Recent images of people fleeing from Syria and moving across Europe have obvious parallels to the flight of Belgians seeking refuge in Britain after the outbreak of war in August 1914. With the advance of the German Army further into Belgium, many Belgian civilians fled their homes and arrived on British shores. Most of them arrived in Folkestone on steamer ships from Ostend. The current situation, and the responses of various European countries to the growing refugee crisis, has many similarities to what occurred just over a hundred years ago.
Belgian refugees in Folkestone during the First World War
Thanks to the digitised newspaper records of the British Newspaper Archive we can see how communities in Britain responded to the Belgians who, like the Syrians today, were fleeing for their lives. The journalists of the Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald were ideally placed to report on the numbers arriving in the town. On 29th August 1914 the paper reported that ‘many hundreds’ of refugees from Belgium were arriving at the port and that after ‘strong representations’ that something needed to be done for the arrivals a committee was formed to coordinate the town’s response to those in need. The Herald reported that the people of Folkestone had given ‘a flood of offers of assistance’ and that there was ‘abundant evidence […] of the great sympathy felt in the town for the Belgians.’ The paper detailed that there had been
[…] animated and interesting scenes at the Harbour. One lady wore carpet slippers, not having had time to secure a pair of boots owing to her hurried departure. Some of the refugees had been in trains for two or three days, and some had not tasted food for twenty four hours. They told heart-rending tales of poor Belgian folk on the road to Antwerp, some with furniture in carts. Among the arrivals were the picturesque figures of Belgian Roman Catholic priests, presenting a contrast to the usual style of English clerical dress.
Meetings were held in Folkestone town hall and contacts were made with the Belgian Refugee Committee in London. On arriving in Folkestone refugees were to leave any baggage in the cloakroom of the Harbour and then be taken to the Husband Memorial Hall to register, in addition to being given food, water and arrangements for accommodation. An agreement was also made for Belgians to exchange currency at the London County and Westminster in Sandgate Road. A fund was set up to accept donations to assist the Belgians, and the Belgian flag was flown outside St Michael’s Hall to indicate that it was the main help-point for Belgians in the town where any French-speaking volunteers were acting as interpreters. Emergency shelters were also set up at the Town Hall, Fearnley Hall, the Congregational Hall in Tontine Street, the Catholic School in Guildhall Street, the Baptist Lecture Hall, the Dover-Road Schools and the North Street Mission Hall. The general idea was that the Belgians would be sent on to London, and suggestions that Folkestone would be flooded with desperate Belgians appeared to have caused some alarm as Mr Routly, the Folkestone Refugee Committee Spokesman, was at pains to underline that ‘stories in certain London papers of hundreds and even thousands of destitute refugees arriving in Folkestone are almost entirely devoid of fact, and the statements are only calculated to do harm to the town, besides causing sympathetic people all over the country much unnecessary anxiety.’
By the end of August 1914 there were approximately 800 Belgian civilians in Folkestone. More were expected, and more made the crossing to Folkestone, especially after the fall of Antwerp on 10th October 1914, and well into 1915 as reports of atrocities committed by the German army in places such as Louvain and Dinant continued. The propaganda value of these stories was very valuable to the British press and the British war effort generally, and Catriona Pennell’s A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2014) provides detailed analyses of the impact the atrocity stories had in the early stages of the conflict, and of the instances of public unrest and rioting which occurred in places such as Deptford and Lewisham.
Numerous towns and cities in Kent and other counties continued to set up committees and funds to help Belgian Refugees. In Surrey for example, a patriotic evening of speeches and performance was staged at the Redhill Market Hall. The Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser reported on the afternoon and evening performances in some detail. A play The King’s Man was performed, ‘it’s [sic] episodes founded upon the tragic incidences of the present time, must have brought home to many the fearful ordeal through which Belgium is passing.’
Today, most notably in Germany, many people are helping those fleeing Syria. One hundred years ago many communities in Britain, and in particular the people of Folkestone, showed their humanity and set a precedent for helping those seeking shelter in Britain.
Dr Emma Hanna is a Research Fellow at the University of Kent and a Co-Investigator on the Gateways to the First World War project.