Blog: June 2019

This month’s blog comes from Kieran Taylor. Kieran is a second year PhD student at the University of Stirling. His research focuses on the history of Belgian Refugees in Glasgow and considers the role of Glasgow Corporation as an administrator. His research is funded by Glasgow Life and the University of Stirling.

Of the 250,000 Belgian refugees who came to Great Britain at least 20,000 refugees went to Scotland. The majority of these Belgians were settled in Glasgow and the surrounding towns of central Scotland. Glasgow, Britain’s second largest city in 1914, was to open its arms to receive refugees arriving from the continent. Glasgow, which was often lauded as the ‘second city of Empire’ would host refugees for the duration of the War.

Glasgow Corporation, the city’s civic government of the day were soon appointed the national authority for refugee affairs in Scotland by the state. The council’s expertise in providing welfare to the poorest citizens, its proven track record of managing large infrastructure initiatives and the city’s location inland, led to the decision to appoint Glasgow Corporation the custodian of refugee affairs in Scotland.

The issue of location was important. Refugees, as friendly foreign aliens, had their movement restricted and had to register their address with the police under the Aliens Consolidation Order of 1914. This legislation and other Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) measures prevented refugees from settling in any of Scotland’s other cities on the East Coast. The cities of; Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen were all excluded from assisting refugees.   

The city was also experienced in delivering progressive social, welfare and medical initiatives to its citizens. These were praised by locals and visitors as forward-thinking. Corporation services included; free public concerts in parks, council housing, provision of medical dispensaries and free doctor visits for the poor. The considerable scale of poverty and deprivation in the city had made the delivery of such services necessary. Nevertheless, the city’s commitment to egalitarianism through municipal work made it well placed to respond to a humanitarian emergency like the arrival of the Belgian reufgees.

The first party of around 1000 refugees arrived in Glasgow in mid-October 1914. As the Belgians were assisted off trains at Central Station by policemen, scouts and railway workers interested crowds gathered. The Daily Record reported that:

‘As the victims of war passed this large company cheered . . . on emerging into Hope Street a crowd much denser was encountered.  From many throats was cried “Long Live Belgium’.

Such vivid displays of sympathy by ordinary Glaswegians were motivated by the many descriptive newspaper accounts which had appeared in the press before from August 1914. These accounts described the actions of German soldiers. Local newspapers were keen to corroborate allegations of German brutality by reporting on the violence Belgians arriving in Glasgow had suffered. The Lanark Gazette provided one detailed account of a Belgian Emile Smets:

‘The narrative of Emile Smets is strikingly pathetic. A well to do tradesman having his home near Brussels he along with his wife and family has been fleeing for eight weeks . . . He tells with many expressions of horror how when high mass was celebrated in Malines Cathedral a shell was dropped, killing four.

Such stories undoubtedly motivated sympathy amongst Scots, who eagerly donated money to the Corporation’s fund or offered their own houses to assist refugees. As the Daily Record reported:

‘One of the most touching acts of kindness which were performed during the weekend was by a Partick widow. This lady occupied a house of three apartments, and touched by the pathetic conditions of the poor Belgians she gave up her house, completely furnished, as it stood and with the very fires in the grates blazing a hearty welcome to the refugees. Now a complete family of eight persons are living comfortably’. 

Acts of practical generosity were lionised by journalists and local politicians as illustrative of a distinctive Scottish warmth.

The plight of Belgium, a small country with a strong independent identity, invaded by a larger neighbour appeared to appeal to Scots. The historical links between Scotland and Belgium were emphasised in much of the Glasgow Corporation’s appeal literature. A statement by Glasgow’s former Lord Provost Samuel Chisolm makes this apparent:

‘Our own national history which has burned……respect and sympathy I had almost said, a love for the outraged the oppressed, the down trodden nations’.

The nationalistic tone of appeals and fundraising requests sought to stimulate financial generosity from Scotland’s general public. This tactic worked effectively as across Scotland town councils formed their own small Belgian refugee committees who donated to work within Glasgow.

These committees were formed across cities towns and villages from Arbroath to Wick. The committees were instrumental in funding relief work for the duration of the War assisting Glasgow in raising almost £208,000 by 1918. Much of this money was used to pay for Belgian hostels in Glasgow.

Large hostels were created in the vacant and empty mansions of Glasgow’s upper-class throughout the city. These hosted multiple Belgian families and provided food, medical assistance and even help with gaining employment. The Belgian hostels were staffed by matrons and run alike the other welfare institutions of the Corporation. 

Regimes within hostels, however, appear to have been strict. Hostels had; set meals, curfews, bans on alcohol and in one case a guard dog. Relationships between Belgian refugees and their Scottish matrons, do not always seem to have been harmonious either. A letter written by Mary Boyle, a Belgian matron illustrates her disillusionment with the refugees in her care. She describes the process of selecting newly arrived refugees for hostels:

‘You have no idea how difficult it is to tell the character of foreigners when they are eating poached eggs. I sometimes think any other food would be easier – – but poached eggs . . . Meanwhile one scans faces, is there anyone likely to be comparatively amiable, clean with a desire to do more than idle away the days?’

Allegations of ‘idleness’ amongst male refugees was not uncommon in Glasgow. Many refugees living in the city with professions appear to have found finding work difficult. Similarly, young male refugees were castigated by the Corporation for shirking from the Belgian military. This led the Corporation to move those male refugees eligible for military service to Rouken Glen Park, for drill training.  As Boyle remarked disparagingly:

‘Let me say the majority of male refugees I come across are not the type who sacrifice themselves’.

On the most part however, opinions towards Belgians were favourable in the city. Donations continued to pour into the Corporation for the duration of the War from right across Scotland. 

Following the end of the War and the repatriation of refugees to Belgium Glasgow Corporation received considerable praise for its co-ordination of relief. The work of the council was, as Prime Minister Lloyd George remarked, illustrative of the ‘national sentiment of hospitality’. The Prime Minister went on noting that Belgians were assisted with ‘speed and efficiency’. 

To get in touch with Kieran, email him at: