Dora Black: a volunteer with the Women’s Emergency Corps

Belgian refugees leaving Belfort

Title: Belgian refugees leaving Belfort
Description: Copyright IWM (Q 53227) by-nc

By Michael Page, Surrey History Centre, and Sue James, Sutton High School.

Dora Black (b. 3 April 1894) attended Sutton High School between 1903 and 1911.  She was the daughter of a civil servant, Sir Frederick Black (1863-1930), and lived at The Chestnuts, Brighton Road, Sutton, when admitted to the school, having previously been educated by Mrs Edwards, of Redlands, Sutton.  In September 1914, desiring to do her bit and living a short train ride away from London, she volunteered with the interpreting department of the Women’s Emergency Corps who played a vital role in welcoming the Belgian refugees who flooded into the country as the Germans armies advanced through their homeland.  Dora described her experiences for the school magazine.

Women’s Emergency Corps workshop for toymaking, 1914. Copyright IWM (Q 108014)

The Women’s Emergency Corps was started a short while after the outbreak of war, in order, as its name implies, to be ready for any emergency. There were any number of departments. Most people have heard of the toymaking rooms, but the Interpreting Department is not so well known, and yet it did, and is still doing, a very great deal of useful work, I joined the Corps in September, and at first went persistently every day to the office to run quite unimportant messages from department to department. In fact, the very dubious lady who examined me as to my age and accomplishments practically told me that this was all I would be given to do. However, I soon discovered that when one was found to be really ready to help, more interesting work came one’s way; but that the head of the department, who had received plenty of offers of help, did not wish to send out completely inexperienced and untried people on quite important work.

But there was plenty of work to be done, for just at that time were thousands of Belgians arriving daily; some had money, others nothing at all; scarcely any could speak English, many of them not even French. There was absolutely no organisation to cope with such enormous numbers. The War Refugees’ Committee was – like the Emergency Corps – in the process of formation, and so far the Government had offered no help. It is small wonder that any number of blunders were committed, for it is always difficult to organise a society of voluntary workers, and those who seemed most capable would lose their heads in the tumult and worry at the railway station, and either deposit a Belgium millionaire – if such exists now – at a home for the destitute or else a family with scarcely any means at a first class hotel. Gradually, however, the organisations settled down, and when the Government undertook to provide for the destitute, pressure was greatly relieved.

The Emergency Corps did most valuable work amongst those refugees who arrived with a little money and absolutely no knowledge of London or of English. Every day a list of hotels and prices was prepared – the hotel proprietors were always extremely kind in offering special prices – and so soon as news was received at headquarters that a train was expected, a number of workers, one of them in charge and in possession of the hotel list, would be sent to the station. Often, of course, the trains were deplorably late in arriving, and one spent hours on the station; hours which were never really dull, as one’s services were constantly needed to interpret for people who had come to find lost property, wait for relatives, and enquire about trains. The porters were always extremely grateful for help; they would come in great distress, saying, “I say, Miss, yer do speak the Belgian language don’t yer? ‘Ere’s my mate can’t make these ere understand.” The most trying part of all the hours of waiting on the stations was, perhaps, the number of questions put by inquisitive bystanders. One began to recognise and note with caution the interested glance at one’s badge, which invariably preceded: “And what exactly is the Women’s Emergency Corps? You must do a great deal of interesting work.” One would always recollect at these moments that one had urgent business in some other part of the station.

Belgian refugees at Hudson’s furniture repository, Victoria Station, 1914. Copyright IWM (Q 53305)

