This month our blog contributor is Karin McLean-Vandeputte, who shares her family history with us. Her ancestors’ records can be found in our database.
Belgian Refugees in Barton-St-David, Somerset
Leon Vandeputte (1876-1959), butcher, lived with his wife Marie Louise Deseck (1880-1969) and his two children, Anna (1906-2002) and Valere (1907-2007) in the Marktstraat in the fishing town Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast.
The children started the new school year at the beginning of September 1914. However, the school was closed on the second school day as the premises were requisitioned by the Army. By October 1914, fighting and bombardments intensified. Soldiers of the Belgian army, and later solders of the French army, slept in the attic of their house. Leon and his family left their house and stayed for a while with friends outside the town following instructions from the Army to leave Nieuwpoort. They only took a few belongings, as much as they could carry. At the end of December 1914 Leon decided to leave for France. Upon arrival in Dunkerque, the French authorities told them to continue their journey to Calais. There each member of the family was given a badge and they were instructed to board a ship for Folkestone as the French authorities could not cope with the influx of Belgian refugees. On the quay in Folkestone Leon and his family were welcomed by women who gave them sandwiches and drinks. An English lady took pity on Marie and gave her some money. The next day their journey continued to London, Earl’s Court. There they were told to travel by train to Castle Cary in Somerset. At Castle Cary station, a Mr Bishop waited for the family on the platform calling the name “Van Pit”. After spotting the family on the platform and reading the name badges, he took them by horse and cart to the village of Barton-St-David..
The wife of the vicar and two other ladies welcomed the family in a little cottage. There was food and drinks on the table and it was warm and safe. Here Marie collapsed, crying and bewildered, the children stunned. They did not speak English and, obviously, nobody in the village spoke Flemish. Later Leon managed to get a little book with phrases in Flemish, English and French.
Shortly after arriving in Barton-St-David, the school headmaster visited the family to tell them Anna and Valere had to attend school. There was only one classroom for all age groups, the boys sat in the left hand side of the classroom, the girls on the right hand side. When one group of children was taught, the other group had to do silent reading. Anna and Valere managed to pick up the language fairly quickly, however, it was more difficult for the parents. The children also went to the Sunday School lead by Reverend Peacock. For each attendance they received a sticker for their stamp book.
They also received a certificate for helping with various activities for the benefit of the Empire and the war effort.
Leon went to work with a butcher in Langport. As there was no transport from Barton-St-David to Langport, he stayed with the butcher and only came home every fortnight. The practice of carving the meat was very different to what he was used to at home. He left this job to go to work in the Clarks shoe factory in Street. He earned about two shillings per week.
At first there was some contact with other Belgian refugees living in nearby villages. However, these families moved and after that Marie had very little contact with other Belgian families. She was very homesick. Anna and Valere remember that she would often wander off into the fields crying. Barton-St-David was a small agricultural village quite different from Nieuwpoort with its many retailers, and where they had a lot of family.
There was no transport to any of the surrounding villages. Leon bought a bicycle to go to work in Street but Marie and the children had to walk everywhere. Marie exchanged letters and postcards with her brother, Hector Deseck who was at the front, a sergeant in the Belgian Army responsible for the operation of telephone connections. He sent tobacco packages to Leon and kept the family informed about what had happened to neighbours, friends, other family members in Nieuwpoort and the destruction of the town and region. He visited Barton-St-David on two occasions.
Marie had a sister, Louise, who lived with her five children as Belgian refugees in Wapping, London. Her husband worked for the Belgian government and was repatriated with the family to Le Havre in 1916. Marie, Anna and Valere visited Louise once. It was during this visit that they tasted a banana for the first time.
Anna and Valere settled in their new life quite well. They befriended girls and boys of the village. Valere (his name was pronounced Vlair) spent a lot of time on the farms of some of his friends. Farm life offered so much more than life in a town; riding a horse, feeding the animals, helping with various jobs on the farm, guiding cows to the fields. One of the farmers gave Valere and Anna a lamb. Unfortunately, it did not stay a pet for long. Meat was needed more so than a pet.
The visit of a Catholic priest to the family created quite a stir in the village. Nobody had ever seen a man dressed in long black clothes before.
On 11 November 1918, Leon came home with the Belgian flag attached to his bicycle, shouting “the war is over”. Family in Belgium advised them not to return too soon as there was no accommodation, the whole region was destroyed. They finally returned in November 1919. However, this was after the deadline given by the Belgian government and therefore their travel costs were not fully reimbursed.
The parents were relieved that they could finally return home. But for the children it was a very sad occasion. They had to leave many friends and leave many things behind. Back in Belgium, they moved a couple of times until they were given a wooden barrack in Nieuwpoort in 1921. It was not until April 1922 that they could move to their newly rebuilt house in the same street in Nieuwpoort and Leon could be a butcher in his own shop again.
For Anna and Valere the return to a Belgian school was quite traumatic. They did not speak French, only knew the English measures, pounds, shillings and pence.
Anna and Valere returned to Barton-St-David in 1932 and stayed in touch with many friends in the village throughout their lives.
Valere spent many holidays with his family on the farm of his best friends, Bill and Charlie Hart. Another friend, Flo Pitt, visited Valere in 1978. They went in search of the grave of her brother, Frederick Pitt, who died at the front. He is buried in the Buttes New British Cemetary, Polygon Wood near Ypres.
All images © the Vandeputte private archive.
If you would like to get in touch with Karin about family story, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.