Acts of kindness to those in their hour of need

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Within weeks of the start of the First World War thousands of Belgian refugees, including women and children, flooded into Yorkshire. Chris Bond looks back at their story.

THE large crowd that gathered on the platform at Sheffield’s Midland Station included local dignitaries and newspaper reporters, as well as a throng of curious onlookers.

For the Belgian men, women and children who stepped off the train there was both relief and exhaustion. Many of them had been travelling for the best part of a month after fleeing a war that was already drenching their country in blood.

It was mid-September 1914 and these were the first Belgian refugees to arrive in Yorkshire having escaped the German invasion. Between August 1914 and May the following year around 250,000 Belgian refugees poured into our country and yet the story of their plight has largely been forgotten. It’s only now, a century on, through projects involving university students and school pupils that it’s being retold.

Around 10,500 Belgians ended up in Yorkshire, the biggest intake of any area outside London and the South East, with most heading to Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford. By the first week of November 1914, more than 650 Belgian refugees were living in the Sheffield area and during the course of the war 3,000 sought refuge in the city.

Among the first to arrive were wounded soldiers most of whom were treated at the 3rd Northern General Hospital. The sight of these shattered men and the stream of traumatised families caused anger among locals. Volunteers rushed forward offering help and concerts were organised by schools, churches and charity groups to raise money. Places like Shirle Hill, at Nether Edge, and Westbrook House and Wadsley Hall housed the refugees until they could be found somewhere else to live.

Hannah Brignell, curator of visual arts and social history with Museums Sheffield, says those with specific skills were put to good use. “Some of the women who had sewing skills went to work in factories making uniforms for soldiers and there were teachers who learned English at the university and then helped to teach in schools.”

Locals rallied to the cause by offering food, clothes and shelter. “People in Sheffield were very welcoming. The refugees arrived with little or nothing so the city raised funds, people made them clothes and they were given free use of the trams for the first few months.” The Belgian Relief Fund was set up by Sir Arthur Balfour, a prominent Sheffield industrialist, to help sick and wounded soldiers.

But Sheffield wasn’t the only place offering a safe haven for the exiled Belgians. Leeds was an important industrial centre and it, too, has a story to tell. It’s one that students at Leeds Metropolitan University, along with a group of pupils from Abbey Grange School, have traced, gathering together newspaper cuttings and official reports from the time.

Initially there was no government funding and local relief committees relied heavily on donations. The local press was used to help galvanise support, including The Yorkshire Post which ran a series of articles encouraging readers to donate food and clothes as well as money. Helen Briggs, a treasurer of one committee, wrote to the newspaper in November 1914, thanking readers’ generosity. “We house at the present time 1,200 refugees in Leeds and owing to the magnificent response to the appeal, furnished houses in all parts of the city have been placed at the disposal of the committee, they have been inspected and are most comfortable and bespeak true Yorkshire kindliness and welcome.”

In Leeds, alone, £10,714 – more than £1m in today’s money - was raised to help the refugees, much of it in the first 12 months. Many Belgians helped the war effort by working in factories like Robert Blackburn’s Olympia Works in Roundhay. Some, like 17-year-old Virginia De Coninck, made new lives. She and her 16-year-old sister were among the refugees that arrived in Leeds and worked at a munitions plant in Hunslet, where Virginia met her future husband, who was an engineer.

Alison Fell, head of the University of Leeds’ Legacies of War project, points out that while today it’s barely a footnote in the war, at the time the plight of the refugees was headline news. “There was a lot of publicity about the invasion of Belgium and there were reports in the press of executions and rape,” she says. “Part of this was to paint Germany in a bad light but it was also seen as a way of encouraging recruitment. At the time the Belgian refugees played a key role in motivating the public and getting people engaged with the war. There was also shock at some of the reports about what the Germans did and a feeling that if they could do it to the Belgians they could do it to us.”

Prof Fell has been working with pupils from Roundhay School and Allerton Grange, tracing the story of the refugees. She says places like Leeds and Sheffield attracted higher numbers because they were the industrial backbone of the country and more workers were needed to help fill the gaps left as men signed up to go to war. But although the Belgians were welcomed initially, attitudes changed as the war dragged on. “By 1916 casualties were going up and people became less welcoming. There was a feeling among some factory workers that refugees were getting paid too much but on the whole the relationships were pretty positive.”

Once the fighting had finished, most of the Belgians returned home, but Prof Fell believes they are an important chapter in Britain’s war story. “It was the biggest wave of refugees the country had ever seen in such a short space of time and it showed our incredible generosity and hospitality, especially here in Yorkshire.”

It’s pertinent today, too. At a time when immigration is such a contentious issue there are perhaps lessons we can learn from those who, a century ago, opened their doors to strangers in their hour of need.