When the train came in, one was immediately surrounded by a crowd, all wanting help and asking questions at once, and it was a lengthy business sorting them out and depositing them according to the state of their finances. When the Government undertook the care of the destitute, special ships were chartered to bring over the refugees and land them at Tilbury, and the Local Government Board would telephone up to the W.E.C. to send down half-a-dozen interpreters to help in getting the people from the boat to the train. I went one night to Tilbury, but I did not go often, as Flemish interpreters were the most needed there, though I found I was able to carry on a conversation quite well, being helped by a knowledge of the loathed tongue of German – for Flemish, like Dutch, is half way between German and English. It was a very strange experience that evening at Tilbury. I think I chiefly remember the large meal we had on arrival, for I had been working all day and snatching meals at the stations when I could. The boat was, of course, very late in, and when she arrived there was the medical examination before the refugees came ashore in the tenders and came in a long procession to the train. It was very pathetic to see them, bent and worn old peasant women, who had hoped to end their days in peace by their children’s fireside; weary mothers with enormous families of strapping children with big blue eyes and wild wisps of yellow hair. The children were always cheerful, but it was sad to see the mothers responding with faint little smiles to the cheers of the crowd which always assembled to greet them. Some kind-hearted people even brought clothes to the station, and were quite hurt when they were told that clothes could really not be distributed just then, The Boy Scouts were much in evidence, carrying babies and bundles, bringing glasses of milk and cups of Bovril. We had to be very careful not to separate the families; each family, however large, insisting upon crowding into one compartment. There was one family, consisting of an old grandfather, grandmother, the mother and fourteen bonnie children, all of whom together with large bundles of bedding tied up in check tablecloths, packed into one compartment!

The special train was sent right through to the Alexandra Palace, where another band of helpers was waiting to receive the refugees. I was also at the Palace one night when thousands arrived. We were kept very busy waiting upon them; the poor things were generally terribly hungry, some in a state of exhaustion, having had nothing to eat for many days. After the meal was over a clergyman, who spoke French and Flemish, stood up on a chair and addressed the assembled multitude, telling them they might be sure they were in safe hands, that there were no Germans here, and that presently they could go to English homes which were waiting to receive them, whereat they all rose and cheered. Somehow, I found myself thinking of the feeding of the five thousand, and I thought too that here the miracle of sympathy had produced an inexhaustible supply of loaves and fishes. From Alexandra Palace that night I motored back to Victoria, and remained there until nearly midnight, helping with another train load which had just arrived. Indeed, one never knew when one would get to bed – during the siege of Antwerp, refugees arrived at two and three in the morning – nor where one might be sent next. I always carried a Sutton time table and a map of London, and got quite used to getting about quickly by the Underground and just catching a train at Victoria. Some days I would be kept in the office composing French letters, interviewing would-be interpreters when the second in command was out for lunch, writing names and addresses in the ledgers, answering enquiries by anxious relatives over the telephone, or telephoning hotels to ask how many rooms they had in readiness. Once when I arrived in the morning, a little French dressmaker, from Antwerp, was given into my charge. She had arrived at Tilbury with the Belgians, and one of the workers had taken her home for the night. She had very little money, her luggage was lost, and she wanted to get through to Nice where her parents lived. I was instructed to make all arrangements. First of all we went to the French Consulate to get passports put in order, then to the Societe de Bienfaisance to ask if they could arrange her passage home. It was a pleasure to see the little lady’s face brighten when she heard that, so soon as she knew when she wished to leave, all the arrangements would be made. After a hasty lunch, we went in search of the refractory luggage. At Liverpool Street we had news that it was at Tilbury, and had it sent up. Meanwhile, I took my little French friend to see Hyde Park – that, and nothing else, would she see! Returning to Liverpool Street we identified the wayward trunk, took it to Charing Cross, returned to our courtly friend of the Societe de Bienfaisance, procured the precious ticket for the next day, and then, it being too late to go back to the Office and report, I took Mademoiselle home for the night, put her to bed early as we had to catch an early train the next day, and finally saw her into the train at Charing Cross at 8.30 a.m., after which I reported at headquarters, and found that the chief was quite anxious as to what had become of us both.

