Belgian Refugees in Glamorgan

When the First World War began in August 1914, one of the first groups of people to be affected were the citizens of Belgium. Fearing persecution by the invading German army, some 250,000 decided to leave the country and relocated to the United Kingdom, the largest influx of refugees in British history. Some of those found new homes in the South Wales valleys.

The local parishes and chapels had a part to play with regards to helping the refugees:

Proposed by Councillor D. Bayliss that the council should recommend to the Public Meeting that as many persons as possible in the Parish should subscribe a certain sum weekly, to maintain a family of Refugees during the period of War. Carried. St Brides Minor Parish Council (P78)

It was proposed by Councillor D Lewis that they allow rates to be free on the Belgian Refugee House. Carried. St Brides Minor Parish Council (P78)

Mr Brown gave particulars of the offered apartments in Albany Road & after consideration Mr Roberts proposed and Mrs Farrar seconded that the house in Albany Road be taken subject to the Belgian Relief Committee agreeing to furnish same. Carried. Roath Park United Reformed Church (D601/7)

The local authorities would take ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the refugees. They would have to deal with a variety of issues. One area to be dealt with was the health of the refugees:

He reported that he had received a warning from the Authorities that a case of small pox had occurred at the Earls Court Refugee Camp for Belgians and he had therefore visited the refugees from that camp who were at Angelton Cottage and found a child there with suspicious symptoms. He had called on the Medical Officer who had instructed him to report on the case on Monday next.  It was moved by Mr R. John seconded by Mr W.A. Howell and Resolved that, if the case proves to be small pox, the Clerk be instructed to give twenty four hours notice to the Hospital Committee to clear the Small Pox Hospital ready for its reception. Penybont Rural District Council (RDPB/C/14)

Hospitals

Letter from the War Refugees Committee asking that the recent Belgian refugees be treated locally and free of charge, as many were sick, convalescent and suffering from nervous shock, infectious disease etc. and were, in the most, entirely without means. Resolved that the council are prepared to deal with local cases in their Accident and Surgical Hospital and Infectious Diseases HospitalBarry Urban District Council (BB/C/1/20)

Most local authorities tried to help the refugees by reducing or completely removing the cost of accomodation and other expenses:

…that the Collectors be instructed not to collect rates from premises occupied by Belgian Refugees…  Llantrisant and Llantwit Fardre Rural District Council (RDLL/C/13)

Resolved that the Belgian Refugees in Penarth be allowed to use the Baths free of charge. Penarth Urban District Council (UDPE/C/1/4)

There were also other ways that the authorities tried to help the refugees, either themselves or through voluntary groups:

The Chairman submitted a letter he had received from the Central Committee asking the Council to organize another Christmas Day collection for the relief of the Belgian Children.  Resolved that the Council support the movement and that the following members be requested to make the necessary arrangements for their respective wards…  Ogmore and Garw Urban District Council (UDOG/C/1/11)

The Deputy Clerk reported that arrangements had been made for a visit of the Belgian Artistes to Porthcawl on Friday next and that the use of the Pavilion had been granted free of charge by Mr Conrad. Porthcawl Urban District Council (UDPC/C/1/10)

That public meetings be held in the various parts of the District with a view to making arrangements for housing and for providing for the comfort and maintenance of the Belgian Refugees. Mountain Ash Urban District Council (UDMA/C/4/12)

Library

The Librarian stated that Mr H Stanley Jevons had sent a number of French books on loan for the use of the Belgian Refugees. Cardiff Borough Council (BC/C/6/50)

A letter was read from Mrs Marychurch, applying for work for a Belgian Refugee as Book Repairer or Binder. Cardiff Borough Council (BC/C/6/50)

One task for the local authorities was to help the Registrar’s office document Belgian and other refugees. By early 1915 the local authorities had ascertained the following numbers of Belgian refugees in the whole of Glamorgan:

Male over 16 – 408; Female over 16 – 505; Male children – 212; Female children – 202; Total – 1327.  Glamorgan County Council War Distress Relief Committee (GC/WD/1)

It is worth noting that not every Belgian left for the UK; many stayed, and some charity work in the UK was for the benefit of those who were still in Belgium:

The National Committee…have for some time been £30,000 short each week of the amount necessary to provide the irreducible minimum of one meal per day…may I beg that you will give this appeal your most sympathetic consideration. Cardiff Incorporated Chamber of Commerce (DCOMC/1/8/18)

Within a year of the war ending in November 1918, 90% of the Belgian refugees in Britain had returned home. Those who stayed became part of British society, disappearing from the nation’s view, and so the story of the Belgian refugees was soon forgotten.

Andrew Booth, Relief Records Assistant

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