Blog: June 2020

This extended blog looks at Belgian refugees in the ship-building industry in Cumbria. We were very grateful to have access to data on over 400 Belgians from the Cumbria Archive Service, which can be accessed via our database. A lot can be learned from this dataset, taken from the records of Vickers Ltd Naval Construction Company in 1919 as the Belgians who had been employed there were leaving for their homeland.

The following section has been contributed by Peter Schofield, whose History PhD (2017) was based on the Home Front in Barrow-in-Furness during the First World War:

Millom and First World War Housing: the case of Vickers workmen including Belgians

The great majority of the permanent inhabitants of Millom were blastfurnacemen and iron ore miners and in March 1914 the town was pinning its future on a new ore mine being started.  If the venture proved successful then plenty of occupants would be found for the 200 houses standing empty.  Councillor Docker, aware that household property had suffered in the past six years called a meeting of Millom property owners at the Temperance Hall in early April to form a Property Owners’ Association.  The primary objective of the meeting was to increase the town’s population by letting the empty houses to Barrow’s surplus population by the running of Workmen’s Trains.  Owing to the effect of the workmen’s trains the towns of Dalton and Ulverston near Barrow were benefiting as at this time some 18,000 men were working in the Shipyard and due to the lack of accommodation hundreds were living under intolerable conditions.  When a workmen’s train had previously been run between Millom and Barrow in 1912 it was a failure as only a few Millom workmen travelling to Barrow used it, while the facilities for Barrow workmen were never sufficiently made known.  The train was withdrawn as to run it economically twenty-eight holders of weekly tickets at 4s each were required of which there was no guarantee. 

Docker paid a visit to the shipyard to see if the Vicker’s directors would accept an application to placard the yard.  Following a Directors Meeting the Millom Property Owners Association were informed that they should make arrangements with the Furness Railway Company to run Workmen’s Trains from Millom to Barrow at such a rate that would induce Vicker’s workmen to take advantage of Millom’s empty houses.  The best Alfred Aslett, Secretary and General Manager of the Furness Railway Company could offer was a minimum fare of 3s 6d per week and regarding commencing a train on 1 June 1914, the number of guaranteed passengers would need to be 15 per day or 90 per week, equal to £2 12s 6d.  These terms being deemed acceptable permission was accorded by Vickers to place posters in the works and deliver handbills announcing the start time of the trains, the fares and the number of houses available. The Property Owners Association now took up the scheme in earnest.  The intention was to provide clean healthy homes at reasonable rents for people, particularly families.  Many men in Barrow were living under strained conditions, the wives and children of some living in Scotland and Staffordshire and if these men could be induced to use the train they might gladly live with their families at Millom.

On Monday, 1 June 1914 the first Workmen’s Train brightly decorated with flags and flowers left Millom at 7.40 a.m. carrying 40 workmen and other additional travellers; future trains would depart shortly after 5 a.m. for the day shift at Vickers.  It was reported that furniture belonging to families intending to take up residence in Millom was arriving and houses were being taken.   Progress of the Workmen’s Trains continued as the weekly numbers travelling increased.  On 20 July, 113 workmen bought weekly tickets along with 15 others who were working on the nightshift at the Shipyard, the Workmen’s Trains however stopped as Vickers closed down for the 1914 summer holidays.  With the outbreak of war on 4 August, Vickers recalled their men and on 7 August the Workmen’s Trains resumed from Millom.   A further request was made for a decrease in the weekly train fare and by the end of October 1914 it was reduced to 3s. 3d.  At the beginning of 1915 the number of Shipyard workers using the workmen’s trains from Millom to Barrow was approximately 200, but it was hoped this number would double once Belgians were found the necessary accommodation in the town. 

