Research and text courtesy of the RH7 History Group
[It was Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium that brought Britain into the war on 4 August 1914.] Germany had made a colossal mistake – and they knew it. There had been last minute attempts to stop the invasion but it was all too late and from then on she was branded as the guilty and brutal Hun.
About 1.5 million Belgian fled, mostly to Britain, France, Holland, Switzerland, Spain and some to the United States. Folkestone was the first town in Britain to be affected with the arrival of 11,000 Belgians. They were sent on to London where accommodation could be arranged at Alexandra Palace, Earl’s Court and White City. It must have been difficult for the refugees – safe but confused and exhausted. Language was a problem not only with the English but between themselves, with Walloons mixed with the Flemish. The London Centres were well organised with food and medical supplies and eventually the Belgians were dispensed around the country. It is estimated that a quarter of a million refugees arrived and stayed in Britain.
The towns and villages had different ways of absorbing them. A very small village like West Peckham, for example, adopted one family with local people donating what they could afford to support them. [In the Lingfield and Dormansland area], with its collection of villages, [there was] a very different system. Organisation and management was given to the Emergence Committee.
Miss Nevill; Captain Spender Clay MP; Mr de Clermont (no initial); Mr Gow and Mr Stanger provided houses rent free.
Four teams were formed, each one to be responsible for one house and its occupants as follows:-
Fair Oaks, Town Hill, Lingfield (now the dentist)
Mrs Ballantine, Mrs Fowler, Mrs Gow, Lady Forte.
8 Stanhope Cottages, Lingfield (on the right, just under the railway bridge by the racecourse)
Mrs Hicks, Mrs T.K. Morris, Mrs Turton
Old Post Office, Dormansland
Mrs Forte, Mrs Morshead, Miss Pelham, Miss St Clair, Mrs Gerald Walker
San Bento, Dormans Park (this has disappeared, either renamed or demolished)
Mrs Dunkin, Mrs St Clair, Mrs Stangerm Mrs Starr-Jones
They had arranged for the houses to be rate-free and wrote to the East Surrey Water Company asking them to remit the water rate.
Care was funded by donations and subscriptions. 12 refugees were being supported but when the villages were asked to take 14 more (the total rose to 36) the Committee wrote to the Belgian Relief Fund at the Belgian Legation to ask if they could help to some degree.
Finances from October 1914 – 30 June 1915
Donations and subscriptions came to £378 7s. 9d.
After expenses had been deducted (made up of household expenses, coal, clothing, furnishings, education travelling, insurance and sundries) there was a balance in the bank of £71 19s. 10d. for emergencies.
The Committee discussed how much a refugee needed to earn to become independent. A Mr Essers felt he would need to earn £1 10s. a week. The Committee made it a rule that any money should be banked at the General Post Office Bank, one half of savings being in the name of the man, one quarter in that of his wife and the man being allowed to keep the other quarter as pocket money; but, in the event of a refugee obtaining a permanent place he would cease receiving funds from the Committee.
Relationship seem to have been good in [the Lingfield and Dormansland] area. Here is an article which appeared in the Surrey Mirror, 8 January 1915:
THANKS TO THE ENGLISH
Mr Neefs, President of the Belgian Committee, also sends a Report of the Christmas gathering at the Public Hall and in it thus thanks the English:
“In the name of all compatriots I have the honour to express to you our feelings of deep gratitude for your kindness and your generosity towards the Belgian refugees living in Reigate, Redhill and the neighbourhood and, today especially, for their children.
In a few words but with a good heart we thank you for it. We shall still remember when we are back in Belgium the magnanimity of the English nation towards the Belgians. I want especially to express a word of thanks to the Mayor of Reigate who has never neglected any occasion to be agreeable and serviceable to the Belgians.
Hip, Hip Hurray for England.”
Here is another article from the Surrey Mirror:
ENTERTAINMENT AT GODSTONE
“The Belgian refugees at The Grange, South Godstone, spent a happy, merry time under the care of Mr & Mrs Shepheard. For several days beforehand the refugees were working to decorate the big room with flowers, flags and ornamental shields and as a result it was very pretty. On Christmas morning, thanks to the kindness of Mr Deeds in providing a brake, 14 attended Divine Service at East Grinstead church. Special prayers were offered for the Belgians, for the success of the armies of the Allies and that peace may soon be restored.
When the party arrived home they found an excellent dinner in readiness for them by kindly friends in the neighbourhood having provided turkeys, geese and Christmas puddings.
In the evening the whole party indulged in English games and everyone spent thoroughly enjoyable. The evening concluded with dancing, the music being provided by Mr Engelen, on the mandolin and selections were given on gramophone.
All guests were loud in their praise of Mr Shepheard for the trouble he took in seeing that they spent a thoroughly enjoyable time and one which they will remember in the brighter years to come.”
However, there were problems. The Chief Constable published a warning that both hosts and refugees were either forgetting or ignoring the rules which applied when they first arrived in a county or changed their address. They had to register and had to have a police permit to stay in a prohibited area. There was a fine of £100 or 6 months imprisonment for neglecting such rules.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was anxious that the Belgians understood our different laws regarding ensuring small birds for the pot. The main serious worry, though, was the fact that Belgian men were ask not to enlist and British women started to protest. As a result the Government organised work in munitions factories and the Belgian workforce contributed considerably to the war work. Apart from working in British factories they also set up their own.
In some areas there were signs of intolerance as time went on but in the main long standing friendships were established.
The Imperial War Museum
Surrey History Centre
British Newspaper Archive