggressors?
Or are we fated to begin this century
Just as disastrously as we began the last,
The memory of Europe’s tragedy again
Dishonoured in the telling, in August 2014?

Disclaimer: The sequence of poems articulates purely personal views, which remain the sole responsibility of their author. They are not shared or endorsed by the Somerset Heritage Service. Wilf Deckner (Taunton, August 2013 – July 2014).