Vickers war orders were stupendous and the supply of skilled labour fell short, therefore 800 Belgians from Liege and Charleroi were brought over.  They did not belong to the ordinary refugee class, but were secured as skilled craftsmen to meet an emergency.  The ordinary Belgian refugee was not allowed in Barrow and men had to be certified for work.  There was a need to accommodate Belgian workmen in the light of the Government’s appeal for the maximum output of munitions and lodgings had to be found before they could start work.  Barrow and the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston were virtually full.  For Belgians awaiting lodgings, Vickers took over Whinsfield House at Barrow sending a bill for £550 to a local Belgian refugee charity to recoup their outlay, the Mayor pointing out that the fund was not for increasing Vickers profits.  Further temporary accommodation was found at Lund Hall, Ulverston for artisans.  Vickers had also intimated that Millom and Grange would be fully taxed to provide homes for Belgians.  At Millom there were still many empty houses and the Property Owners Association saw the accommodating of skilled Belgian labour as a further opportunity for the town to boom.  The departure of 400 to 500 Millom men for the colours had also provided further accommodation.  On 5 January 1915 handbills were distributed to Millom and district inhabitants containing an appeal from Vickers for the provision of accommodation for 300 to 500 Belgians who would work in the shipyard.  By the following evening Councillor Docker, the Vickers contact at Millom, had received upwards of 100 applications, which were immediately forwarded to Barrow.  Vickers followed up by sending a representative to ascertain the conditions and inspect a number of applicants’ homes which were considered satisfactory.

The questions of guarantees to Millom landlords and landladies was explained.  It was suggested that 14s or 15s for board and lodgings would not be out of the question and 8s to 10s per week for furnished apartments, but as lodgings could be had in Barrow for 15s it was pointed out that a reduction would be an inducement for men to reside at Millom as the cost of the train fare was 3s 3d per week.  Later a request to reduce the fare to 2s was turned down by the Furness Railway, although a reduction of 3d was agreed.  There would also be sufficient ‘back time’ to pay for as much as a fortnight’s board and lodging, eight days’ notice being required before the Belgians could leave.  Further, no man could leave Millom without the permission of Vickers and the police (Cumberland being a prohibited area).  Police sanction quickly came from Whitehaven (by telephone) with the condition that Belgians must be registered at Millom Police Station and four days’ notice was needed before they could leave the town. 

By 15 January 1915 some 80 Belgians had registered, endeavours were now made to furnish certain houses for women and children whose bread winners were to be employed at the Vickers works.  Their numbers by the 22 January had increased to almost 300.  At the end of January the influx of Belgians into Millom was stopped when it was announced that accommodation was being found at Grange.  Assurance was given by Vickers that the accommodation Millom could provide would be taken up shortly, it having been pointed out that it was hardly fair to send Belgians to Grange after the people of Millom had been put to such inconvenience in preparation for them.  By early March 1915 there was considerably over 500 Belgians in the town and accommodation was available for at least 200 more without overcrowding.  The following month Councillor Docker noted there were about 800 Belgians living in Millom and more homes were urgently needed, but this figure was reduced to 640 by July.  Their numbers would likely have peaked in 1915 – the Medical Officer of Health for Millom Urban Sanitary District reported that during that year munitions workers including Belgians in considerable numbers had settled in the district and consequently the available housing was fully taxed, yet there was no overcrowding.

During the winter of 1914/15 complaints had been made about the long, slow and cold railway journey in overcrowded carriages to and from Barrow causing no fewer than 100 Belgians to leave Millom.  Mainly single Belgians left and continued to leave daily for Barrow as lodgings became available.  Millom now became the feeder for Barrow and consequently this allowed Belgian accommodation to be found for those with families, as such accommodation was absolutely nil in Barrow.  Unless compelled otherwise Belgian workmen who had their wives and children in Millom were likely to stay, and that many were renting houses in the town and buying furniture indicated that they intended to stop for a lengthy period.  Further, as a result of the influx of Belgians into Barrow a considerable number of Millom men engaged at Vickers who were lodging at Barrow refused to meet the increased cost of living and reverted to travelling to and from Millom to work.

Numbers of Belgians who had arrived in Millom were recalled to the front. Belgians who had been soldiers were said to have been wounded, but many were sufficiently recovered to be qualified to take part in the fighting line.  Those leaving Millom intimated that they would return and visit the town, even if only for a holiday. Quite a few Belgian soldiers visited relations in the summer of 1915 and during November no less than 73 Belgian soldiers visited Millom on leave from the front.  Additionally the original contract between Vickers and Belgian workmen was for three months, and it was expected that some men would be drafted back to their own country to fight at the expiration of that time.  In these cases the men were without encumbrances.  On 7 May 1915 the Millom Gazette reported that many Belgians in the town were making ready to join their countrymen in the fighting line, or go to France where they were needed for the preparation of war munitions. 

