Blog: July 2019

This month we hear from Curator Lucy Moore about looking for Belgian refugees at Leeds Museums.

Over the last five years, Leeds Museum & Galleries has been commemorating the First World War with a wide variety of displays and exhibitions. We’ve tried to represent the wide variety of wartime experiences in the city, between 1914 and 1918. What objects are kept and what information is kept about them can tell you plenty about how histories are valued in the past.

In our First World War collection at Leeds, we have a piece of lacework, donated by Mrs Kitson Clark and Miss Mary Clark. They told us it was donated as a “gift of Belgian Refugees who lived in Meanwoodside during the war” in 1917. What isn’t recorded is the name/s of the people who made it and who knew the family well enough to give them a present at Christmas on their limited means. The gift is interesting as lacework is a traditional Belgian craft and lots of people who have had these in their homes in Belgium.

IMAGE LEEDM.E.2010.0275 ©Leeds Museums & Galleries

IMAGE LEEDM.E.2010.0275 ©Leeds Museums & Galleries

In total, over 1600 refugees from Belgian came to Leeds during the First World War, arriving in October 1914 and being billeted across the city and in surrounding areas. Both soldiers and civilians were sent to Temple Newsam House: the soldiers (who were all officers) were accommodated in the house, whilst the families were put in the stable block. The men worked in agriculture on the estate. A small number of photographs survive in the family records of the Halfiax Estate.

Belgian patients and refugees at Temple Newsam ©The Halifax Estate

It was hard for the refugees to settle in on the estate, according to Lady Dorothy Wood’s memoirs. Many of the refugees spoke Flemish and very few other people in Leeds did. Lady Dorothy recalled coming across a gardener and a refugee chatting in the rose garden, later in the war. She was surprised to see this and didn’t know how they could understand each other? It turned out that the gardener had been in the army and served in South Africa, where he learnt Afrikaans. It is a very similar language to Flemish!

At West Yorkshire Archives, there are documents give us a different view of refugee life – from registration papers, to lists of employment, to lists of items lent by members of the community.

Some of the objects feature in a new exhibition at Leeds City Museum:

A City and its Welcome: Three Centuries of Migration to Leeds
12 July 2019 – 5 January 2020
Many people have come to Leeds to start a new life, including those escaping famine in Ireland in the 1800s, those seeking work opportunities, and today’s refugees arriving in our City of Sanctuary.

‘A City and its Welcome’ will showcase the stories and experiences of those who have made a home in Leeds over the past three centuries. These people have helped shape the city that we recognize today.