The biggest single influx of refugees in the history of this country was the product of the opening months of the First World War, as Belgian refugees fled their own country (95% occupied by the German armies) via the Channel ports to Britain.

For the volunteers scouring contemporary accounts in local newspapers and the resources of Shropshire Archives, the Belgian refugees would prove a treasure trove and illustrates the hospitality extended by so many individuals throughout the county.

As early as 19th September 1914, the Wellington Journal reported the arrival of refugees and was appealing for assistance “Shrewsbury and Belgian Refugees – Arriving next Thursday, committee decided to place about 50 in the Armoury which is to be fitted up as a hostel. Appeal for loan of 50 beds, bedding, curtains, tables, toilet ware, kitchen utensils, crockery, strips of carpet and food.” A few weeks later another group had arrived “Some forty Belgian refugees arrived in Wellington yesterday and were entertained in the Parish Hall. The Rev J Sinclair Moore gave them a hearty welcome, and afterwards they were escorted to homes which had been provided for them in parts of the district.” Wellington Journal 17 Oct 1914.

Temporary hostel accomodation and homes were provided around the county as this report from February 1915 describes: ATCHAM BELGIAN RELIEF COMMITTEE The committee received 30 more Belgian refugees on Monday, in response to offers received from various parishes in the district. The refugees were met at the station by Mrs. Wm. Bridgeman, Mr. Mrs. E. P. Everest, Mlle. Van Brocekhoven, and M. and Mlle. Robinon. During the afternoon the refugees were conveyed to their new homes, the transport arrangements being under the personal direction of Rev. G .H. Bainbridge (Hon. transport officer). The parish of Cressage has taken a second family, relatives of those already living in Cressage. Loughden has taken a large family and handed over the two Belgians who have been there for some time to Hinton, where the accommodation was not sufficient for a large family. The little parishes of Church Preen and Highley have found accommodation for a family, and they will be assisted in the matter of maintenance by Preston Gubbalds. Another family has gone to Smethcote, where they will be maintained by Wroxeter parish. Westbury has given hospitality to a family and to an old man, whose wife he lost in Belgium. Bicton has placed a family in a nice house at Montford Bridge. The parish if Fitz has no accommodation, but will have the pleasure of supporting the wife and family of a Belgium soldier, who is at present fighting in the trenches. There are now 200 refugees in the Atcham district, and others will be selected next week to supply refugees in response to further offers which have been received.

In Ruyton-XI-Town’s a party of seventeen refugees, were are housed at the premises now known as “Leaman House”. Led no doubt by Miss Edith Noel-Hill of Cliffe House (Secretary to the District Refugee Committee).

The accomodation and support for refugees required considerable co-ordination and fundraising, and much of the work was carried out by volunteers.

 

In July 1917, almost three years into the War, the Shropshire War Agricultural Committee recorded the warm-hearted response of our antecedents to the plight of the Belgian refugees. A copy of a letter (Shropshire Archives ref PL1/25/1/1) lists 30 women who had made outstanding contributions.

“All of the undersigned took a real active part in arranging for the housing and maintenance of Refugees and subsequently in many cases found employment for the people …”

The address that leapt off the page

Miss Drew, daughter of Charles Drew, mineral water manufacturer and importer of wines and spirits, wholesale bottler of Bass & Co’s India Pale Ale, Guinness and Co’s Extra Stout, finest Champagne, cider etc, lived in Oswestry at an address destined to become one of the most famous in the literature of the War.

Plas Wilmot, courtesy of Savills Estate Agents

The house was Plas Wilmot, Weston Lane, where on 18th March 1893 a son was born to Mr Thomas & Mrs Harriet Susan Owen, who were living with her parents. The boy was christened Wilfred Edward Salter Owen. The year when the Shropshire War Agricultural Committee were recording those “who had taken such an active part in arranging for the housing and maintenance of Refugees,” was to be the most productive in the young poet’s brief life. He would gradually emerge as our greatest poet of the First World War. I hope Miss Drew lived to see at least the beginnings.

Wilfred’s grandfather died in January 1897 and the house put up for sale in March. Dominic Hibberd describes this as ‘a bitter and very public humiliation’. This biographer added ‘Family memory later gave the last five years at Plas Wilmot a mythic status’. The family talked about the happier times they had known in Oswestry, and their first house, after the move to Canon Street, Shrewsbury, was named ‘Wilmot House’. Their last home, in Emmer End near Reading, was also called ‘Wilmot’ in honour of their earlier home.

Everyone lends a hand

Mrs Heber-Percy from Hodnet Hall, ‘took an active part in supervising the hostel for over 20 refugees;’ Mrs Holder from Corfton Hall, ‘managed and financed two homes out of her own pocket;’ the Hon Mrs Harding from Old Springs ‘took the lead throughout in management of a hostel, the rent of which she herself paid;’ Miss Rose Eyton of the Clock House was ‘active in collecting money’and the Hon Mrs Silvester Horne from Sandford House.

You didn’t have to be from the landed gentry … Mrs SH Valentine was the Mayoress of Ludlow (husband a draper), her predecessor Mrs ET Evans (husband also a draper), Mrs Hilda Margaret Heane from Newport ‘was most prominent in providing for some 32 Refugees and supervised all the arrangements;’ Miss Margaretta Dawson, also from Newport, was ‘most active in collection of Funds, about £900;’ Mrs FH Harries from Kingsland, Shrewsbury (wife of a saddler) ‘was most assiduous in fixing up a fairly large Hostel and subsequently finding employment for many;’ Mrs Ormer Edwards from Bridgnorth ‘was most active, and, moreover, useful as an interpreter.’

Mrs Van de Pol was married to a Dutchman, who was naturalized on 10th February 1915. She ‘rendered most valuable services in looking after a large number of Refugees;’ he was a Cigar Manufacturers Manager and they lived at ‘Savada’, Port Hill Gardens in Shrewsbury.

The Wellington Journal on 8th January 1916 reported “To celebrate New Year, the Belgian refugees in Shrewsbury were entertained on Saturday to an excellent tea at the County Cafe, by Councillor HF Harries. 12 adults and 18 children were present. Many had not seen each other since the hostel closed so it was a happy reunion. Amongst those who assisted was Mr & Mrs Van de Pol.”

Evidently there was no longer a need for temporary hostels as more permanent homes were found and the refugees began to settle into local communities. The Wellington Journal on 12 June 1915, had news of a happy event.

Oswestry: a Belgian Birth and a Christening – The Salop Road Nursing Home, Oswestry saw the birth of a baby girl to her parents M. and Mme A de Herdt, formerly of Antwerp. The baby carried quite a burden of names: Alice Mary Elizabeth. ‘Alice’ after Nurse Alice Roberts (perhaps the midwife?), ‘Mary’ after Queen Mary and ‘Elizabeth’ after the Queen of the Belgians. The ceremony was conducted in French by Fr Eugene Rooney at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Oswald.