The Belgian workforce was never permanent and several parties’ left Vickers employ (possibly temporary) in late 1915 for the Newcastle district while a number of rivetter’s were sent to Glasgow.  A few Millom Belgians left in early 1916, some having secured appointments in the Belgian Congo, and others were contemplating going to that country.  In the same year Belgians of military age domiciled in Millom inundated the Police Station in more than unusual numbers to report for military service.  It was likely at this time that Vickers would appeal against the possible loss of any skilled men as they were needed in the works, and the firm had paid their railway fare to travel from France to Barrow and found them lodgings.  Belgian numbers in Millom were in truth reduced by the transfer of workers and families to Barrow and other parts of the country at different periods until there was probably no more than 400 to 500 left in the area by the end of the war. 

As Belgians’ contracts terminated there was little option but to send them home, the intention to get them out of the country as quickly as possible.  A week after the war ended something had to be done as the unemployment donation would not be payable to them and therefore relief was urgent.  Once repatriation began the Government needed some authority to collect and pack up Belgians to ensure they got to their point of departure.  As there was no Local Refugee War Committee, the War Distress Committee took the job on.   Repatriation was dealt with by the Local Government Board, forms completed and Belgians told to remain at their address until instructions for departure arrived via the shipping controller.  The considerable weight of 300lb per head was allowed to be carried, but on no account was furniture included in the allowance. The Millom Gazette notes that several Belgians made their own way back home, their numbers dwindling to about 300.  Regular shipping services however were quickly organised and the first group of Belgians left Millom in January 1919, followed on 2 February by almost all the remainder who travelled to Newcastle to be shipped to Antwerp.

The following section has been contributed by Tracing the Belgian Refugees Research Fellow Dr Philippa Read and focuses on two Belgian women who were living with financial hardship and receiving aid whilst in Barrow-in-Furness:

In 1917, one of the Cumbria refugees, Annie Migeot, was living with her widowed mother at number 16, Blake Street. Annie’s husband was called up by the Belgian Army. The Migeot women took in other lodgers and carried out the housekeeping and domestic work associated with this, but Madame only received bed and board for the work that she did. She declared herself unable to go out to work because she had a nursing infant at the time, who ‘was very cross and will not go to anyone but herself’. Added to this, her sister had died in July 1917 and left Madame and her mother with her own two week old baby. On account of these circumstances, and the fact that her separation allowance after her husband had left only amounted to 9/5, Migeot applied for and was given a grant of 7/6 a week from the War Refugees Committee for a period of 8 months.

© Cumbria Archive Service

20 year old Ellen Stassen lived with her Aunt at 61, Hindpool Road. She paid her aunt a weekly rent of 15/-. In a letter from July 1917, the War Refugees Committee expressed confusion at this arrangement given that the women were family, but assumed that Ellen was a boarder and authorised a grant of 12/6 a week for four months, which was reduced to 10/- as soon as Madame Stassen had been granted her separation allowance of 1/- per day from the Belgian government when her husband had been called back to Belgium to join the Army in June 1917. Prior to this he had been working as a labourer at Vickers Ltd but had been unable to put aside any of his wages. Ellen found it difficult to live on the separation allowance, as she was five months pregnant, described in a letter from Barrow town clerk as ‘in delicate state of health’, and owed her Aunt who had lent her money to prepare for the birth of her baby.

© Cumbria Archive Service

Having mostly arrived between late 1914 and early 1916, the majority of Belgian refugees left the district on 5th February 1919; 300 from Barrow and Millom and 200 from Whitehaven. They took a train to Newcastle and sailed back to Belgium from there on a ship called the Kyber. The Repatriation department had tried to organise for the Belgians to take a crossing in early January, but Vickers failed to arrange for them and their belongings to be collected in time. The Belgians are reported to have been aggrieved by this, in particular those who had sold any property and possessions that they had bought whilst in Britain. A letter from the local Belgian refugee committee explained that ‘some of them have no roof over their heads while others have to sleep on the bare boards and landladies are wary of taking them in as they may be gone tomorrow’.