What is the story of the Belgian Refugees?

A hundred years ago, approximately 250,000 Belgian men, women and children came to Britain after the invasion and subsequent occupation of 95% of their homeland in the opening stages of the First World War. Many of them settled during and also after the conflict, taking on jobs and becoming part of the local community. Despite this large number of people, their histories are still not very well-known. The Tracing the Belgian Refugees project is hoping to change this.

We are launching a database that will host the findings of researchers in the UK and Belgium. The database will be accessible to anyone who would like to use it to input information they have found about a Belgian refugee, and to view the information that others have shared. Communities and academics in the UK and further afield have already traced hundreds of Belgians in exile in villages, towns and cities. Our project aims to pool some of this knowledge and to provide an online resource which will help to give a bigger picture of the refugee experience. We also hope to trace some stories forward so that we can improve our knowledge of this crucial moment in international history, which is still of much importance today.

Are you interested in the history of Belgian refugees in the UK during the First World War? Have you been involved in researching them in your local area? Do you want to share your findings with other researchers and find out more? If so we’d love to hear from you.

Meet the team

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and run by colleagues at the Universities of Leeds, Leuven and UCL.

Alison Fell is Professor of French Cultural History at the University of Leeds. She has been involved in many research and community projects during the First World War Centenary in her roles as chair of the Legacies of War project steering group and one of the Co-Investigators of the Gateways to the First World War AHRC Public Engagement Centre. She has published widely on women and the First World War, and she has also carried out a research project on Belgian refugees in Yorkshire alongside two secondary schools.
Christophe Declercq started his career in the translation industry, and then became a lecturer in translation in 2002. He currently holds posts at UCL and Leuven. He has been working on the Belgian refugees in the UK during the First World War for the last two decades, and has supported projects such as the commemoration program of the city of Antwerp, spearheaded by the Vredescentrum (Peace Centre). His interests and activities centre on public engagement that builds on existing knowledge and experience. He is on the organising committee for the international 'Languages ​​and the First World War' conferences, the second of which will take place in September 2018.
Philippa Read is Research Fellow on the project. She completed a PhD in cultural history of women in First World War France in 2017, and has since been teaching and researching in French departments at both Aston University and the University of Leeds. Philippa has been seminar series organiser for Legacies of War and is Chair and founding member of the First World War Network which supports Early Career and Postgraduate Researchers in conjunction with the AHRC Public Engagement Centres. Over the last 5 years she has worked with community history groups and schools on First World War projects.