Church Stretton Opened its Gates to Refugees
Just nine months into the First World War, Church Stretton found something to celebrate. “In the presence of a large gathering of townspeople and visitors, the splendid new gates were opened at the entrance of Church Stretton’s Recreation Ground.” The day was Monday 24th May 1915.
The other day, in the company of Genevieve Tudor (BBC Radio Shropshire) and Chrissie Verduyn from Clun, a friend and granddaughter of a Belgian soldier, who settled in this country after the First World War, we went to see these gates. Somewhat rusty in their more delicate fronds, they are standing proud, supported by two sturdy iron pillars and opening at the centre. For those who will not recognise the term “recreation ground”, the gates are to be found on the path down to the bowling green and beyond – one of the pleasant faces of the town, which you see from the A49 at the traffic lights.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THESE GATES
They are a precious and rare memorial to the opening phase of the War. In August 1914, to achieve their objective of defeating France in six weeks, the German armies invaded Belgium. The scrap of paper (derided by the Germans) was the Treaty of London 1839 which guaranteed Belgian independence and neutrality in perpetuity. When we received no satisfactory response to our ultimatum – we declared war.
So these gates merit more than your passing attention. Back in May 1915 the gates bore a precious commemorative plate; ”These gates, the work of M. A. C. Hermans, a Belgian guest of this town in consequence of the European War, were presented to the Urban District by the Pageant Committee of the year 1913.” In the course of the hundred years which have elapsed this has been lost. In the Centenary of the First World War it should be faithfully copied and restored on the gates. They were made in the Council’s new forge in Beaumont Road – the first to be made in the town.
According to the press report of the ceremony, they were “painted in green and gold, and while also being a memorial of the Pageant will serve to remind one of the terrible European War and the time when the town entertained refugees from Belgium.”
THE REFUGEE WHO MADE THE GATES
Mijnheer August Hermans, was a skilled worker in ornamental wrought iron. He arrived here from Herentals (19 miles from Antwerp in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium) with his extensive family (wife, five sons and two daughters). In common with thousands more on the fall of Antwerp they made their way to Ostend and left for England on 14th October.
CHURCH STRETTON OPENED ITS GATES TO THE REFUGEES
It is estimated some 250,000 Belgian refugees came to Britain: the largest single influx in our history. The first party arrived in Church Stretton in mid October and a second group including the Hermans family soon after. The ‘Welcome Party’ at Stretton station included Mr C.J. Hyslop, chair of the Urban District Council, Mr Fred Hill, chair of Rural District Council and the local Refugee Committee, which included ten co-opted lady residents.
The welcome mat was extended by Mrs Catterall, widow of the retired rector Rev Catterall. She took a house in the Tower Buildings (at the by-pass traffic lights, now demolished) and furnished it at her expense. Other residents loaned or gave household goods. An adjoining house adjoining was acquired. The Relief Committee provided presents and toys for the Hermans’ children, while the family were given a Christmas tree, tea and entertainment on Christmas Day. A friend sent a hamper full of items for the family dinner.
The committee could only guarantee hospitality for 6 months; further stay would be dependent on fund-raising. At one of the November concerts in the Town Hall, the programme included the national anthems of Belgium, France and Russia sung by the Stretton Male Voice Choir.
THE LESSON OF HOSPITALITY
In compiling our War Walks on the Home Front we have benefitted from the generosity of local historians. It was Alan Brisbourne who brought this story to my attention …
Mrs Higginson took the ornamental key and inserted it into the lock. Opening the green and gold gates she said “I have much pleasure in declaring these open, wishing every success to the Church Stretton Recreation Ground.”
The Rev Prebendary Auden, filled in some of the details. “Each war had its compensation, and they were already learning something from that terrible conflict in which they were engaged. They were learning the duty of personal bravery and the duty of sacrifice, and another thing they were learning the lesson of hospitability. They had in Church Stretton, as in so many other places, Belgian guests – those who had been driven from their country through war. One of their guests, M Herman, had designed and carried out the gates they saw before them that afternoon. .. He trusted they would be a lasting memorial of the pageant and the time when they entertained the Belgians. (Applause)”
Almost 102 years on, we can reassure the reverend gentleman, they have proved a lasting memorial. The self-same gates are still opening and closing on the path leading to the bowling green. They are a moving tribute to the time when Church Stretton and the rest of Shropshire played host to many Belgian refugees. Mr Gunn, the Chairman of the Open Spaces Committee underlined the message. They would serve as a memorial of the great European war and of the stay amongst them of their Belgian guests.
Chrissie Verduyn has summed it up,”A fascinating story, well worth an explanatory plaque. The gates are within sight of the station where the refugees arrived and soldiers departed for war. I was particularly impressed with the unusual design of the pillars and the fine metal work.”
By Keith Pybus