This blog has been adapted from a history of Camden called Curious Camden Town, by Martin Plaut and Andrew Whitehead.
The Belgian Connection
What was the largest single influx of refugees into Britain? You’ll never get it (unless you’ve read the title to these paragraphs). A quarter-of-a-million Belgians came over to Britain when their country was invaded by Germany during the First World War. They set up their own schools, newspapers, hospitals, shops – there were even Belgian communities in England run by the Belgian government and using Belgian currency.
For such a huge exodus, it has left little mark. Almost all the refugees returned to Belgium within a year of the war ending. But in Camden, a small number of Belgian priests stayed – eventually founding the Catholic church on Arlington Road which is still named after a Belgian shrine, Our Lady of Hal.
During the war, the Scheut fathers, a Belgian missionary order, decided to move their base to London lock, stock and barrel. Within a few years, they sought to establish a church, with the dual purpose of providing a spiritual focus for the Belgian Catholic community across the capital and serving a locality which had no Catholic church close at hand. The initial building on Arlington Road opened in 1922. It was little more than a hut, opposite where the church now stands, and almost from the start proved insufficient to accommodate the congregation, which was in large part of Irish origin.
The current church was completed in 1933. The architectural style is said to be based on traditional Flemish design. It’s certainly a better than average inter-war church and clearly greatly loved by those who worship there.
The Arlington Road entrance doesn’t immediately catch the eye – though there’s a charming mosaic as well as inscriptions which explain the Belgian connection. A small side chapel, the Hal chapel – usually open for an hour or so after midday mass – has a likeness of Our Lady in dark wood, a replica of the venerated medieval statue at Hal (or Halle) outside Brussels. Also in the chapel is a panel bearing a profile of King Albert of the Belgians, the country’s sovereign through the First World War who died in a mountaineering accident in 1934. The work was commissioned in his memory by ‘the Belgian colony in Great Britain’, though by the time it was finished the country was again caught up in a world war.
The Scheut fathers ran the church into the 1980s when it was handed over to the diocese and all but one of the Belgian priests returned home. Father Joseph van Pelt, still remembered by some of the older members of the congregation, stayed on. He first came to Camden in the early 1950s, after ten years as a missionary in China, and finally went back to Belgium in 1995. He died the following year.
For a while, pilgrimages to Hal kept the Belgian link alive. Betty, one of the volunteers who keeps the church looking so cared for, recalls visiting the shrine at Hal and paying respects at Father van Pelt’s grave. But those trips are now a thing of the past.
“As well as those of Irish origin, we have Filipinos, Africans and Poles in the congregation, and we have a service in Portuguese on Sunday evenings”, says the parish priest, Father John, himself of Vietnamese heritage. “Our worshippers are from all over the world.”
But there’s one country of origin not now represented among parishioners, as far as Father John is aware. And that’s Belgium.