This month’s blog comes from Lynsey Slater at the ‘Doncaster 1914-18’ project. Find out more here.
In March 1919, the Doncaster Gazette covered the return of a group of Belgian refugees to their home:
‘It is hoped that Doncaster people, who gave the refugees such a cordial and compassionate welcome over four years ago will turn up in large numbers on Friday afternoon to give the returning exiles an equally cordial send-off’.
– Doncaster Gazette March 14 1919
But who were the refugees and what happened during the four years they lived in Doncaster during the First World War? One of the first hints about the Belgian Refugees in Doncaster appears in the Doncaster Chronicle on September 4th, 1914. In the article, a local man appeals to ‘Doncaster sympathisers’, asking them for funds to assist the Belgians. In this article, the language used by British hosts to describe Belgians becomes apparent. He refers to them as ‘brave little allies’ who put up a ‘heroic resistance’ against the German forces. He appeals for monetary donations to support the Belgians in an attempt to ‘repay the debt’ owed to the country. The author, Robert Emmett MacDonald, of St Mary’s Road, had a Belgian wife, and an early and vested interest in the Belgian cause. By the time this article appeared in the paper, over 75 local people had already donated to support the Belgians. Among them was Arthur Sheard, a local business owner well known for running the Sheard, Binnington and Co furniture shop on the High Street.
For the following months, the Doncaster newspapers were full of further news on the Belgian refugees who had arrived in the town. The support for Belgian refugees in Doncaster came from high up. The Mayor, Patrick Stirling, wrote an impassioned appeal to the people of Doncaster in the Doncaster Gazette, October 30th 1914. In this article, he informs the public that a decision has been made by the corporation that they should take over the fund started by MacDonald, and they would go one step further by informing the central committee that refugees were welcome in Doncaster.
However, it was not all plain sailing. The Doncaster Chronicle reported on the 6 November 1914 that they were expected 25 refugees, but many more arrived than initially anticipated. The committee were in ‘somewhat of a quandary’ as only one house was ready. However, Mrs Pickering, who would later run the Arnold Hospital for wounded soldiers, came to the rescue and offered the beds that had been set up in temporary Mansion House hospital, and gave the group clothes from their hospital stores. When news spread of their arrival many people from the town went to the station to see them arrive by train. The refugees were greeted on the platform by the Town Clerk Raymond Augustus Hall Tovey, Councillor Dowson and Mr and Mrs MacDonald who had started the initial fund. The Chronicle described that it was a ‘piteous sight’ to see them leave the carriage and it was clear how miserable they were. The refugees were given tea at the Mansion House after being conveyed there by car from the station. They were greeted by the Mayor and Mayoress, along with Archdeacon and Mrs Sandford and their daughter, and Father Vermuelen of Crowle, a Belgian, who acted as an interpreter for the refugees.
Later in November, the Doncaster Gazette reported that the refugees had settled down into their ‘exile-homes’. The article also notes the confusion surrounding their language. The people of Doncaster were very surprised that only a few of the refugees spoke French, and many spoke Flemish. Not only did the language barrier cause confusion with the refugees and the people of Doncaster, but also with their fellow refugees from other parts of Belgium.
The official Belgian Refugee Committee minutes book give us more detail about the refugees. The first meeting, held on the 4th of December 1914 at the Mansion House was chaired by Samuel Balmforth with Councillors Clark and Dowson present from the Corporation. As well as them, Father Vermeulen, himself a Belgian, and Father Bentley were present. Along with the Mayoress, other prominent women from the borough formed a women’s sub-committee. The pages of the committee books detail the day-to-day issues debated by the committee, including the quandary of December 1914, in which the committee deliberated over the provision of pocket money to the Refugees. It was decided that refugees would receive a Christmas gift of money, with the question of pocket money ‘left over for future consideration.’ In January 1915, the committee came decided to allow Refugees not working to have weekly pocket money. Interestingly, they decided to begin paying a woman named Elisa, who is described by the committee as ‘doing house work and acting as interpreter at Avenue Road’ a weekly allowance of 5 shillings, significantly more than the other refugees received. The houses available to the committee were regularly discussed, including properties in Catherine Street, Avenue Road and Beckett Road. There are also references to the transfer of people between this refugee committee and Tickhill Belgian Refugee committee.
The committee books detail the movements of many of the Belgian families living in Doncaster. At one meeting in January 1915, the committee received a letter from the Honorary Secretary of the Manchester University Belgian Relief Committee about two young sisters of a Belgian teacher who had found employment at Doncaster Grammar School. The committee decided to contribute £5 to support these girls to join their brother in Doncaster. In January 1915, the committee agreed to accept three Belgian Refugees now living near Port Isaac who were related to Refugees at Avenue Road, and to pay half their travelling expenses to Doncaster. The committee also provided support to house refugees who were working at the Great Northern Railway Plant Works. The committee were requested by the Local Government Board to provide additional housing for Belgian Refugees but the committee rejected the request due to their difficulty finding housing accommodation due to the large number of military men still billeted in the town.
Fundraising events such as talks and lectures were organised by the committee. One, held at the Corn Exchange, raised over £25 for the support of local refugees. Also many local businesses rushed to assist Belgian refugees. One such offer came from Mr A. Peters, a Rotherham optician who offered free eye tests and glasses to the refugees living in Mexborough, Denaby Main and the surrounding area.
The committee began to wind their work up in the middle of 1918. However, they were still supporting the refugees of the town as late as January 1919. The last of the refugees left Doncaster in mid-March 1919. A Doncaster Gazette article from March 14 1919 detailed their return, and reflected on their return to their homes:‘Among this band will be a number of little Belgians who have never seen the country of their origin, having been born in Doncaster, while others who came here in infancy have forgotten Belgium and learned to speak English as fluently and correctly as their little friends in the local schools. Indeed, many of the adult refugees have become accomplished English speakers’.