This month we hear from James Buckman of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society about accusations of fraud in the Belgian refugee community in Spalding during the Great War.
When refugees from the invaded country of Belgium started to arrive in Britain seeking help and support, the Rev. Prior Clement Tyck, a Roman Catholic Priest of Belgian Nationality, was one of the first people to travel to London to welcome these destitute people. He brought back as many as fifty to his parish within the town of Spalding, Lincolnshire, and housed them in his own home, and in the adjoining St Thomas’ Hall. The numbers were too heavy for Father Tyck to manage alone, so he decided to form a Committee to assist him with providing aid and succour to the refugees. Father Tyck was appointed Honorary Director to this Committee. One of their first moves was to settle on accommodation for the refugees.
By the end of September 1914, it was becoming clear to the Committee that St Thomas’ Hall was no longer a suitable location. A physician from the Ministry of Health complained about the conditions under which the refugees were housed at this venue, and he recommended that if possible, all of them needed to be relocated. The Committee thereby resolved to securing Asycoughfee Hall, a fifteenth century house in Spalding, as accommodation for the refugees. This was used for families, while single refugees were housed at an address which became known as ‘Belgian House’. Father Tyck urged that the refugees should be treated as “the nation’s guests”, but he felt the people on the Committee did not fully understand the refugees.
The Committee passed a number of resolutions ‘which would be the cause of trouble in the future’. One of these decisions involved wages earned by the refugees who managed to find employment in Britain. As early as September 1914, the Committee decided to allow the refugees to keep a fraction of their earnings as pocket money, but they legislated that the remainder should be given over to their Treasurer ‘for the benefit of the whole of the Refugees at the end of the war’. At first, the refugees were allowed to retain only 25% of their wages, but after some of the Belgians complained that more money would make them more anxious to work, this was amended to 50%. The Belgians were still not happy with this arrangement, and they had a further grievance about the Committee’s hospitality. They were being fed a daily breakfast of bread and margarine, and flesh meat for dinner. The employed men felt this was not sufficient nourishment for a hard working day. The tensions brought about by these two issues came to a head when a handful of employed refugees took both matters into their own hands.
On 23rd September 1915, six men were brought before the Committee in the wake of the discovery that they had been systematically handing in less than they were instructed to. For example, one of these six men was earning thirty shillings a week, but he told the Secretary of the Finance Committee that he only made twelve. Therefore, the Committee received six shillings, and he kept twenty-four. The men subsequently used the money to buy a little bacon for their breakfasts. The Committee expressed disapproval over such conduct and told these six men that they were defrauding refugees who were less fortunate than themselves. Father Tyck suggested that a severe reprimanding be given to the men, with a warning that stronger measures could be taken if this were to be repeated. Other members on the Committee responded that they had already tried this, but to no effect. Instead, they made a controversial decision.
The Committee’s judgement was to cease all help for the six men and their families (twenty-nine souls in total). In a fortnight’s time, they would have to seek their own maintenance. Father Tyck was dissatisfied with this move. He took a standpoint that the refugees should be given an opportunity to let their side of the case be heard. The Committee refused, and told Father Tyck that their decision was not made in any ‘revengeful spirit’, but because they felt it was highly desirable that the refugees should be encouraged to develop their own economic independence as soon as possible. Father Tyck did not wish to hold any responsibility over this ‘regrettable and hasty change’, so he resigned from his post as Hon. Director. He subsequently wrote to the press, and laid serious charges against the conduct of the Committee. He presented them with ‘a harrowing picture’ of the hard conditions that the refugees were experiencing.
Over the course of two years, the number of refugees in Spalding had been gradually decreasing. Some had relocated to different parts of Britain, while others had returned to Belgium. By the end of 1916, all of the refugees had left Spalding. The Committee, however, did not disband until 1919 after the war ended. Father Tyck was awarded the King Albert Medal for his hard work.