Belgian Refugees 1914

WWI – Yateley’s Story

Belgian Refugees

On the night of August 3rd Germany invaded Belgium.

To their surprise little Belgium wasn’t a pushover and the Belgian civilians didn’t play fair either and fought back. The Germans used terror, “Schrecklichkeit”, as a weapon. Horrific tales spread rapidly. Germans were accused of bayonetting babies, killing children, rape and mutilation of women and destroying towns. The panic seized population fled in fear. An estimated 250,000 were processed as refugees at Folkestone before being sent to centres, for example at Earls Court and AlexandraPalace and then being dispersed out to communities in Britain.

In response to the influx the government established Belgian Refugee Funds. The plight of the Refugees struck a chord with the British public. Individual Refugee relief committees were founded; it is acknowledged that the first in Britain was the Yateley committee. A letter in the Hants and Berks Gazette, for August 26th 1914, shows that Mrs Matilda Shakespeare, the wife of a London Metal trader William Shakespeare, set up the Yateley Belgian Refugee Relief Committee. Yateley consistently contributed to the local fund at Basingstoke. The people of Yateley gave generously. Newspaper reports showed that the Yateley Harvest festival in September 1914 raised the equivalent of £10,000 in today’s values. For illustrative purposes the pay during this period was approximately £1 per week and taking a weeks pay today at £400. The Hants and Berks Gazette shows the Yateley Committee as the only committee consistently contributing to the fund. This example shows the fund as raising £179 5s (£179 25p), this is equivalent to £36,000, with the Yateley Committee contributing the equivalent of £800. Appeals went out for warm clothing and bedding, cots, pushchairs, high chairs and other nursery equipment.

By early 1915 they were settling down, some of the professional people began to advertise their trades e.g. doctors and lawyers. It is suspected that refugee teachers were setting up Belgian schools as French school books were being advertised. The award winning organist from Antwerp Cathedral, M Firmin Swinnen, gave concerts, including going to Ireland to give a concert to the Hampshire’s who were training out there.

However, not all was well and cracks were beginning to show. Nationally families whose men-folk were away serving and having to support home and families were beginning to resent the amount of support the refugees were receiving. Hartley Wintney complained that their Belgians wouldn’t work for the rates of pay offered. Cove said that they had no problems at all. Christophe Declerq of the Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees has talked about a build up of resentment in the British population.

One Belgian also arrived never to return, M Hercule Poirot.

The big question is who and where are Yateley’s Belgian refugees. It is known that Yateley hosted refugees. Currently there are only three known families, with a potential eight others. Sidney Loader, acknowledged as Yateley’s historian for this period, tells of just one refugee family. He tells of the Count de Borchgrave, who is likely to be, from the only De Borchgrave Alien Registration card, the Count Adrien de Borchgrave d’Altena [image]. He and his family lived at Darby Green House and then at Heathcroft. His description isn’t very complimentary; he is described as a large grumpy man riding around the village on an unusual bicycle. His wife and family are described as being pleasant and sociable.

The National Archives at Kew hold a card index of 165,000 Alien Registration cards. These were filled, reportedly by Belgian civil servants, in at the Folkestone reception centre crowded with distressed people. The media is reporting that there were about 165,000 refugees in the country. This cannot be true as most of the cards refer to families and entourage; so some cards can have more than ten people entered upon them.

These cards have been checked for the names of those thought to be in Yateley.

The cards for the families of De Borchgrave and Debeffe have been found. Cards for the remaining names haven’t been found. The card for the Dieltiens family hasn’t been searched for yet.

The Count de Borchgrave d’Altena is a Belgian royal title. Unlike British  nobility, where there can only be one title, in Belgium there can be several occurrences of the same title. There was only one de Borchgrave card, for Count Adrien de Borchgrave d’Altena, it is believed that this is the correct one for Yateley. The grandson of Count Adrien has been contacted but unfortunately, his father died when he was very young, and this family history hasn’t been passed down. He does know that his father had a cabinet drawer for his first bed. His grandson passes on to the people of Yateley his gratitude to the kindness that they showed his family.

The Yateley School register for 1914 has been checked to see if any descendents of the pupils could be found. In this list eleven names were possibly Belgian. The Second Alien registration card, found at Kew, is for the family of Ernest Debeffe. It was found because his daughter Susanne appeared on the Yateley school register. From the card it says that after the war they returned to the St Gilles suburb of Brussels. At the time of writing the Debeffe family is still being sought and contact has been made with the local authority at St Gilles.

The cards show how marked the difference in status between the De Borchgrave family and the Debeffe family was. The Refugee Relief fund was regularly supporting both families. The De Borchgrave family was regularly receiving £4 and the Debeffe family between 15/- (15 shillings; 75p) and 17/6 (Seventeen and sixpence; 82p). The families, unlike british families, had no overheads such as rent, rates and bills. At a time when £1 a week was probably a good wage.

The remaining family known about is taken from the poignant gravestone of Daniel Dietiens who died at 18 days.

There were probably more Belgian refugees living in Yateley than are currently known about. Belgian Refugee teachers may have established private Belgian schools for which there are no known records. Could it be that the Debeffe’s were unable to attend one and had to attend Yateley school? It is known that professional people were among the refugees. Would the engineers among them found work at the embryonic Farnborough aircraft factories? How many used the railway to commute? This highlights the lack of knowledge unless records are found.

Attempts are being made to contact the Debeffe and Deiltiens families. It must be appreciated that Belgium’s recent history must mean that it may be difficult to find them. It is known that there are Archives, in Belgium, that are yet to be examined.

Not all of the details on the card tie up. Bear in mind that these cards were initially filled in in a confused and chaotic circumstances. The first time a name was written on them, the very person and family who had escaped in fear and had just lost everything.

Written by Charles Weager – Yateley Society.