The Refugee Express
‘Black is typical of the terrible days
through which our country is passing,
and the depth of sorrow into which we have been plunged;
red, is the blood that has been shed;
but golden is the kindness of the British people,
and never can the Belgians
forget the generosity and warmth of their reception’.
Belgian refugee priest, referring to the colours of the Belgian flag. (War Refugees’ Committee, 1914)
In Shropshire, from the early weeks of the War, Belgian refugees would be one of its first manifestations.
Half the Belgian refugees in Britain came from the province of Antwerp. They crossed the Channel from Ostend to the ports of our south coast, then by rail to the massive dormitories of Earls Court and Alexandra Palace – some 2,000 bed spaces in all. Co-ordinated by the War Refugees Committee (WRC), some 2,500 local committees made a quarter of a million Belgians welcome in towns throughout the country. It was the largest influx of refugees in our history.
Within two weeks of publishing an appeal for accommodation, the WRC had received 100,000 offers. No doubt the popular image of Plucky Little Belgium helped. On 14 October 1914, 16,000 Belgian refugees arrived at Folkestone in a single day. British units had been forced to withdraw from Antwerp a few days earlier. There was a mass exodus of refugees heading for Ostend and the chance to reach England. Rupert Brooke, the poet, and a young officer described the scene
“… the thirty miles march out through the night and the blazing city. Antwerp that night was like several different kinds of hell—the broken houses and dead horses lit up by an infernal glare. The refugees were the worst sight. … out of that city of half a million, when it was decided to surrender Antwerp, not ten thousand would stay. They put their goods on carts, barrows, perambulators, anything. Often the carts had no horses, and they just stayed there in the street, waiting for a miracle. There were all the country refugees, too, from the villages, who had been coming through our lines all day and half the night. I’ll never forget that white-faced, endless procession in the night, pressed aside to let the military—us—pass, crawling forward at some hundred yards an hour, quite hopeless, the old men crying, and the women with hard drawn faces. What a crime!”
In Shropshire over the next few months, The Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News reported refugee arrivals for Atcham, Bicton, Church Preen, Condover, Cressage, Habberley, Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Wellington, Whitchurch, Wroxeter and many other towns and villages.
On Shrewsbury Railway Station
Less than three months into the war on Saturday 24th October 1914, Mr & Mrs E.P. Everest are waiting for a first consignment of Belgian refugees. Mr Everest was clerk to the Atcham War Assistance Committee. The Everests were accompanied by Father van Ryk, a priest from the Roman Catholic cathedral in Shrewsbury, and a Councillor Harris, who was chairman of the Shrewsbury Refugee Committee. There’s little doubt whence this party came. ‘The majority consisted of a party from Ostend.’
The Belgians were welcomed with the proverbial open arms. All their needs were provided by local businesses and individuals. “Everything had been thought of for their comfort, even to the provision of Belgian cooking utensils.” The employees of the local council, agreed to donate to the refugees a levy of 4d in the pound from their salaries.
The newspaper reported the arrival of “the first large party of Belgium refugees received from London” and in February 1915 “30 more Belgian refugees (arrived) in response to offers received from various parishes in the district.” By now the welcoming party included Mlle Van Broeckhoven (the paper has problems with the Flemish) and Mons. & Mlle Robinon.
Mr Everest had a mountain to climb
At Shropshire Archives there is a treasure trove, the letter book of this Committee with Everest’s carbons concerning the Belgian refugees ref. PL1/25/1/1. His correspondence shows that for a rural county there was a shortage of ‘peasants.’ “There were no peasants among the 32 sent. … I stipulated most clearly that the refugees must be of the peasant class. Those you have sent me are apparently a very nice lot but they are superior to the class for which I have accommodation. I know your difficulties and will try to help you by placing this lot but please do not send me any more at present because I do not know how long it will take me to deal with these.”
Shrewsbury Building with a Chequered History
“The Armoury” had waited over a hundred years to play a useful part in the Shrewsbury story. Built in 1806, it is said it was ‘a vanity project’ of our new MP, the youngest son of the Earl of Tankerville. 135ft long and 39ft wide with two storeys it cost £10,000 or over £800,000 in today’s money. The Armoury was converted into a hostel for 56 refugees. Volunteers living in the area cleaned, painted and furnished the building.
Its original function had been to store up to 25,000 weapons belonging to the volunteer militias of Shropshire and neighbouring counties. The Armoury was said to be ‘the laughing-stock of the military men of the day’ as most of the militia were away at the Napoleonic wars. The location was also unsuitable; for the building was not where it stands today. In 1914 it was situated between Wenlock Road and London Road, near St Giles’ Church, and consisted of the large building (now the pub and restaurant) plus four houses, two gunpowder stores, and a number of other outbuildings. Quite remote, and having no garrison to protect it, it would have provided ample opportunity for rioters to steal weapons.
When the militia returned after Waterloo, they still found it inconvenient, preferring to rent space in the Market Hall rather than take up the rent-free offer in the Armoury. The new building had been described as “a handsome brick edifice,” but within fifty years the arms were removed to Chester, the building lay unoccupied, looking very dilapidated.
The Armoury was fine as a temporary hostel, but not ideal for a longer stay, especially for families with children. In January 1916 The Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News reported ‘Refugees entertained: to celebrate New Year, the Belgian refugees in Shrewsbury were entertained on Saturday to an excellent tea at the County Café, by Councillor HF Harries. 12 adults and 18 children 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’ (he was naturalized British originally from the Netherlands, so would have spoken Flemish.)
In the aftermath of the War when Morris’s were relocating their head office and other departments from New Street to the Welsh Bridge, they needed a bakery. Building materials were so scarce, the company purchased the Armoury, dismantled it and rebuilt it as on the banks of the Severn at Victoria Quay.
By Keith Pybus