Alexandra Palace: a reception centre for Belgian refugees

It often seemed to me that I accomplished very little in a day of constant activity, and yet when I thought that there were many other “Interpretes” running all over London on the same kind of errand, I felt that we were all together doing a great deal of good work. I spent one delightful hour-and-a-half chasing five small Belgian children all over Charing Cross station; their mother being too worn-out to look after them. One of the War Refugees’ Committee had handed them over to me with a scrap of paper which the mother had given him, and on which was an address at Surbiton. I wired to the address to say that the family had arrived, and, when the reply came, took them over to Waterloo and saw them into the train; the children yelling with delight throughout the taxi-ride, and flourishing bananas which someone had given them, and dancing all round me, shouting in Flemish, whilst I vainly tried to buy their tickets and find out from an amused porter which was the right platform. I heard afterwards – I received a charming letter from the sister, a Belgium cook, who had been at Surbiton several years – that the family arrived safely and in the best of spirits. We always made a point of giving the Emergency Corps’ address, not so much because we hoped for letters of thanks – though these were always welcome – as because, if the refugees should need further help, they could write to us. Besides this, we took care that the refugees were registered at Aldwych in case any friends should enquire for them.

There are many more tales about individual cases amongst the refugees that I could tell you, but I expect the readers of the S.H.S. Magazine will be growing weary. Once I took twenty people on the Underground Railway to their hotel, and it was the funniest sight to see them all with their baggage and babies (there were always plenty of babies, which the police inspectors delighted to carry for us), all going down the moving staircase at Liverpool Street, and I felt very conspicuous when the police had to hold up the traffic at the crossings, whilst I helped my rather stout, nervous and tearful Belgian ladies across the road! Once, too, when I was left late in charge of the office, and everyone was at the station, one of the workers brought in a family of English children to wait till their mother came on with the luggage. They came from Berlin, where their father was a prisoner of war; so of course they had practically no money, and someone was arranging for them for that night, and in the morning they were going to friends. I played Mothers and Fathers with the children for over an hour, and whilst their mother, who presently arrived, sat and read an English paper with the – for her – new and startling news that Germany was not having things all her own way.

I think I must not leave out my visit to the Mayor of Westminster. It was the Mayor who was arranging for the English refugees, and who had asked the W.E.C. to help, and thus it was that I was sent down to the City Hall to find out from the Mayor’s secretary when the next contingent would arrive. At the City Hall, however, I was told that the Mayor himself would like to see the representative of the Women’s the Emergency Corps, and so the representative, being one of the least important of the W.E.C. messengers, formally received a courtly speech of thanks from the Mayor for our “invaluable assistance and exceedingly competent organisation.” I trust I conducted myself with dignity befitting so great an occasion. I know that the story was frequently told against me, and caused intense amusement in the interpreting department. Besides station work, the interpreting department was busy arranging classes to teach soldiers French and German, and had brought out a booklet called, “First Aid to Soldiers in Foreign Languages,” and the soldiers apparently took great delight in learning to say “Avez-vous ou [sic: vu?] des Allemands?” and such useful phrases! Then there were, and are still, large stores of clothing sorted and distributed; and just now a Christmas party for Belgian children is being arranged. In fact, since the Corps was first started, it must have cheered and helped a vast number of stranded people, seen countless lonely Belgian and French girls safely to their destination, found and forwarded any amount of lost luggage. The department is now occupied in helping the local Governments Board in bringing refugees over from Holland to care for.

I was exceedingly sorry when, the vacation over, I had to leave the work. For all the fatigue and late nights were as nothing when one saw the refugees’ faces grow a trifle less anxious, and even cheerful, as they said ”You are very good in England. We did not know what would happen when we arrived. Sans vous Mademoiselle -!” To which, of course, one replied proudly, pointing to the badge on one’s arm, “Plutot sans the Women’s Emergency Corps –”.

In 1912, Dora Black won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and came away with a First Class Honours degree in modern languages in 1915.  She held a fellowship at the College between 1917 and 1919.  Her father had become Director General of Munitions Supply and in April 1917, Dora accompanied him on a Trade Mission to New York to secure American oil supplies as his secretary.  She became a noted author, socialist, pacifist and feminist campaigner and was a passionate advocate of birth control.  In 1921 she married the philosopher Bertrand Russell as his second wife (although the marriage ended in acrimonious divorce) and in 1927 they set up a progressive school, Beacon Hill School, at Harting, near Petersfield.  Dora Russell died in 1986, aged 92.

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